R.I.P Orien Destiny Hamilton-Murdered in Foster Care Texas
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AUSTIN — A weekend head-injury death of an 11-month-old girl in foster care in Austin has heightened child welfare workers’ worries about a spike in suspicious deaths among Texas foster children, officials said Monday.
“We’re concerned,” said Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
Eight foster children died as a result of abuse and neglect in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, a fourfold increase over the previous year, he confirmed.
In the last few weeks, the state has recorded five more deaths. Three were in suspicious circumstances, although none has been confirmed to have resulted from mistreatment. All five are under investigation, Crimmins said.
The latest to die was Orien Hamilton, who was rushed to the hospital Saturday afternoon by police in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park. Officers initially were told a child was choking, but they found bruises by Orien’s left ear and found inconsistencies in a baby sitter’s accounts of what happened, said Cedar Park Police Lt. Darlene Lewis.
The foster mother, the girl’s paternal aunt, left the child with her boyfriend, Lewis said.
The foster mother unexpectedly had to work Saturday and was not in the home at the time, said Curtis Coats III, spokesman for Lutheran Social Services of the South Inc. The child-placing agency licensed the woman as a foster parent two weeks earlier. It was part of a state-federal program that tries to encourage permanent caregiving arrangements for abused children with their relatives.
Police arrested Jacob Salas, 32, and charged him with injury to a child, Lewis said. He was held late Monday in the Williamson County Jail without bail.
“Salas admitted to placing the child’s head between his knee and the floor, causing injury to the child’s head,” said a Cedar Park police news release.
Lewis declined to elaborate on how Orien was hurt but called it a “significant head injury.”
Crimmins said the child was pronounced dead at an Austin hospital Sunday evening. Lewis would not comment on whether Salas’ charge will be upgraded to a homicide.
“The case is still under investigation,” she said. “It’s something that we’re working with the district attorney’s office on, to determine if any further charges need to be filed.”
Lutheran, the state’s largest foster care contractor, recently received a financial sanction at its Garland office after two youngsters with grave medical problems died recently at foster homes it recruited in North Texas. The state suspended further placements of children with the Garland branch. It took a similar action against the office late last year and early this year.
Last month, state protective services chief John Specia reacted to the spiking deaths of foster children by urging private contractors to look for subtle signs of mistreatment as they visit children in foster homes each month.
Specia also ordered CPS to check on more foster children, in Dallas-Fort Worth and statewide, in homes recruited by Texas Mentor. The company recruited a Central Texas woman now charged with capital murder in the head-slamming death of 2-year-old foster child Alexandria Hill.
Orien Hamilton’s aunt, whom officials would not identify, was vetted by Child Protective Services late last year as a “kinship placement,” Crimmins said. The girl was placed with her on Dec. 20.
Kinship caregivers can receive up to $500 a year in expenses from the state for three years. But under a new “permanency care assistance program,” encouraged by a law signed by former President George W. Bush, they can get as much as $400 or more a month after being licensed as foster parents — and caring for a child for six months without pay.
Crimmins said earlier this year, Orien’s aunt applied to be a foster parent with Lutheran, and the contractor was responsible for checking who would be in the house.
Lutheran officials, though, stressed in a written statement that the aunt “was previously vetted and approved by CPS.”
Company officials said they have launched an “action plan” following Orien’s death. It includes voluntarily stopping any more placements of CPS children at its homes in the Austin area and requiring foster parents to use approved child-care workers during temporary absences from their homes. All ex-spouses who have children living with the foster parent must submit to a criminal background check.
Lewis said police had no information on whether Salas once was married to Orien’s aunt.
Coats, the Lutheran spokesman, said company officials were told Salas was the aunt’s ex-husband.
“We asked the [aunt] for a list of frequent visitors/people who would be called to care for the child and she did not list him, did not make us aware of him, so he was not included in our extensive background check,” Coats said.
Crimmins said Orien was born on Oct. 22 in San Antonio with methamphetamines in her system. Nine days later, CPS workers removed her from her birth family, placing her briefly in a San Antonio foster home. Then the aunt agreed to take in the infant, he said.
Crimmins said Salas is the father of the aunt’s three biological children, ages 3, 5 and 7. CPS has removed them and placed them with a relative, he said.
AT A GLANCE: Deaths in foster care in Texas
Recent Texas foster care deaths, by fiscal years, which begin the previous Sept. 1. Most are medically related, but state officials are alarmed at the apparent spike of those caused by abuse or neglect.
Attributed to abuse or neglect: 2
Attributed to abuse or neglect: 8 confirmed, 1 investigation pending
Attributed to abuse or neglect: None confirmed, but all are pending investigation
NOTE: About 16,000 children are in foster care at any given time.
Published: 21 October 2013
By ROBERT T. GARRETT