Craig Baird remembers the bruises on the girl’s body.
In 1988, he and his wife called Stevens County law enforcement, worried that the girl they were baby-sitting was being abused at her home.
The state’s child welfare system quickly took the girl into custody, and Baird considered the matter closed.
This week, he was shocked to learn that the girl’s care provider, 50-year-old Carole Ann DeLeon, received a foster-care license in 1996 despite the incident. DeLeon is now the suspect in a homicide investigation into the death of her adopted 7-year-old son, Tyler DeLeon. The state removed four other children from DeLeon’s care last month.
DeLeon was able to get the license because the state’s Child Protective Services destroyed any trace of the record as part of the routine expunging of old records, officials said.
“How in the heck can that happen with everything I saw?” Baird said Friday. “You’re dealing with the responsibility for the life of a child.”
Each year, the state destroys tens of thousands of pages of foster-parent documents at a giant warehouse in Western Washington and under the direction of state officials. The state routinely discards records more than six years old – unless a child welfare worker marks the records for safekeeping.
“We have to have a reason to keep them,” said Connie Morlin, a regional supervisor with the state’s foster care program. “We had people who had been investigated for allegations of abuse and neglect, and it stayed on their record indefinitely.”
Morlin said some people were denied jobs because of allegations in their files that may not have been true – calls from spouses in child custody disputes, angry neighbors or others who made accusations without evidence.
But in the case of a 12-year-old girl in DeLeon’s care, identified in documents only as Mary, the state destroyed a record of an incident deemed serious enough that the girl was removed from the home, according to court records.
A state report said the girl’s injuries were “shocking.” A physician found belt marks on the girl’s thighs, rope burns on her wrists and cuts and bruises that indicated she had been repeatedly struck, according to court records.
Mary told officials that DeLeon and her boyfriend had bound her wrists and left her in a basement for 10 hours as punishment for eating three packages of cheese.
Today, Child Protective Services is aware of the occurrence only because the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department kept an incident report. When 7-year-old Tyler died in January, a longtime deputy remembered DeLeon’s name and pulled the file, sheriff’s Capt. Michael George said.
“We don’t try to destroy anything that is unsolved of a criminal nature,” said George, who plans to forward the case to Prosecutor Jerry Wetle on Tuesday.
As Stevens County tries to unravel details of the criminal case, state officials have launched investigations into how DeLeon secured the foster-parent license and whether CPS should have removed Tyler DeLeon from the home after multiple allegations of injuries.
Morlin said none of the allegations against DeLeon since 1996 was “founded,” meaning the agency did not believe child abuse or neglect had occurred.
A 21-year-old woman who allowed DeLeon to adopt her daughter born six months ago described DeLeon on Friday as a “perfect mother.”
The woman researched several families before settling on DeLeon, who allows her to visit the infant every week and during holidays.
“By seeing the other kids, I’ve developed a relationship with them, too,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are a loving family. They just love each other to death.”
Mike Bradford, 26, a relative of Tyler’s, said he’s known DeLeon for about five years. “She’s a great lady.”
Bradford, who often visits the DeLeon home, said Tyler had been sick with the flu for about a week before he died. In fact, Bradford believes Tyler passed the flu to him.
Both Bradford and the young mother believe DeLeon should have all the children returned.
“She’s taking care of my baby just fine,” the woman said. “There is no reason she wouldn’t take care of the other kids just the same.”
Officials at Lake Spokane Elementary School, where Tyler attended, reported concerns about the boy’s health to Child Protective Services. DeLeon asked the school to closely monitor Tyler’s eating and drinking and to punish the boy if he drank his milk before lunch.
A school employee told a sheriff’s detective that DeLeon told her to “push Tyler away if he initiated any affection to her because he was just using that to be in control,” according to a Sheriff’s Department report written last month.
The Sheriff’s Department also investigated DeLeon’s adult daughter, Christina Burns-DeLeon, who lived at the home. Tyler told school officials that Burns-DeLeon once kicked him down a flight of stairs, according to court documents.
Frank Silva, Carole Ann DeLeon’s brother, said Burns-DeLeon operated a day care at the home in rural southern Stevens County. She baby-sat Tyler on the day of his death, Bradford said.
An official with the state’s child-care licensing agency said she could find no record that Burns-DeLeon is a licensed provider.
The school alerted social workers about bruises covering the boy’s face on Jan. 4. CPS did not visit Tyler at home in the nine days leading up to his death Jan. 13.
The agency said workers have 10 days to respond to a report. Gov. Christine Gregoire’s office released a statement Friday calling the 10-day time frame “unacceptable.”