September 1, 2013

The Public Eye: How CPS handled case of baby who died of drug overdose

In April 2012, five months before Ryder Salmen was killed by a drug overdose – the result of breast-feeding by his drug-abusing mother, police say – he was the subject of a report to Sacramento County Child Protective Services.

In April 2012, five months before Ryder Salmen was killed by a drug overdose – the result of breast-feeding by his drug-abusing mother, police say – he was the subject of a report to Sacramento County Child Protective Services.

Then 4 months old, Ryder was brought to a hospital because he was lethargic. A drug test found methadone in his system, the same drug that caused him to show withdrawal symptoms when he was born, according to documents in his CPS case file, which was obtained by The Bee through a Public Records Act request.

Court documents say that Stephens was warned to stop breast-feeding Ryder. After receiving the April report, a CPS social worker determined that Ryder was at risk because he was a "drug-exposed infant."

"A safety plan is required for the child to remain in the home," the agency's safety assessment said.

Still, Ryder died in September 2012. His mother, 32-year-old Sarah Ann Stephens of Citrus Heights, was charged recently with murder and two counts of child endangerment. Ryder suffered a fatal overdose of Xanax, methadone and the painkiller Opana through his mother's breast milk, police said.

CPS' safety plan for the baby – a separate document from the assessment that outlines steps to be taken to protect the child – was not included in the records released by the agency. Only the juvenile court can release the safety plan, Michelle Callejas, deputy director of CPS, said in a written statement.

She indicated that a safety plan was completed in Ryder's case, but said she could not answer questions about it because it falls outside the scope of the records released by CPS.

However, a CPS manager did not approve the safety assessment in Ryder's case until three months after a social worker created it, records show.

That response is unacceptable, said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, who reviewed Ryder's case file at the request of The Bee.

"Is it their policy to wait three months to approve safety assessments for the children of drug-addicted mothers?" Howard said. "This undermines the confidence about whether Sacramento County CPS is doing its job."

Howard points to a 2009 letter from the California Department of Social Services that was sent to county CPS agencies across the state. The letter tells supervisors to monitor assessments' "consistent use throughout the life of a case, and provide guidance and support to social workers regarding its implementation ."

In her written response, Callejas said, "the safety assessment should be approved by the supervisor upon completion by the social worker. However, there are occasions when a time lapse occurs between the review of the safety assessment and the (approval) ."

On Aug. 12, 2012, the same day CPS approved the first safety assessment, the agency created another safety assessment. The second assessment said Ryder faced a low risk of future maltreatment.

"Based on the documentation, it looks like someone was covering their tracks" because of the delay in approving the first assessment, Howard said.

But Callejas said the second assessment was needed to a determine whether improvements had been made in the home after a safety plan was put in place.

Bill Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, said the key question is what CPS did in its safety plan. Both Grimm and Howard, who helped draft the law making child welfare records public when a child dies from suspected maltreatment, said CPS could release safety plans.

Specifically, CPS needs to say what action it takes when it has a drug-abusing mother who breast-feeds her baby, Grimm said. It should have a policy for such situations, he said.

Callejas said social workers consult with medical professionals. "Through consultation, CPS has learned that there are differing opinions within the medical community regarding this issue. As a result, CPS initiated outreach to medical providers to have further discussions and identify ways to work collaboratively on this issue," she said.

CPS received a second report questioning Ryder's safety shortly after completing its second safety assessment. A Citrus Heights police officer made the report after citing Stephens for child endangerment when the car she was driving, with Ryder in the back seat, went off the road.

Based on the records, CPS apparently did not complete another risk assessment following the incident. Callejas said she could not answer questions about the handling of the second report, stating again that the questions fall outside the scope of the released records.

Ryder died of a drug overdose less than a month after the officer made the second report to CPS.

Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.

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