Sacramento CPS received warnings before 3-year-old drowned

06/28/2014 6:48 PM

10/07/2014 8:56 PM

Family and friends repeatedly warned Sacramento County Child Protective Services that 3-year-old Airabella Mello suffered from abuse and neglect in the year before she drowned in a backyard pool.

In the first of six reports to the agency, a concerned person said that Airabella was often unsupervised and could wander into the swimming pool at the house where she lived. Follow-up complaints alleged that Airabella lived in an unsafe environment where adults, including her mother, engaged in domestic abuse and heavy drinking. The girl was often filthy, had rotting teeth and showed suspicious burn and bruise marks, the reports said.

Nevertheless, CPS left the child in the home on Anderson Way in Arden Arcade. She drowned May 1 in the backyard pool, according to Airabella’s 125-page CPS case file obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a California Public Records Act request.

“This was a preventable death,” said Bill Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, who read the file at the request of The Bee. “She would be alive if not for the inaction of CPS.”

Airabella lived with her mother and grandmother and periodically visited her father, who is married to someone else. CPS records indicate that her mother, Jennifer Rundle, was sleeping and possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol when Airabella got into the pool on the morning of May 1. Rundle declined to comment when she was contacted by The Bee.

CPS Deputy Director Michelle Callejas said the agency is still completing a review of how the case was handled.

“From what we have reviewed thus far, we have some concerns,” she said, but declined to discuss them until the review is complete.

The case is also under investigation by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said Sgt. Lisa Bowman, who could not comment further.

Revelations about the agency’s handling of Airabella’s case come after a critical review of Sacramento County CPS earlier this year. In its annual assessment of cases ending in death or near death, the Child Protective System Oversight Committee, an independent body of child-welfare and law-enforcement professionals, said the agency failed to exercise proper judgment and follow procedure after a history of similar problems.

“The mistakes of the past have been repeated,” the review said.

By the time CPS had received its second or third complaint about the treatment of Airabella, the agency had enough information to remove her from the house, Grimm said. But caseworkers never seemed to put the pieces together, as shown by the fact that the agency had not finished investigating two neglect and abuse reports when she died, he said.

Eighty percent of children who die from maltreatment are 4 years old or younger, meaning Airabella should have been viewed as high-risk, Grimm added.

CPS has to consider numerous factors when assessing child safety, Callejas said.

“The existence of repeated referrals does not in and of itself indicate a child is in danger, but it is a relevant factor,” she said. “We are reviewing the facts and circumstances known at the time the investigation was completed to determine the accuracy of the conclusion.”

The agency’s handling of the case has angered people who filed complaints with CPS. Karen Maclean, who lives next door to Rundle, said Airabella’s family asked her 12 to 15 times to watch the girl. She said she did not mind baby-sitting but was appalled by the child’s dirty condition. Because Rundle often left Airabella unsupervised, Maclean said she filed a report with CPS last year.

“I’m just furious,” she said. “Nobody really cared about her well-being.”

Airabella never had shoes, her face was always dirty, her hair was in knots and she wore a soiled diaper, Maclean said.

Felicia Mello, who is married to Airabella’s father, said she had to immediately bathe Airabella when she came over for weekly visits. She said her husband was too upset to discuss Airabella’s death, in part because CPS failed to act on his repeated reports about her condition.

“They didn’t do anything when we reported she had marks,” Mello said.

Three days before Airabella’s death, CPS received a report that Airabella had “a large burn mark on her shoulder blade,” possibly from a cigarette. The name of the person who made the report is redacted from the document. CPS did not complete an investigation before Airabella drowned.

In October 2013, CPS received a report that Airabella had a suspicious bruise behind her ear. The agency deemed the complaint unfounded.

Of the four instances in which the agency completed investigations, the agency determined that the complaints were unfounded or inconclusive. Airabella’s case file does not indicate what steps the agency took to reach the conclusions.

In each investigation, the agency completed questionnaires to help determine Airabella’s risk level. The agency determined she was safe, although those assessments sometimes contained wrong information, including a failure to include past reports of domestic violence.

“Based on the review we have conducted thus far, it does not appear that all information was accurately noted in assessments,” Callejas said.

On the day of Airabella’s death, records show, a social worker completed an assessment saying that Airabella’s mother met the child’s needs and that Airabella lived in a safe home.

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