Tag Archives: Dangerous Environment

Justice For Leiliana

.jpg photo of a little girl that probably didn't have many good days in her life.
Leiliana Wright

‘You should die in a locked closet,’ judge
tells man convicted in savage beating
death of 4-year-old

A Grand Prairie man was convicted of capital murder in the “savage” beating death of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter in a case the judge said was the worst he’d ever seen.

The Children Pay This Tab

Charles Wayne Phifer, 36, received an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole for the March 2016 murder of Leiliana Wright.

CPS Failed Leiliana Wright

Leiliana was beaten with a bamboo switch and belts and thrown against a wall.  Her mother, 33-year-old Jeri Quezada, pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child as part of a plea agreement that will lock her behind bars for 50 years.

CPS Ignored Possible Sexual Abuse Of Leiliana

Quezada will be formally sentenced by the judge Wednesday, and relatives will have the chance to give a victim impact statement at that time to both Quezada and Phifer.

Child Abuse Registry Needed

Quezada testified against Phifer, who she said bound Leiliana’s hands behind her back and strung the little girl up in a closet.

I Let Leiliana Wright Down

State District Judge Robert Burns told Phifer that life behind bars was insufficient for what Leiliana suffered.

“I think this is the worst case I’ve ever seen,” Burns told Phifer.

“Hanging a little girl in a locked closet was savage.  You should die in a locked closet,” the judge said.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours before delivering the guilty verdict.

Many were visibly shaken during the three days of testimony, during which they were shown photos of Leiliana’s battered body.

The little girl was covered from head to toe in bruises and had at least 30 bruises on her back from where she was whipped.

Defense attorneys John Tatum and Stephen Miller argued that Quezada is a liar who was trying to save herself by blaming Phifer for her daughter’s death.

“She set Charles up because that was the only way to get out of this,” Miller said.

Leiliana’s death exposed a staffing crisis in Child Protective Services. The girl’s paternal grandparents reported possible abuse to the state agency months before she was killed.

Quezada was a known drug user and had run-ins with child protection authorities in Texas and Illinois, where she received probation for hitting her stepson.

Quezada had five children, including Leiliana, with three different men.  The surviving four children are living with relatives.

“Charles Phifer does not have any motive to hurt or do anything to this child,” Miller said.  “He’s living in a house rent free with no obligations.  Why would he screw that up?”

“She’s the one who keeps having kids she doesn’t want,” he said.

A medical report presented by defense attorneys shows that Leiliana had bruises on her body at least a month before her death.  Defense counsel argued that the prior abuse shows Quezada was responsible for her girl’s death.

During trial, Quezada admitted that she would sometimes hit her daughter.  She said she used a switch made from bamboo to strike the little girl’s legs.

Prosecutors Eren Price and Travis Wiles argued that Quezada and Phifer were responsible for Leiliana’s death but that Phifer was the one who was alone with the child for hours the day of her deadly beating.

Price disputed the defense counsel’s accusation that Quezada was simply saving herself by pinning Leiliana’s death on Phifer.

“I’m not sure the next 50 years in prison can be considered saving your own skin,” Price argued.

The prosecutor said someone needed to shed light on what happened to Leiliana, and Quezada’s story was backed up by evidence.

A strand of the girl’s hair was found embedded in the wall where Quezada said Phifer threw the girl.  Leiliana’s DNA was also found on gloves used by Phifer, a DNA expert testified during the trial.

Quezada said she saw her daughter vomit in the living room and then Phifer put on gloves, grab the girl by her cheeks, lift her from the ground and pour Pedialyte down the child’s throat.

The mother also said Phifer showed her where he had tied up Leiliana in a dark, tiny closet in the living room.  Leiliana’s wrists were bound behind her body and she was “strung up” so she couldn’t sit.

“There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this story,” Wiles said during closing arguments.  “The last loving arms that reached out for Leiliana Wright were the strong, loving arms of a stranger.”

During the trial, a paramedic who tried to save Leiliana cried recounting how badly bruised the little girl was.

