When a 4-year-old girl in foster care was admitted to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center last year, with wounds covering nearly every part of her body, doctors soon concluded she had been the victim of prolonged physical abuse. What they didn't know was that the Department of Social Services, the agency charged with protecting the toddler, had done little to follow up on multiple previous allegations of abuse against her guardians. In a system shrouded in secrecy, the case offers a rare glimpse into an agency that's faced documented issues with how social workers respond to reports of child abuse.
According to medical records and police reports obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, the girl arrived at the hospital in critical condition and in need of a blood transfusion. Medical records show she suffered from blood loss, burns and human bites. Chunks of hair had been pulled from her scalp and bruising around her neck suggested she had been strangled with a belt.
Doctors saved the child, but more than a year later, questions remain about how social workers from Santa Clara County handled the case. While the case is a tragedy in itself, the girl's situation is emblematic of a larger systemic problem. The agency refused to answer any questions about the toddler's case, but a 2013 Board of Supervisors audit blasted the agency for not answering 41 percent of the calls to the county's emergency child abuse hotline. The audit also found hundreds of callers waited on average for 20 minutes, and some over an hour, just to speak to a social worker. The failure to answer more than 7,000 calls each year, the audit stated, resulting in abused and neglected children remaining in dangerous homes, and put the agency in violation of State law.
"I don't think any member of the board will be satisfied with anything less than 100 percent responsiveness to those calls and immediate responsiveness to the actual needs of the children and families," said Dan Cortese, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
The NBC Bay Area investigation also found one of the accused abusers was able to deceive social workers with forged doctor's notes that explained away a series of injuries to the child in the six months leading up to her hospitalization. Child welfare experts say there were clear flaws in how social workers investigated claims the child was being abused. Now, two lawsuits filed against the county now seek damages for the victim and her biological mother.
The girl's story of abuse didn't begin when she entered foster care. She was removed from the home of her biological parents in early 2013, when her father allegedly struck her in the face, according to social services records. Social workers typically seek out relatives to care for children who are removed from their parents, and the girl was placed in the home of her father's ex-wife and two adult children. Her siblings wound up in the home of San Jose foster parents Isabel and Al Venegas, who were among the first to spot the signs of abuse.
The Venegas' never planned on being foster parents, but when someone suggested the retired couple become emergency foster guardians, they warmed up to the idea.
"All my kids are all grown up and my grandchildren are in school so I was kind of bored," said Isabel Venegas. "I just wanted to do something different."
The Venegas' got to know the girl well through court-ordered sibling visits. They saw her often, and said at first, she was an outgoing, happy child.
"When we met her she was very active," Isabel Venegas said. "She was the typical 4-year-old."
Signs of abuse
In January 2014, the Venegas' said, something changed. The girl, who used to run to them with open arms, now appeared quiet and withdrawn. She began showing up to the sibling visits with strange injuries, according to the Venegas' and court documents.
"We were at the library and she was all wrapped up in scarves and a hat and everything," Isabel said. "I went in there and I said, ‘Oh my God, what happened?' She looked like somebody hit her in the face. I just looked at her and said, ‘Oh my God.'"
Several weeks later, during another visit with the girl, it was Al Venegas who spotted signs of abuse. According to police records, social workers said the girl had a bad reaction to medication she was taking for a sinus infection, but Venegas was skeptical.
"Her lip was split like she had been punched," Al Venegas said.
The Venegas' contacted social workers with the Department of Family and Children Services on two separate occasions, concerned the girl was being abused by her half-sister, 21-year-old Krystal Paredes, who now faces felony charges of torture. Paredes had been given guardianship of the girl after she was removed from the home of her biological parents. She lived with her brother, Jerry Paredes Jr., her mother, Deanna Urrabazo, and her grandfather Quirino Cortez, who are all now charged with felony child abuse. None of them returned calls for comment made through their attorneys.
The Venegas' were also in contact with the girl's biological mother at this time, who was seeing her daughter at supervised visits. According to police reports, the girl's mother also suspected Krystal Paredes was abusing her daughter, and began photographing the injuries she continued to see.
"She had reported approximately 22 incidents to the CPS the past two years," a San Jose Police Department report stated. "Most recently, the victim sustained marks to her neck, burn marks to her cheek and hand, and a bruised eye."
Reports go nowhere
Records from the Santa Clara County Department of Social Services, obtained by the Investigative Unit, show how social workers from the agency responded to reports from the Venegas' and the girl's mother. Despite ample evidence the girl was possibly being abused, social workers continued to believe that Krystal Paredes was providing a safe home, according to investigative records from the agency.
One report stated, "[Reporting party] called to report that the 4-yo [girl] was observed with a bruise underneath of her right eye and some red dots on her left eye. Additionally, [the girl] has old cut under her nose. The tip of her right index finger appeared ‘smashed off and it was black.'"
