Little girl was placed in home of veteran foster mother

Published: Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011 - 3:17 pm

Part two in a three-part series.

Tracy Dossman considered herself a specialist in providing foster care to teenage boys.

She wasn't sure she wanted to take small children.

And she definitely wasn't sure she wanted Anisha Hill's children, according to a 2006 state licensing evaluation.

"Ms. Dosman (sic) was apprehensive about caring for the children because she knew that the mother could be extremely difficult," according to a Child Protective Services report prepared a year earlier for the juvenile court.

Two years have passed since Dossman found herself at the center of "every parent's worst nightmare," according to her foster family agency. On the night of Jan. 11, 2008, one of Hill's biological children – 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw – was killed while in her care.

Today, the official investigation languishes.

But The Bee's own investigation has found numerous puzzles, including injuries that plagued the child in foster care. And, The Bee has learned, two CPS workers faced criticism for their close relationships with Dossman.

By piecing together hundreds of pages of state licensing documents and social worker narratives, The Bee found that between January 2006 and July 2007, Amariana Crenshaw suffered injuries to her head and face on at least five separate occasions.

First came an eye injury. Then a split and swollen lip. Then two more lip injuries, followed by a pink, swollen eye and scabbed lip.

The child then suffered a sixth injury – to her right leg – that noticeably affected her walking.

Nearly six months later, Amariana's body was pulled from a burning house on Sweet Pea Way near South Natomas. Police say she was the victim of at least one Molotov cocktail thrown through the window of the rental home, owned by Dossman.

No single document lists all the injuries that preceded her death, or questions whether there might be a pattern.

Yet of the six foster children in Dossman's care, only Amariana appeared to be getting hurt frequently.

Of the various people whose job was to document life in the foster home, only a state licensing analyst – not trained as a social worker – raised suspicions in writing about Amariana's facial injuries and scars, the documents show.

Others were convinced that the injuries were Amariana's doing or were being fabricated or exaggerated by her bitter biological parents.

"Amariana is still very accident-prone and gets hurt easily," according to a 2007 report from a social worker for one of Dossman's foster family agencies.

The county echoed that assessment over and over – including two months before the child's death, when Amariana was reported to have "multiple bruises and marks."

A CPS worker investigated the injuries. " … (C)onsistent of normal childhood play," the social worker concludes.

The social worker noted something else: Dossman believed the abuse complaint was personal because, once again, a family friend was "mad at her."

Tracy Dossman's two-story, five-bedroom residence in North Natomas is spacious. Ten rooms, three baths, a two-car garage.

A single mother with two biological children, Dossman has cared for foster kids since at least 2003, according to state records. Over the years, the state says, she has cared for at least 46 children, ages 2 to 18. She has been certified by six different agencies since 1995, and by one of them twice.

Dossman, who declined to be interviewed by The Bee, continues to care for foster children. And, she has the continued support of her agency at the time of the death, Positive Option Family Service.

"In general, (Positive Option) has had a good experience with Ms. Dossman due to her obvious affection for the children and willingness to comply with standards and requirements," the agency said in a written response to The Bee.

From the very beginning, Dossman, now 41, had chosen to work through private, nonprofit foster family agencies, instead of getting licensed directly by the county.

In July 2005, when Dossman was on her fourth agency, 2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw came into her life.

For Amariana and her older half sister and half brother, the house with tall white columns was a dramatic change from the 950-square-foot home in the North Sacramento area they had shared with their mother.

By the time the three children joined Dossman's large family in the summer of 2005, their biological mother, Anisha Hill, was due to turn herself in to the Sacramento County Main Jail to serve time on a check fraud conviction. Amariana's father, Curtis Crenshaw, was staying with his wife and her three teenagers in a south area motel.

Amariana's older brother, England Rogers, now 18, recalled that "everything was cool the first couple weeks" in the Dossman home.

The house had rules, though. Rogers said children were required to ask permission to get something to eat and often were fed noodles and powdered milk.

Rogers' stay in the foster home would last only about three months. He was sent back to juvenile hall for violating probation, having been arrested over the summer for joyriding in a stolen car.

After moving out, Rogers saw his little sister again, he said, and noticed that Amariana smelled like urine – a condition also noted by her biological parents.

The county, however, continued to be pleased with the arrangement, according to CPS reports to the juvenile court and internal agency records. Over the 30 months that Amariana lived with Dossman, the child was described as being in a stable, protective environment.