Wiles said Quezada’s story about the 48 hours or so before Leiliana’s death is corroborated by cellphone records.

Those records showed Quezada was away with her youngest child for much of the day.  She testified she went with her family to eat at an Arlington steakhouse that night.  Quezada’s mother confirmed.

Leiliana stayed with Phifer.

“This man was trusted not just with her care but her life, and he took it,” Wiles argued.

Quezada returned to the Grand Prairie home after 9 p.m.  She said that when she got there, her first concern was using heroin with Phifer.

She later asked about Leiliana, and that’s when she discovered her daughter was in the closet.

“In life, Leiliana Wright deserved peace.  In her death, she deserves justice,” Wiles said.

CA Civil Cases Name 10 CPS Employees

.jpg photo of a California CPS office
“What these kids went through is horrific,” Booth said.

County child protection director out amid allegations of failed Child Abuse investigations

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA  –  Riverside County’s top child protection official, Susan von Zabern, left her job Monday as the county fights two civil cases alleging that severe child abuse continued after the department had finished their investigations.

“….these disturbing cases indicate department leadership is failing to effectively stop child abuse.”

The two civil cases were filed by attorney Roger Booth on behalf of the juvenile victims seeking damages for the trauma they suffered as a result of the botched investigations.

“Child protective services is supposed to be there for kids whose parents can’t and won’t protect them.” Booth said.

In one case, filed in November 2017, a thirteen-year-old girl suffered repeated sexual abuse, rape, and eventually was impregnated by her mother’s live-in boyfriend.  In another, filed in March, a three-year-old suffered severe neglect and was found in a filthy home hugging her dead infant sibling.

The complaints in both cases show staff from the Riverside County Children’s Services Division of the Department of Public Social Services repeatedly visited the homes of the victims, but failed to stop the abuse, and closed the investigations prematurely.

The County Board of Supervisors held closed-door meetings in recent months regarding the allegations, and said they will fight the cases, the Press-Enterprise reported.

Ray Smith, a spokesperson for the county, said that von Zabern “separated” from the county on Monday, but could not provide further comment due to department policies on personnel matters and the open status of the civil cases.

“The county constantly works to improve processes and programs that protect residents who are at-risk,” Smith said.  “The county will aggressively continue that work.”

Social services staff knew a juvenile victim suffered repeated sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, according to the lawsuit, but the agency closed the investigation anyway.

The complaint alleges that the department failed to report that the victim’s mother was not capable of protecting her, that the sexual abuse would likely continue, and that they led the victim to believe the department was the only hope for her protection.

At one point the department even asked the suspect to sign a safety plan they drafted, designating him as one of her caregivers, according to the complaint.

About a year later, the victim, 13 at the time, gave birth to a baby and put it up for adoption.  Blood tests confirmed that the suspect was the father.

The suspect is facing 22 counts of child sexual abuse and is due in court on Sept. 28.

Another case, filed in March, alleges that a young child was routinely neglected by her mother, who struggled with drug addiction and mental illness.

The mother later became pregnant and reported to the department that she was not receiving prenatal care and had stopped using her medication.

On several occasions, the department visited the home, but ultimately considered the case inconclusive and closed the investigation.

Days after one of the department’s final visits in April 2016, a neighbor flagged down a passing police car and reported a foul smell from the victim’s apartment.

Inside, police found a horrific scene, according to court documents: The three-year-old was laying on a mattress, hugging the decaying corpse of her infant sibling.
Both of the juvenile plaintiffs in the civil cases have been appointed a guardian by the courts.

The cases specifically name 10 staff in the Department of Public Social Services alleging they failed at their duties and violated the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.

To Booth, these disturbing cases indicate department leadership is failing to effectively stop child abuse.

“Child protective services is supposed to be there for kids whose parents can’t and won’t protect them.” Booth said.  “They just simply failed to do that in these cases.”

The cases seek compensation for the victims and for punitive damages against specific staff named in the complaint.