On three different occasions, when social workers followed up on these reports, they saw visible injuries on the child but determined the reports of abuse were "unfounded."
"This social worker saw two fresh cuts across her upper lip and left side of her face," a report filed by a DSS social worker on March 10, 2014 said. "There was a mark on her left side neck."
According to a report filed on April 5 by a different social worker, the girl was found with more injuries.
"This worker observed that the child had a little darkness around her eyes, some left over scab marks on her neck, hands and lips but it appeared to be clearing up," the report stated. "She was not able to tell this worker about the skin conditions."
Isabel Venegas said she cried each time she learned the reports went nowhere.
"I don't understand why this happened and why they let it go on, over and over, and here I am practically screaming and yelling and telling everybody I could think of," she said. "And all they could say is ‘call the police next time you see her like that.'"
Each time social workers questioned Krystal Paredes about the child's injuries, Paredes had an explanation. And each time, according to the agency's records, the social workers believed Paredes.
Burns on the girl's face were from an accident with a curling iron, according to the reports. Bruises were from the girl jumping on the bed. When a social worker asked why it appeared there was makeup on the girl's face, "as if trying to conceal marks or bruises," Paredes said she had recently taken the girl to a princess party.
But child welfare experts who spoke to NBC Bay Area about the case said there were flaws in the agency's investigation.
Leslie Heimov has worked in the field of child welfare for 25 years, and now serves as the executive director of the Children's Law Center of California. One of the first red flags social workers should have noticed, Heimov said, was the placement of the child's injuries.
"Kids get bruises in the course of their day-to-day play, which is true," Heimov said. "But they don't get them on their necks and faces, they get them on their shins."
Heimov pointed to other problems with the agency's investigation, such as how social workers interviewed the child.
"When I read the various reports, the first thing that struck me was that the little girl was not interviewed privately by the social worker," Heimov said. "That right there is a big red flag."
A concerned teacher & forged doctor's notes
During the time the Venegas' and the girl's mother were trying to sound the alarm, so was the girl's teacher, according to records obtained by the Investigative Unit.
"[The teacher] provided me with a list of dates of injuries that were noted," the police report stated. "The injuries always appeared after the victim was absent from school. [The teacher] suspected the absences were the result of Krystal trying to give the injuries time to heal."
On multiple occasions the teacher reported suspicious injuries and prolonged absences to the girl's social worker, according to her interview with police, but each time she was told there were legitimate excuses for the injuries or that Krystal had a doctor's note.
Krystal Paredes presented at least 13 doctor's notes to social workers and the girl's teacher over a six month period between January and June, 2014, according to police records. But social workers never followed up with the doctor to confirm the notes were legitimate. As the criminal investigation would later find, at least seven of those notes were forged.
"The caregiver provided notes from the doctor, but it doesn't appear that they were verified," Heimov said. "And that seems highly unusual to me, that a social worker would accept a note and not follow up by having contact with the doctor's office."
Despite the stream of concerned people pointing out signs of abuse, it wasn't until June 2014 that social workers realized they had allegedly been fooled by Krystal Paredes. The girl's mother, according to records, convinced social workers to check on her daughter after she'd missed several scheduled visits. When a social worker entered the Paredes' home, she found the girl with substantial swelling, scabbing and bruising on her face, according to police records.
However, instead of calling 9-1-1 or immediately removing the girl from the home herself, she told Paredes to take the girl to the hospital and left the home. The girl wouldn't arrive at the hospital for another four hours, and when she did, doctors immediately recognized the girl had been the victim of severe abuse.
"She has numerous scabs and scars consistent with adult bite marks on her body," medical records obtained by the Investigative Unit stated. "The bite marks are very deep and some of them involve flesh missing from the center of the bites. [She] has a split upper lip which has started healing but will leave a permanent deformity due to the delay in seeking care."
Social workers with the Department of Social Services, and the agency's director, Robert Menicocci, declined to answer questions about the case. Although the agency told the Investigative Unit Lori Medina, the director of the Department of Family and Children's Services, would answer general procedural questions about how social workers are supposed to respond to reports of abuse, they later canceled the interview.
The girl is now recovering from her injuries and has been placed with new guardians. The Venegas' hope to see her reunited with her mother soon. Becoming foster parents was never something they expected to do, but now they wonder if they were put in this position for a reason.
"In our old age, to be foster parents, maybe we were meant to be here for just this case," Isabel Venegas said.
DSS leaders are expected to speak at the following meetings: the Children, Seniors, and Families Committee meeting Thursday Nov 5th at 10AM and the Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting November 23rd at 2PM. Both meetings are open to the public. They will be inside Board Chambers at 70 West Hedding Street in San Jose.