Editorial: Who's looking out for next Amariana?

The unsolved death of Amariana Crenshaw raises many disturbing questions. Here is one of the most immediate: Why is Tracy Dossman, Amariana's foster mother, still caring for five other children, even during renewed investigations by police and state and county child welfare officials?

The official answer: She hasn't been charged with a crime.

The state Department of Social Services says that until it completes the inquiry it reopened after a series of stories in The Bee, and unless it then finds Dossman in "noncompliance," it won't move to decertify her as a foster parent. Only then would the department require the private agency that certifies Dossman to remove the other children.

"We're not there yet," says DSS spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez, who said it's not clear when a decision will come.

Here's the troubling part: When a foster parent is certified by a nonprofit agency, there's no provision under state law to suspend a certification during an investigation, even when there are serious doubts about the parent's fitness. There should be.

DSS already has such authority if a foster parent is directly licensed by the state or a county. That distinction makes no sense, especially when the private foster family agencies place the more needy children.

While it's an imperfect analogy, think of situations where police officers are put on administrative leave after shooting someone. Such suspensions are routine procedure, even if there's no proof of wrongdoing.

This is only one issue facing the state's sprawling foster care system, which includes about 22,000 providers and is responsible for about 70,000 children. Leaders of this system face numerous trade-offs and hard decisions. When there is a death or serious injury in a home, officials must determine whether there's any imminent danger, then weigh what's in the best interest of each child: Would it be more nurturing in a new home? Or would it be more traumatic to start over with a new parent?

At the same time, years of budget cuts have hollowed out the system so that there is far less supervision of foster parents. While the state investigates complaints, county social workers monitor the children, and counties contract with private agencies to check and certify foster parents. It's a multi-layered system that can lead to lack of communication and accountability.

All those considerations come into play in Dossman's case.

She became Amariana's foster mother when the girl was 2. Amariana was 4½ in January 2008 when she was found in Doss-man's rental home near South Natomas, burned beyond recognition. Dossman was cleared as a suspect within 24 hours and the children were returned to her. Although officials still harbored some concern about their welfare, they say they didn't have sufficient cause to suspend Dossman as a foster parent.

That isn't the case now.

The series of stories by The Bee's Marjie Lundstrom has uncovered strong evidence that Amariana may have been abused or severely neglected for some time, and might have been killed before her body was burned by at least one Molotov cocktail.

According to medical records obtained by The Bee, Amariana was reportedly hurt at least 11 times in Dossman's care, including unusually similar cuts and bruises on her face. When she died, she weighed only 29 pounds and had gained only 1 pound in three years. Twice, state regulators found the refrigerator locked in the home.

Several people close to Dossman have been in trouble with the law.

A foster parent to nearly 50 kids since at least 2003, Dossman has jumped from one private agency to another – getting certified by six in all since 1995.

After the series, Sacramento police pledged anew to find Amariana's killer, and DSS and Sacramento County's Child Protective Services both said they were taking another look at the case.

We may never know everything that happened leading up to the discovery of Amariana's charred remains inside the house on Sweet Pea Way. But we know that this tragic case gives officials the opportunity to take a hard look at how to fix problems with the foster care system.

Finding a reasonable way to suspend foster parents while they're under investigation for serious wrongdoing – and thus safeguard the children – would be a good place to start.