“What these kids went through is horrific,” Booth said.  “They’re entitled to compensation commensurate with the harm that was done to them.”

Neither Snow, Rain, Heat, Nor Trafficker

.jpg photo of postal worker and young girl he saved
Crystal Allen, 16, gave postal worker Ivan Crisostomo a warm hug when she saw him Thursday.

Postal worker rescues teen who managed
to escape hands of sex traffickers

SACRAMENTO, CA  –  A California teenager had the opportunity to reunite with her unlikely hero — the postal worker who saved her from sex trafficking.

Sixteen-year-old Crystal Allen gave postal worker Ivan Crisostomo a warm hug when she saw him Thursday, but the first time they met, Allen feared for her life.

Allen’s mother Stacy Ohman said her daughter met a “friend” who had lured her to Sacramento, where she found herself trapped in a world of drugs and sex trafficking.

“I was kidnapped, and held captive, and abused and stuff,” Allen said.

One day, she found the opportunity to escape.  Allen was inside her captors’ car in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood when she heard them discussing a crime.  She then jumped out of a car, grabbed one of their phones and ran for her life.

That’s when Crisostomo found her.

“I heard this crying when I came out of the vehicle, so I approached her and I asked her.  She was afraid, she didn’t want to talk,” he said.

Eventually, he convinced the terrified teen to call her mother.

“She was frantic.  I didn’t know what was going on,” Ohman said.  “I couldn’t even understand her she was so upset and that’s when I told her she had to reach out to someone for safety and she gave the phone to Ivan and he instantly kicked into gear and told me that he would save my daughter.”

Crisostomo let Allen sit in his postal truck until police arrived on scene.

“He stepped up where a lot of people would have just kept driving down the road. He made a huge positive impact in this young girl’s life,” said Deputy David Cuneo of Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Crisostomo said he’s just happy Allen is safe.

“The way I see her, she has a wonderful future ahead.  She’s doing so well.  I’m happy. I’m really happy,” he said.

Two Toddlers Die In Hot BabySitter

.jpg photo of vehicle where 2 toddlers died of heat stroke
Two Toddlers were found in an SUV in front of the home.

5-month-old twins die after being left in SUV

#HotVehicles Are Not #BabySitters

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, VA  –  The second of twin infants found unresponsive in a vehicle Thursday has died, according to police in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

The 5-month-old twins were found unresponsive around 2:30 p.m. in an SUV in the 2400 block of Alfalfa Lane near Jefferson Davis Highway, according to WTVR.

Police, along with Chesterfield County Fire and EMS responded to the scene and transported the children to Chippenham Hospital.

One of the children was pronounced dead at the hospital Thursday afternoon. The other child died several hours later.

The children, according to neighbors were a boy and a girl.

A woman who lives a few doors down defended the children’s parents through tears.

“They go to work, they come home to their kids.  They’re not any trouble, they’re awesome,” the woman, who declined to be identified, said.

“It’s tragic what happened, I don’t even know how to help them with their pain. It was certainly not an intentionally negligent act, it was a horrific mistake that can never be erased,” said another neighbor, Donna Gusti, who also works with both parents at a nearby Waffle House.

The woman who lives next door to the family said the wife was at work Thursday afternoon when she called her.

“His wife called me at 2 p.m. to wake him up to come and get her from work and that’s when everything happened,” the neighbor said.  “That’s when he found the babies in the car.”

She believes the husband just forgot the babies remained in the car when he got home from dropping his wife off at work.

Police continue to investigate the incident.

In Harm’s Way – Part 2 Of 2

.jpg photo of two Law Enforcement Officers that covered the child abuse death of Tramelle Sturgis
Former Metro Homicide Assistant Commander Dave Wells, and South Bend Police Detective Jim Taylor.

What’s changed since Tramelle Sturgis’s
Child Abuse death?

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, IN (WNDU)  –  After the 2011 child abuse death of Tramelle Sturgis, so many people in our community were committed to figuring out what could have been done differently.  What, if anything, has changed since then?

