A 3-year-old girl died of a meth overdose. What are Alameda County authorities hiding?

Mariah Sultana Mustafa died in 2015 after ingesting methamphetamine at a Stockton foster care home. She had come from Alameda County. There, officials refuse to release records, as required by state law.
Mariah Sultana Mustafa died in 2015 after ingesting methamphetamine at a Stockton foster care home. She had come from Alameda County. There, officials refuse to release records, as required by state law. Bay Area News Group, Courtesy Darren Kessler

The story of Mariah Sultana Mustafa’s death is nightmarish, which is why it’s important to read and absorb.

“Spiders crawled up her tiny limbs, as monkeys danced and bunnies hopped about. Her fingers curled up in jagged spasms, her belly shook violently, and her pupils grew nearly as wide as her big brown eyes. Her heart pumped as fast as it could to cope with the methamphetamine coursing through her 33-pound body.”

So began the story powerfully told by the Bay Area News Group’s Matthias Gafni and David DeBolt.

Mariah was hallucinating and convulsing after ingesting a lethal dose of methamphetamine on Oct. 16, 2015, while living in a Stockton foster home. That was 13 days after she was rushed to the hospital with meth in her system, and barely three weeks after authorities removed her from her young mother and grandmother’s home in Alameda County.

What compels us to look at this story are its eerie parallels to the 2008 death of Amariana Antoinette Crenshaw, as detailed by The Sacramento Bee’s Marjie Lundstrom. Amariana was 4 when she died in an explosion and fire at her foster mom’s rental property in Sacramento.

The names and dates are different. But the stories are all too familiar. As with Amariana, Mariah’s death is unsolved, though San Joaquin County law enforcement authorities say the one suspect, the foster mom’s boyfriend, committed suicide.

In each instance, authorities removed the children with the help of placement agencies, turned over their care to foster parents who had spotty records and failed to heed red flags.

Inexplicably, Mariah’s records from Alameda County did not follow her to San Joaquin County. As a result, San Joaquin officials may have lacked important information about Mariah’s first three years that might have altered how she was handled. We’ll never know.

Government clearly has a responsibility to do whatever it can to protect children from unfit and abusive parents. If authorities remove a child, they must find a safer placement. And if the system fails that child anyway, there must be a public accounting of what happened.

Hard-working child protective service workers certainly cannot prevent every death. Tragedy happens. When it does, the goal must be to try not to repeat it.

In 2007, the California Legislature approved legislation requiring that counties make public critical documents related to the deaths of children in foster care. In 2016, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown expanded the law to require the release of records in near-deaths as well.

San Joaquin County authorities complied by providing documents to the Bay Area News Group reporters. But Alameda County officials have refused. The Alameda County Counsel’s office did not respond to calls from The Sacramento Bee seeking to understand its justification.

Legislators seeking to carry bills in the public interest ought to return to the topic of foster care deaths and near-deaths. If there is a loophole in the disclosure law, lawmakers should close it, and go further by requiring counties to publicly announce when foster care deaths occur.

Mariah died in 2015. And yet the death went unreported for three years, becoming public only after reporters learned that a lawsuit had been filed on behalf of her older brother.

Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who has been a foster parent, is urging that the California State Association of Counties embrace disclosure of key original documents in foster care deaths and near-deaths. The association should adopt that policy, but hasn’t.

The Legislature has made clear that it expects the disclosure of case files, with redactions necessary to protect privacy. The point is not to embarrass or defame social workers. It is to learn from mistakes. As the deaths of Mariah and Amariana illustrate, mistakes recur too often.