Critics: Boy's death points to flaws in foster care system

11:43 AM CST on Sunday, November 12, 2006
By ROBERT T. GARRETT and KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News

Former addicts Ray and Jessica Nieto have Logan, 3, back, but
they grieve for Christian (in photo).

From the moment he was born in Carrollton with drugs in his system to the second he died in a foster home in Corsicana, little Christian Nieto never stood a chance.

His parents were heroin addicts. Then, the state system charged with protecting children quickly lost track of Christian and his 3-year-old big brother, Logan, after entrusting them to a private foster company that had a lengthy recent history of putting children into dangerous or deadly foster homes; at least one child had died already.

That troubled private agency, in turn, shuffled Christian and Logan through five foster homes in seven months.

In the last chapter of his short and tragic life, Christian spent his final days in Corsicana, in the home of an overburdened foster mother who was, at best, unable to save him. At worst, she might have killed him.

On Labor Day, Christian Nieto died of head injuries in a foster home 60 miles from where state authorities thought he was living. He was only 16 months old.

His foster mother, Beverly Latimer, is sitting in a Corsicana jail on a capital murder indictment. She steadfastly maintains her innocence, and there are indications that Christian already had a head injury when he arrived at her home, just five days before he died.

"She's a good-hearted person. She's a giving person. She's a God-fearing person," said Mary Anderson, Ms. Latimer's best friend for nearly 40 years. "The good Lord himself is going to have to come and tell me she did it, because other than that I'm not believing anybody."

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Ms. Latimer's court-appointed attorney did not respond to requests for interviews.

No matter the outcome of the charges against Ms. Latimer, child advocates say, the case illustrates virtually every flaw in a foster care system that state lawmakers are in the process of completely turning over to private companies.

Among the problems:

• As the state has beefed up its system of removing children from dangerous homes, the foster care system has been swamped, exacerbating a shortage of loving foster homes.

• The foster system – now 80 percent private – generally leaves it up to contractors to alert the state when they break the law.

• State oversight of 292 licensed foster contractors is skimpy at best. For most of its years working with the state, the contractor involved in Christian's case was in a category that required just one unannounced visit to its office per year from inspectors.

• The state does not require foster contractors to conduct civil court checks on prospective foster parents to help determine financial stability. In Christian's case, state investigators say the contractor glossed over details that should have raised questions about Ms. Latimer's physical and financial ability to be a foster parent.

• Serious questions have been raised about the state's licensing process for foster contractors. The company that placed Christian and Logan had been cited for more than 100 violations, and yet the state renewed its contract on a provisional basis Aug. 14.

With all those problems, child advocates say, the only wonder is that there isn't more tragedy.

"The people who failed these children the worst are the parents," said F. Scott McCown, a former state judge who now leads a policy group advocating for children and the underprivileged. "But after they were brought into the system, we failed them at every turn."

Ray and Jessica Nieto, Christian's parents, acknowledge their past mistakes but say they have kicked their heroin habits, bought a home in Plano and started a business – all steps toward getting their kids back. They say they've passed more than a dozen drug tests since the state took their children away.

The day after Christian died, the state returned Logan to his parents, and family members say there are no plans to remove him again.

"Every night, I have to watch my son look up at the stars and say, 'Hi, Christian! I love you! I miss you!' " Ms. Nieto said. "It's got to stop. I don't want them to hurt anybody else's family. "

"We made a horrible mistake, but we paid for it and our son paid for it," said Mr. Nieto, 28.

Foster mother, firm blamed

State officials lay the blame for Christian's death squarely on Ms. Latimer and Mesa Family Services, a mid-sized Central Texas contractor that once oversaw the placement of 350 kids in foster homes across the region.

Through a spokesman and in investigative reports, the state says Mesa shirked its duties to protect Christian, ignored red flags about whether Ms. Latimer qualified as a suitable foster parent and failed to keep Child Protective Services apprised of the children's whereabouts.

Mesa co-founder Artie Hilliard of Mullin declined to discuss Christian's case or the company's record, saying lawsuits are likely and a state investigation is still pending.

"We're not ever going to solve anything in the press," Mr. Hilliard said.

Mr. Hilliard said both he and co-founder Mike Williams of Goldthwaite have spent decades working with children. Mr. Williams and other Mesa officials did not return calls.