Indiana’s child welfare system is under the microscope.  Leadership changes, funding cuts and staggering abuse rates have made troubling headlines.

The last director resigned last December in a scathing letter to Governor Eric Holcomb.  Mary Beth Bonaventura blasted the Holcomb administration for cuts and management changes that she said would “…all but ensure children will die.”

In February of this year, federal figures showed a spike in child abuse deaths in the Hoosier state.

Around here, the 2011 death of Tramelle Sturgis still haunts our community.

Warnings were there.  Tips were received.  But still a child died.  Has anything changed?

Tricia Sloma learned what happened after the boy’s death in part two of her series “In Harm’s Way.

Tramelle’s art teacher Sandy Voreis says his artwork stood out.  As she admired his self-portrait, she pointed out some special features.

“He even has a sun out, if you notice, for sunshine,” said Voreis.  “The colors are not dark.  They’re bright, vivid colors.”

Tramelle’s choice of color and content never led on to what was happening at home.

“There is no sadness in that picture,” said Voreis.  “I didn’t catch on what was going on by the picture.”

When the young artist was murdered by his father, Terry Sturgis, the difficult news was shared the next morning at school.

“It was such a shock.  He didn’t let on,” said Voreis, shaking her head.

Tramelle may have never let on to her, but other teachers say they knew.  A teacher and other school staff testified at the murder trial saying they had reported suspected abuse only to be threatened by the angry father.

“It was rough,” Voreis said as she broke down in tears.

While Tramelle’s pictures never revealed his pain, other pictures tell a much different story.

“That’s the image that sticks with me,” said former Metro Homicide Assistant Commander Dave Wells as he thumbed through evidence photos from the murder scene of a 10-year-old boy.

“(The photos) documenting fresh injuries, old injuries, lots of scarring.  Just head-to-toe trauma,” observed Wells, who is now the commander of the St. Joseph County Drug Investigations Unit with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.

He joined South Bend Police Detective Jim Taylor for an interview about the Sturgis case.  Taylor used to work for Metro Homicide and investigated Tramelle’s death.  He’s now with the Violent Crimes Division of the South Bend Police Department.

Tramelle’s death remains one of the worst child abuse fatality cases police have ever seen.

Wells and Taylor weren’t surprised that Tramelle and the other children hid their pain so well.  It was part of the killer’s control and a grandmother’s neglect of care.

“(Terry Sturgis) knew those kids were going to school, so he dressed them appropriately so nothing would come back on him,” said Wells.

“And explained to those kids, ‘You better not say a thing to anybody or it’s going to be worse when you get home,’” added Taylor.

“The problem grandma (Dellia Castile) has is that she knew exactly what was going on in that house,” said Wells.  “And it’s her responsibility, it’s all our responsibility to report any kind of abuse like that to children.”

But in the Sturgis case, people did report the abuse.

The Department of Child Services and police were called to the home, but in every instance, officials didn’t find a problem.

Wells says police had very little information to go on from a 911 call placed months before the murder.

“This is what the officers see when they investigate an anonymous tip,” said Wells, as he held up a picture of the Sturgis home from inside the front door. “That’s a pretty clean, nice looking house.  And then there are four or five kids standing here and there are allegations of child abuse, and they’re looking at the kids going…(shrugs) I’m not seeing anything here.”

“You’re limited by how far you can go,” explained Wells.  “Without good probable cause or a search warrant, you’re not going to get into that house any farther than the front doors.”

Remember, in Tramelle’s home, the torture happened in the basement, a sad discovery made only after Tramelle died.

“You walk in and you almost want to go, ‘Are you in the right house?’  And then you hit that basement,” said Taylor.  “And it’s just like, wow!”

“There were certainly signs that were probably missed by all of us,” said Wells.

But most notably DCS.  At one time, all 92 Indiana counties had their own child abuse hotline staffed by local people.  To save money, the state moved to a centralized hotline in Indianapolis in 2010, the year before Tramelle died.

