BRENTWOOD (KPIX) — Foster homes are supposed to provide temporary safe living arrangements for children who can’t stay safely with their own parents but often the children end up at even more risk.
On a recent school night at the Villanueva house, a seven-year-old we’ll call ‘J’ is spending time with his parents and sisters Jasper and Sydney. He plays the recorder, jumps on a trampoline, shows off his electric cars, and looks forward to every kid’s dream vacation — Disneyland.
Things are blissfully normal, which is a brand new thing for J — he was just adopted.
“I am excited I’m going to stay with this family forever,” he said.
But J’s story is far from a fairy tale. His ever-after won’t always be happy … his before makes that impossible.
Two years ago his three-year-old biological sister Mariah died in a foster home in Stockton of a methamphetamine overdose.
According to documents KPIX obtained from San Joaquin County, J begged his foster mother Maria Moore to take Mariah to the hospital after hearing her “talking about spiders that weren’t there” and seeing how her “tummy was shaking really hard.”
Instead Moore put her down for a nap and found her “stiff and cold” hours later.
When an ambulance finally was called, paramedics say Mariah had already died.
“When I heard she went to the hospital I got wonders, bad wonders one of my most-worst fears happened,” said J.
It was a fear that J recognized, because he had seen his sister overdosing just a week before in the same foster home — a home the siblings had just been placed in.
“They had something they weren’t supposed to that she ate,” J said.
The first time Mariah ingested meth doctors at Stockton’s St. Joseph’s Medical Center were able to save her.
But the hospital and social workers then sent her right back to the same foster home.
“We are not talking about a single incident where something terrible happened and how could we have known, it happened twice! Somebody should have done something,” said Shannon Villanueva, J’s adoptive mother.
The story of Mariah’s death is extreme but it’s not unique. Inspection records of foster homes KPIX obtained from the state show hundreds of foster children are molested, beaten, locked in closets and denied food and clothing. During the past five years, 27 children in California have died from abuse and neglect in foster care.
“The big problem here is that no one knows — the press doesn’t know about it, the public doesn’t know about it, extended family and neighbors don’t know about it,” said Darren Kessler, the Villanueva family attorney.
Kessler says that, because the cases involve children, the information is protected by law — laws which often protect the system better than the children themselves.
“There’s a conflict of interest of those who can and should reveal that information because, if they do and they’re responsible, they’re the ones getting in trouble,” said Kessler.
Take Mariah’s case: Police had been called to Maria Moore’s foster home 49 times in the 5 years prior to the little girl’s death for various disturbances, six of which were referred to child protective services.
Yet Triad family services, a foster care agency, still placed the siblings there. It even allowed Moore to continue fostering children and collecting money for six months after Mariah’s death. They declined to talk to KPIX.
Alameda County Social Services, the county agency that contracted with Triad to place the children, wouldn’t answer questions either.
Neither would the San Joaquin district attorney. Instead they sent us a statement saying “after careful review it was determined there were no charges against Ms. Moore.”
Back at the Villanueva house, not a day goes by that J doesn’t need to talk about his sister.
Shannon Villanueva says J blames himself.
“When he found out it was something she had gotten into, he said ‘I should have been watching her, I should have been with her.’ So he has a lot of survivors guilt,” Villanueva said.
Despite how hard the world has treated this seven-year-old boy, he’s not feeling sorry for himself or lonely.
“When someone passes away it doesn’t mean they’re gone. They’re still with you but it’s not like they’re with you in real life — they’re with you in everybody’s hearts,” J said.
The Villanuevas say they hope this story will convince other families to see the need and think about fostering. They are suing San Joaquin County and Mariah Moore on behalf of J, their newly-adopted son.