Mr. Hilliard declined to say whether he or Mr. Williams have obtained new employment and if so whether it's related to foster care.

"We're just going to go on our way," Mr. Hilliard said.

Since Christian died, the state has come down on Mesa, and the company quit its $7 million foster contract after a licensing official suspended placements and put the company on probation. On Nov. 3, the state moved to revoke Mesa's license.

But state officials were aware of problems at Mesa well before the Labor Day tragedy. According to records, the company was cited for scores of problems.

The infractions at Mesa-contracted foster homes included abuse and neglect, improper restraints of unruly children, overly harsh discipline, unfit foster parents and failure to run required background checks on other people age 14 and older who live in the homes.

State's licensing officials found a dozen violations when they looked into the death of 3-year-old Sierra Odom. Her foster father, Timothy R. Warner of Arlington, took her to an emergency room in August 2005 and said she'd been in a car accident. Authorities later determined Sierra had been dead for hours and accused Mr. Warner of slamming her head into a bookshelf after losing his temper.

Mr. Warner remains jailed in Tarrant County on charges of injury to a child and evidence tampering.

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the state Department of Family and Protective Services, said the state licensing unit started finding violations by Mesa 10 days before Sierra died last year.

Still, he said, though the state regrets what happened to Christian Nieto, officials were helpless to prevent it.

"With CPS as temporary managing conservator, Mesa was directly responsible for the foster care of Christian and Logan Nieto," Mr. Crimmins said. "Mesa failed completely in this responsibility. ... If CPS had known, we could have scrutinized the [Corsicana] placement and could have intervened to stop it.

"We did not get that chance."

Asked how CPS could have prevented the boys' placement with Ms. Latimer when it has no direct oversight of foster homes, Mr. Crimmins backed down.

"We can't predict that the placement with Ms. Latimer would have been prevented," he said. "The point is that the agency was not consulted."

While Mesa, for now, is out of the business of placing foster children, it retains an $850,000 annual state contract to house troubled youths at its Williams House, a 25-bed emergency shelter in Lometa.

According to state enforcement records, the facility was cited twice last year for admitting children with a history of being sexual abusers. Williams House staffers are not trained to deal with such children, one of whom reportedly left a 17-year-old with a concussion.

Asked why the shelter's contract hasn't been canceled, Mr. Crimmins said certain allegations – such as the injury to the 17-year-old – could not be confirmed.

"Williams House is monitored regularly, and its performance has improved in the last year," he said. "Licensing staff was at the shelter in October and will conduct another inspection in December."

Lost in the system

Christian Raymond Nieto tested positive for marijuana and methadone when he was born in April 2005.

In June, child-protection officials referred the parents to Family Outreach, a nonprofit in Denton that works with high-risk families. The idea is to prevent abuse and, ultimately, head off a situation that might lead to the children being taken away.

But according to a CPS filing in court, Family Outreach "closed the case that same month because the family was not cooperative."

After two home visits, an investigator tested the parents for drugs. Ms. Nieto had been smoking pot, and her husband had used marijuana and cocaine. The couple signed an agreement to go to Narcotics Anonymous and other counseling. In October 2005, they signed up for counseling and parenting classes. In November, they filed for divorce, and both started using heroin again. Later that month, Ms. Nieto checked herself into a Mesquite rehab center.

Throughout those few months, a CPS caseworker said in court papers, the couple sometimes didn't show up for appointments and changed addresses "several times without notifying me, so it was difficult to provide services and request drug testing."

Meanwhile, the couple made a second go of their relationship. On Jan. 17, CPS took hair samples from both of them, and from Christian. All three tested positive for heroin, according to court records.

Ten days later, officials removed the boys temporarily, citing the drug tests and the family's lack of cooperation.

"It was the worst day of my life," Ms. Nieto recalls. "We immediately started doing everything they asked of us."

But not soon enough for Christian and Logan, who had already disappeared into Texas' foster-care system.

The Nietos say they were given little information about their sons' whereabouts or who was caring for them, though that isn't unusual. They had occasional supervised visits at neutral locations. They know the boys were with a kindly, elderly couple in the Dallas area for a while. Beyond that, there are only fragments of information, mostly unconfirmed.

To this day, state officials say they're fuzzy on the Nieto boys' exact movements from late January to late August.