Amariana and her sister had a "close bond" with Dossman, according to a May 2006 CPS report.

What the county didn't address in documents obtained by The Bee were the people who surrounded Dossman, and who may have had access to her foster home. Nor do they mention Dossman's own history of feuds and legal conflicts with family members, tenants, creditors and others who crossed her path.

Dossman's former boyfriend – the father of her younger child – was sentenced in June 2008 to nearly 11 years in a federal penitentiary for drug trafficking, The Bee has found. In court records and other public documents, Michael L. Stevens lists both the foster home and Dossman's rental as his addresses.

The father of Dossman's older child, Dion Lamar Jordan, was sent to state prison at least seven times in the last 15 years, mostly for drunken driving. Dossman once called Sacramento police to accuse Jordan's brother of displaying a "big black gun" in front of her 8-year-old son, according to civil court documents.

Anisha Hill and Curtis Crenshaw believe that Dossman's nephew, Brandon, was the one member of Dossman's household who looked out for Amariana. He had moved into the foster home after his 30-year-old father was murdered in 1998 on a Richmond playground.

"He comforted her," Crenshaw said of Brandon Dossman. "He helped my baby."

Brandon Dossman was described in an August 2008 state licensing record as the household member who "gets the kids up and off to school in the morning."

Last October, Brandon Dossman, now 20, was arrested and charged with drug possession and drunken driving.

Tracy Dossman later would tell her foster agency that her nephew no longer was living with her or caring for kids. However, Brandon Dossman listed the foster home as his address with both the California Highway Patrol and in a recent filing in family law court.

When he was arrested at 3:17 a.m. on Oct. 10, Brandon Dossman was driving a car registered to Tracy Dossman.

Amariana's series of injuries were eerily similar – cuts and bruises to the face, the eyes, the lips. The explanations for the injuries varied widely.

The first recorded incident was on Jan. 30, 2006, when a doctor at the Sacramento Community Clinic saw the little girl for an injury near her left eye. Tracy Dossman explained that her 1-year-old nephew had hit Amariana while "trying to get on his bike."

Shortly thereafter, a second incident left Amariana with a split and swollen lip. This time, Dossman told her agency and the county that she had contacted a Kaiser advice nurse. She explained that this new injury resulted from a fall down the stairs while the 2-year-old was talking on the telephone, records show.

Her biological parents sounded alarms.

Soon, though, Sacramento County would become fed up with Curtis Crenshaw and Anisha Hill, and their complaints about the little girl's treatment in foster care.

In early 2006, Crenshaw had a $10-an-hour truck-driving job, had completed classes in parenting and anger management, and was visiting Amariana consistently. But he also was testing positive for marijuana and methamphetamine, county records show.

Hill had no steady income and was more sporadic with her counseling sessions, parenting classes and visits, showing up late or not at all. She was taking the brunt of the county's blame for the outbursts between her and Dossman, though one agency social worker would later complain that while the biological parents were "volatile," the foster mother "can be reactive." The worker said she needed help to "avoid a blowup."

Amariana also was becoming a source of irritation in the Dossman household, the records reveal.

While the little girl appeared to be "meeting normal developmental milestones" for a 3-year-old, an August 2006 CPS report states, Dossman was complaining to the county that the child "hoards food, drinks water from the toilet and bangs her head on things, particularly before bedtime." This was an explanation she would offer for sealing the refrigerator with a bicycle lock and placing deadbolt locks on doors to the bathrooms and children's rooms – a violation of foster children's personal rights.

As the holidays arrived in 2006, more injuries to Amariana were recorded in government documents.

That November, state records show Amariana was taken to her primary care doctor for another busted lip. According to Dossman, the girl had fallen from a countertop while trying to get candy.

A month later, Dossman reported to her agency that someone in the household had pushed Amariana in the bathroom on Dec. 23 and she had struck the toilet bowl, cutting open her lip again. But Dossman indicated she wasn't sure if Amariana was telling the truth about being pushed, according to a Dec. 27, 2006, CPS log entry of a foster agency e-mail.

The child's physical condition soon attracted the attention of an outsider.

In February 2007, the state received a complaint that an individual at a Walmart store had noticed Amariana had a pink swollen eye and scabbed lower lip. The person followed Dossman out of the store, got her license plate number and filed a report of suspected abuse.