Former South Bend Tribune reporter Virginia Black discovered a call placed to the DCS hotline six months before the murder, with the anonymous caller begging officials to “….go there right now….”  Instead, the Tribune reported, DCS responded the next day and didn’t make contact with the family for three more days.  By then, all seemed fine.

So what’s changed?

“Well, we certainly made great progress on the hotline, and that is due to Tramelle,” said St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge John Broden.  Broden was a state senator at the time.  He said the discovery of that call woke up the Indiana Legislature.

“There had been isolated concerns over parts of the state that calls were being dropped.  Complaints weren’t getting through.  It wasn’t until Tramelle’s death and the incident surrounding Tramelle’s death,” explained Broden.  “That instantly brought it to the forefront.”

Today, there’s still one child abuse hotline number, but now calls are answered in five locations: Vanderburgh, Lawrence, Marion, Blackford and St. Joseph counties.  It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

“It was no longer just a South Bend, St. Joseph County issue.  It was a statewide issue,” said Broden.  “And Tramelle’s death did cause significant changes and improvements to the child welfare system.”

But there’s still a lot of work to be done at the state level.

While shrinking funds and leadership changes are debated downstate, officials on the front lines back home are working closer together to make sure another child like Tramelle doesn’t get missed.

Sloma asked St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter if our area children are better off than they were seven years ago.

“Locally?  Yes,” said Cotter.  “I think we have a much better relationship with DCS now than before this occurred.”

Cotter noted the biggest change with local DCS officials.

“I think the biggest change is in communication between the information that they are gathering and passing it along to law enforcement so that we can act as well.”

But the most important partnership is the community, and everyone plays a role.

“When you think a child is being abused, gosh darn it, contact someone so we can find out so that we can do the best investigation that we can,” urged Cotter.

“I think a lot of people have learned from this as a community,” said Taylor. “Enough’s enough.”

Our community is forever changed by one little boy.

“It’s something we will never forget,” said Voreis.  “What scares me is other children that are going through this, and not speaking up and not saying anything.  We don’t want something like this to happen again.”

Governor Eric Holcomb ordered a full review of the Department of Child Services after the DCS director’s resignation.  That report is expected in June.

The new DCS Director, Terry Stigdon, released this statement to WNDU on Friday afternoon:

“The children DCS serves aren’t just names in a system—each and every one of them has a story, and we find those stories are filled with pain.  In my short time as director, I’ve been meeting with passionate DCS employees across the state who show up to work every day trying to make a difference in a child’s life.  My job is to remove obstacles that are in the way of that child having a safe and stable home.  I look forward to the results of the CWG assessment because the recommendations will act as a guide for how we can improve and identify our needs – which fulfills the ultimate goal of keeping our children safe.”

Remember, if you suspect child abuse, please report it.

In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.

In Michigan, the number is 1-855-444-3911.

We have incredible community resources for families who are broken by abuse:

YWCA
ywcancin.org/site/pp.aspx?c=6oJKL0PuF8JSG&b=7960705
1-866-YES-YWCA

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)
sjccasa.org
574-233-CASA

Casie Center
casiecenter.org
574-282-1414

Youth Services Bureau
ysbsjc.org

St. Joseph County Family Justice Center
fjcsjc.wordpress.com
574-234-6900

Oaklawn
oaklawn.org
574-533-1234

Family & Children’s Center, Healthy Families
fccin.org/healthy-families.html

Child and Parent Services CAPS, Elkhart County
capselkhart.org

Indiana 2-1-1
For helpful information, just dial 2-1-1

Prevent Child Abuse St. Joseph County
pcasjc.org

Healthy Families in St. Joseph County
fccin.org/healthy-families.html
574-968-9660
Voluntary home visiting program providing new parents with support, parenting skills, information on child development and community resources.

KidsPeace
kidspeace.org

NYAP – National Youth Advocate Program
nyap.org

The Villages in Elkhart
villages.org/venue/elkhart-the-villages-office
Information about becoming a foster parent

White’s Residential & Family Services
whiteskids.org
Information about becoming a foster parent