For two months after Christian died, a spokesman for the state Department of Family and Protective Services was unable to say when they arrived in Corsicana – Aug. 30, it turns out.

The state also remains fuzzy about whether Christian was treated at a hospital emergency room only days or hours before being taken from Dallas to Corsicana.

Mr. Crimmins, the agency spokesman, said Mesa reported that "Christian fell and hit his head while at the Mesa office and was taken to a hospital emergency room where he was treated and released."

He said the state does not know if the fall actually occurred.

In a letter she wrote to friends from jail, Ms. Latimer said Mesa officials told her the boy had been injured.

"They told me that they both were a handful and that Christian had wiggled out of his previous foster mom's arms and fell and busted his head," she wrote. "They showed me a small scar on the back left side of his head. They said that he had been taken to the emergency room that day."

Struggles of her own

Beverly Latimer, 53, is a native of Streetman, Texas. She raised her two daughters and four grandchildren virtually alone, estranged from her husband, Roy.

Friends and family describe her as a devout and popular member of the Freedom Fellowship Church in Corsicana. She sang in the gospel choir and was involved in the prison ministry, while her close friends led Sunday school and prayer dances for the kids. Friends say she volunteered on the campaigns of several local politicians, including district attorney Steve Keathley, though he said he doesn't remember her.

Ms. Latimer also had problems. She was fighting depression, diabetes and high blood pressure and had a condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome that made her wrists and hands ache. She got disability payments for her high blood pressure. A state investigation report says she has had "multiple surgeries."

Around the time that Jessica and Ray Nieto were establishing their CPS case file in 2005, Ms. Latimer took in her first foster child at the urging of one of her best friends, "Sis Lucy" Henry, a local foster mother of 20 years whom Ms. Latimer knew through church.

"She took good care of those kids," Ms. Henry said. "I take mine to the daycare, but she likes to take them with her everywhere she goes."

According to the state, Mesa officials made only half-hearted attempts to check Ms. Latimer's suitability before placing children with her.

"There was a question asked by a doctor about her ability to care for children," Mr. Crimmins said. "The doctor stated he could not answer the question about her ability to care for children on an extended basis. The answer should have caused Mesa to follow up with the doctor to find out what his concerns were, and then Mesa should have made a determination if she could safely care for children."

And there were financial issues.

According to public records, Ms. Latimer has a criminal history of writing hot checks, though that wouldn't necessarily disqualify her from being a foster parent. Records of civil court cases, which Texas doesn't require foster agencies to check, indicate Ms. Latimer was dodging numerous creditors in recent years. According to the Sept. 22 state investigation report of Mesa, the company knew Ms. Latimer "has had judgments of eviction against her in the past."

The report also says Mesa knew from its home study that she would rely too much on foster care pay.

And lastly, the report questions why Mesa shuttered the Latimer foster home for unspecified "violations of Mesa policy" in August 2005 only to reopen it in October 2005 "with no substantive change in the way this home operated."

Among questions the state's investigation didn't ask, but many elected officials and leaders in Corsicana are asking, is why Mesa would place five abused and neglected children under age 5 with a caretaker who was beset with physical and financial problems.

Ms. Latimer was licensed to care for basic, moderate and specialized foster children – all but the most seriously troubled. Her four-child maximum was raised to six last January, Mr. Crimmins said.

To care for Christian, the state paid Mesa $37 a day. Of that, Ms. Latimer got $20.56.

{$20.56 x 365 days per year equals $7504.40 per year.

$7504.40 divided by 12 (months per year) equals $635.36 per month, for one child}

Christian's last days

It's a mystery what happened in the Latimer home from late on Aug. 30, when the Nieto boys arrived, to lunchtime on Labor Day, Sept. 4.

On Aug. 30, a Wednesday, Ms. Latimer and her younger sister, Tanya Cleveland, were hanging out at a friend's boutique in Corsicana when Ms. Latimer's cell phone rang. Ms. Cleveland said it was a Mesa official who asked her to take in two boys who were coming from "a dangerous environment."

Ms. Latimer wrote that she balked because she already had three young girls in her care, but the agency persisted.

"He told me that I was his last hope," Ms. Latimer wrote.

She took the children.