The county noted the incident in its service log, stating that Sacramento police conducted a welfare check and found the children in the Dossman home to be "absolutely fine," according to CPS records. Dossman suggested that the person at the store was a relative, and the report "was a result of a family feud," the CPS log entry shows.

The state was not so sure.

On Feb. 9, 2007, a state licensing evaluator made an unannounced visit to Dossman's home and confirmed that Amariana had "unexplained bruises/marks on her face."

This time, Dossman explained that the child was doing it to herself.

By then, Dossman was certified by Homes With Heart – her sixth foster family agency since 1995. (Because of a change in how foster agency homes are regulated in California, the state can confirm only that she had children placed in her care dating back to 2003.)

Foster family agencies serve as intermediaries – recruiting, certifying and training their own providers. These agencies were intended to serve more needy and challenging children in California, with the idea that agency providers get added support and training – and generally more money, especially as high-needs children reach their teenage years.

Complaints against an agency home or a foster family agency are investigated by the state instead of the county. Still, county social workers continue to monitor all children in foster care, creating potential for miscommunication among the various entities.

In 2002, the state auditor had found that agency-hopping could be hazardous for kids, since some providers had avoided correcting problems simply by switching foster family agencies. In response, the Legislature passed a law to try to weed out problem providers who move around.

If anyone at the state or county was concerned about Dossman's agency hopping, it wasn't expressed in reports obtained by The Bee.

But the state investigator who visited the home following the Walmart report was concerned about Amariana's appearance.

"Scars and current injuries were visible on the child's face," the licensing worker wrote. "The 18-year-old biological son of the certified parent supervises the children in the home, which includes four teenagers and three younger children."

Again, Dossman had an explanation. The foster mother told the state worker that Amariana was bumping her head to soothe herself and was engaging in aggressive fights with her then-7-year-old half sister, according to the state's complaint investigation report.

Dossman assured the state investigator: "I take her to the doctor for everything. I report everything."

Jeff Hiratsuka, deputy director of the state's Community Care Licensing Division, said repeat injuries in foster care are not necessarily a sign of abuse.

"You've got children in these homes who are going to be very challenging," he said.

But Geoffrey McKee, a forensic psychologist who has studied child deaths extensively, said Dossman's explanations "sound hollow."

"It's the number of these injuries that is problematic," said McKee, a clinical professor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. "The facial bruises and split lips – somebody's hitting that child a lot."

Documents support Curtis Crenshaw and Anisha Hill's contention that they constantly tried to call attention to the injuries through both county Child Protective Services and juvenile court judges.

"My daughter's life is at stake," Crenshaw told a court referee in October 2006, a transcript shows.

Hill said she was rebuffed, and that a CPS social worker hung up on her. One CPS report observed that Hill was "attempting to dismantle Ms. Dossman's credibility."

In another CPS report, dated March 14, 2006, social worker Tricia Louis wrote that Crenshaw had successfully completed parenting and anger management classes "but still overreacted to his daughter being accidentally injured by a 1-year-old child."

"One would expect Mr. Crenshaw to have gained the knowledge and insight into developmental stages of children and be able to acknowledge that it is not uncommon for toddlers to have accidents in which there are minor injuries," Louis wrote. "His expectation that a foster parent should be able to protect his daughter from any possible harm is unreasonable."

Crenshaw's agitation over Amariana's injuries became his legal undoing.

In April 2006, CPS social worker Louis wrote that Crenshaw's anger over the injuries led her to conclude "it would not be safe to return Amariana to his care."

Throughout 2006, tensions mounted between Amariana's foster and biological mothers.

In March that year, Dossman got a restraining order against Hill, saying Hill was harassing her by phone and threatening her, according to court papers.

The foster mother said she believed that "something is going to happen to me. She hates me. She's going to burn my house down," the court papers show.

Hill told The Bee that was "a lie," and that she would never threaten to burn down a home with her own children inside.

"I swear to God on my daughter's grave, I would not lie about that," said Hill. "That's ridiculous."

The month after Dossman got the restraining order, Hill complained to a CPS emergency response worker that, among other things, Amariana was being forced to sleep on the floor without covers.

Dossman made her own call to CPS, accusing Hill of cursing in front of the children when they called the foster mother "Mommy" at pickup time.