Over the next few days, several friends say they saw the boys at a birthday party, at church, in the car, and when Ms. Latimer brought them over for a visit. They say they saw Christian bump his head, throw his head back in a tantrum, stumble and fall at church and other places.

Two friends, Ms. Henry and Tamara Wilson Smith of Arlington, say Ms. Latimer took the boys to Mesa offices in Corsicana on Sept. 1 – that Friday – and said Christian hadn't slept through the night since he arrived. She said the placement wasn't working out and reminded the agency that she didn't have a crib for Christian, the friends and the letter say.

Mesa officials took a playpen to her house that afternoon and asked that she keep the kids just a few more days, the friends and Ms. Latimer say.

Mr. Crimmins said the state doesn't know whether Ms. Latimer tried returning the boys to Mesa or whether she had been told they were coming from a "dangerous environment" in another Mesa foster home.

In her jailhouse letter, Ms. Latimer wrote that on Labor Day, she put Christian down for a nap while fixing his lunch – she'd ordered pizza for the older kids – and then went to wake him. Justice of the Peace Connie Mayfield said Ms. Latimer called 911 just before 1 p.m. and said he had stopped breathing.

She was trying to perform CPR on the boy when paramedics arrived.

More than an hour north in Allen, Jessica Nieto was strolling through a mall when a caseworker rang her cellphone. Ms. Nieto remembers the caseworker saying: "Christian is dead. You can go and see him at the Dallas County morgue."

A day later, the state returned Logan to his parents.

"We threw a big fit and said, 'You killed one of our sons. We don't want our other son in your possession. Please bring him home,' " Mr. Nieto recalled. "They were scared for his safety, we were scared for his safety. I don't know what they thought, but they brought him home the next day."

Mr. Crimmins said CPS had been monitoring the family and "thought that placing Logan back with them was appropriate."

"We continue to monitor them," he said.

Ms. Latimer was jailed four days after Christian died. Weeks later, prosecutor Keathley obtained the capital murder indictment of Ms. Latimer. He declined to discuss evidence he gave the grand jury.

In her letter, Ms. Latimer insists she did not hurt the boy.

"I thank God for having so many people out there who I can say really loves [sic] me," she wrote to Ms. Wilson Smith. "I am so tired, but I know that I cannot give up."

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1. Suspected child abuse or neglect is reported to Child Protective Services by police, school personnel or the public.

2. CPS screeners assess the report, assign it a priority rating and notify a nearby CPS investigative unit, which sends out an investigator.

3. If a child is deemed in danger, the investigator confers with a supervisor. If higher-ups approve, the investigator removes child from home.

4. The investigator at once requests a placement from a regional CPS Centralized Placement Unit. A placement worker checks an Internet site, where private child-placement agencies list foster home vacancies.

5. If the private agency's foster home can accommodate the child's age, gender and needs, and if it's not too far away from relatives, the placement worker contacts the agency.

6. The placement worker checks an online database to see whether the agency has committed any infractions "that may indicate the placement is unsafe," said spokesman Patrick Crimmins. This is a new step, added since the investigation of Christian Nieto's death. Before, CPS workers had no access to the database.

7. If the placement worker and agency agree that the home is suitable, the child is placed there.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research


16,493 children were in foster homes on Sept. 30.

More than 30,000 children go through the system in a year.

8,909 foster homes were operating.

12,995 (79%) children had been assigned to privately run placement agencies on Sept. 30.

3,498 (21%) children were in foster homes under state oversight on Sept. 30.



Type of company: Nonprofit, founded in 1992

Founders: Mike Williams and Artie Hilliard

Headquarters: Harker Heights (Bell County)

Revenue: Almost entirely from Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

State contracts (fiscal year 2006): Placing foster children, $7.3 million (voluntarily relinquished, Sept. 26); operating emergency shelter, $847,000 (still effective)

Children in Mesa foster homes: 353 in more than 160 homes (as of July 31)

Counties with Mesa foster homes: Atascosa, Bell, Bexar, Brazos, Brown, Camp, Cherokee, Comanche, Concho, Coryell, Dallas, Denton, Hamilton, Hays, Hopkins, Hunt, Lampasas, Lee, McCulloch, Navarro, Rains, Tarrant, Wichita, Williamson and Wood.

Top three Mesa foster-care counties: Dallas (95 children), Bell (58), Bexar (31)

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research