During an Easter 2006 visit, Anisha Hill's family observed strange behavior by Amariana, Hill said. The girl ate so much food that she threw up. She then lay down on the bare floor and went to sleep without asking for a blanket.

"What child does that?" Hill asked.

Hill's sister, Anitra Hill, also recalled that meal, saying that the almost 3-year-old girl "was eating more than I was" and wouldn't sleep on a bed.

Anisha Hill told The Bee that Amariana always seemed to be hungry when she saw her during supervised visits. Once, she said, the child consumed nearly an entire container of Safeway chocolate chip cookies.

Crenshaw said that he also began to notice that his daughter looked thinner – a transition apparent in family snapshots.

This was not the child the couple remembered.

As a baby, Amariana Crenshaw had been chubby, with thick legs and a pudgy round face.

Medical records of her first two years of life show Amariana's weight and height were well above average between birth and 20 months, routinely ranging between the 90th and 100th percentiles.

At her 20-month checkup in January 2005, the physician at the South Area Pediatric Medical Group on Florin Road described her as "alert, happy, active" and a "healthy 20-month-old," according to the records, obtained by The Bee.

She was 33 inches tall and weighed a robust 28 pounds – placing her near the 90th percentile for weight.

After her death, the Sacramento coroner would record the 4 1/2-year-old girl as 36 inches tall and 29 pounds – a 1-pound gain in three years. Coroner's spokesman Ed Smith said the fire would not have significantly affected the child's body measurements.

Dr. Randell Alexander, a nationally recognized child abuse expert, said a 1-pound weight gain in three years would be "a very serious problem."

"That is failure to thrive, absolutely," said Alexander, a pediatrics professor at the University of Florida who has served as vice chairman of the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Alexander said that reports of a locked refrigerator and a child gorging herself raise additional concerns. Foster parents often are advised that children initially may gorge out of insecurities over food supply, he said. But that behavior usually resolves itself as the child begins to trust that there will always be enough food.

"A kid's job is to gain weight," Alexander said.

Questions about the availability of food in Dossman's home had surfaced before, The Bee's investigation has found.

While working in 2004 for the foster family agency Growing Alternatives, Dossman came under scrutiny for her treatment of a 5-year-old girl who came to school in "extremely dirty" clothes and no socks and found no one waiting at home when she returned on the school bus.

The state found those allegations to be true.

The 5-year-old's kindergarten teacher also reported to a state licensing evaluator that the child was not given enough to eat, was "always hungry" and had said she was sleeping on the floor without blankets, state records show.

Dossman told the state investigator in 2004 that the 5-year-old girl "hoarded food." Dossman also said she allowed the girl to sleep on the floor in her bedroom when she was afraid of the dark.

The state eventually deemed the teacher's allegations "inconclusive" – meaning they could not be proved or disproved, records show.

Later that year, Dossman again changed foster family agencies.

Curtis Crenshaw saw his daughter for the last time on Jan. 3, 2007, the day the juvenile court ordered that Amariana's biological parents be permanently cut out of her life.

Dossman planned to adopt both of Hill's girls and had picked out a new name for Amariana: Wendy Dossman. Child Protective Services would assure the court in June 2007 that Amariana had "no noted behavior problems" and was no longer receiving counseling.

Internal CPS documents tell a different story. In a report filed by Dossman's foster family agency earlier that year, the social worker reported that Dossman complained of Amariana using profanity, acting aggressively, hitting others and making up stories.

Dossman was under intense scrutiny by then. The Walmart report of Amariana's allegedly battered face had unleashed a serious new round of licensing investigations in February 2007.

Noting the "unexplained marks/bruises on her face," the state investigator concluded that Amariana had been neglected and improperly supervised. She ordered Dossman to document every injury in the foster home for six months, taking any injured child to the doctor and providing a written explanation.

"Foster parent will provide adequate supervision for the safety of the children residing in her home," the investigator wrote in her "plan of correction."

Dossman's foster family agency, in turn, was required to have a "formal meeting" about any injury, and submit documentation to the state.

Dossman signed the agreement. Yet before the state's investigation was even complete, she switched foster family agencies again – moving from Homes With Heart to Positive Option, which had certified her once before.

Positive Option agreed to carry out the state's plan of correction and today says each incident was "reported and reviewed."

State regulators had cited a host of other problems in Dossman's North Natomas home after that Feb. 9, 2007, inspection: the locked refrigerator; deadbolts on the bedrooms and bathrooms; toxics out in the open; the home temperature below licensing standards, registering a chilly 62 degrees; and no landline telephone.

And the evaluator found that Dossman's 18-year-old son, Dion Jordan Jr., who was supervising and transporting the kids, lacked required first aid and CPR training.

The state worker also questioned why the foster mother would have the youngest child in the home "sleeping by herself in a room downstairs, alone, next to the front door."

Dossman explained that the sleeping arrangement was "because of the problems" – Amariana's food-hoarding and emotional issues, state records show. She also said she had locked the bathrooms because of Amariana's behavior.

And she relayed that the county had given her permission to put deadbolts on the children's bedrooms and bathrooms, state records show.

Child Protective Services did not answer The Bee's question about whether it had granted that permission.

Not long after the state investigation was completed, the county looked into another allegation of physical abuse – this time involving Amariana's right leg. A person required by law to report suspected abuse told CPS in July 2007 that Amariana had been "hit or kicked in the leg by someone in the foster home" and was unable to put weight on her leg, a CPS report said.

The report alleges that the girl had not been taken to the doctor – despite the state's edict that all injured children in Dossman's home be seen by a physician.

Child Protective Services social worker Miri Mee visited Amariana and concluded that the child had "fallen off of a swing," and Dossman had tried to get medical care but "the clinic was closed," her report states. Mee, assigned to Hill's girls in May 2006, notes that she was "unable to find any injuries but the child was walking funny with her right leg."

The state already had been warned that Dossman's relationship with Mee was tight.

In February 2007, a social worker for Homes With Heart had complained to the state that Mee – who worked in the adoptions unit – was "close friends" with Dossman and was undermining the agency's efforts to crack down on the foster provider, state records show.

"Tracy and the county worker seem to have a response for everything I try to put in place because they're very close friends," Brenna Levy, the Homes with Heart social worker, told a state licensing evaluator.

Levy added that Dossman was belligerent, condescending and hard to manage. For instance, she reported that Dossman had "refused to run the heat for the entire winter."

"We brought the regulations, and she just refused," Levy was quoted as saying in the report. "I told her that it was my job as a social worker for her home to make sure she was in compliance.

"She patronized me by saying, 'Poor Brenna, she probably doesn't worry about her bill in her little apartment.' "

Levy also expressed concern to the state licensing worker that Amariana was sleeping alone on the cold first story of the house.

"She (Dossman) told us that she heated the upstairs and that was enough," Levy was quoted as saying in state documents.

Levy, who declined to be interviewed by The Bee, told the state that Mee was "very abrupt and not supportive" of the agency's efforts to bring Dossman into compliance.

Mee did not return Bee phone calls, and CPS did not respond to written questions about the allegations.

Mee was not the only CPS worker who had a relationship with Dossman outside her official interaction.

A CPS supervisor overseeing the cases of several foster children in the Dossman home had arranged to buy Dossman's rental property on Sweet Pea Way right before it burned, a CPS document states.

Lajuannah Sandles, a CPS employee since 2005, grew up in the same neighborhood as Dossman, according to an internal CPS document prepared after the fatal fire.

"She (Sandles) had maintained contact with Ms. Dossman since they attended schools together and moved into a close neighborhood," according to the report, based on a statement made by Sandles.

Another CPS document describes Sandles' "personal involvement" with Dossman, stating that it "can be construed or viewed as a hindrance to the department's assessment or discretion." The cases involving Dossman's children subsequently were reassigned to other CPS units.

"The supervisor (Sandles) will be reminded regarding conflict of interest," the CPS record notes.

Asked about the pending home purchase, Sandles, reached by phone, said The Bee had "incorrect information."

"I don't have anything to do with that case," said Sandles, adding that she didn't have time to talk further.

The real estate deal, according to the CPS files, was poised to close the morning of Jan. 11, 2008 – a Friday. Sandles' belongings were packed and ready for moving in the following day.

That Friday morning, Sandles went to the Sweet Pea Way house to meet a contractor who was to install a new garage door. Instead, she was greeted by yellow crime scene tape.

Amariana Crenshaw was dead.

COMING TUESDAY

The investigation unfolds … then grinds to a halt.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marjie Lundstrom



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