April 13, 2007 in City

Sirita’s story sparks reform push

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – It’s the memories that push Gary Malkasian.

He remembers the 3-year-old girl he and his wife took in as foster parents. He remembers her dancing and singing, her scrutiny of an anthill in a backyard stump, how he taught her to spot Mars in the southern sky.

That girl, Sirita Sotelo, is no more. Fourteen months after state caseworkers moved the girl in with her estranged father in Everett – her ninth home in four years – her stepmother gave her a cold shower and fatally beat her for wetting her pants. The 4-year-old had been dead for two hours before anyone called 911.

“By the time the aid car had come, rigor mortis had set in while you were watching a movie with your other children,” Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden told the stepmother, Heather Ewell, in 2005. She is serving an 8 1/2-year sentence for manslaughter.

But Malkasian is determined not to let Sirita’s horrific death be the end of the story. For two years, he has balanced his job as a software tester with frequent trips to Olympia, where he and others are seeking a long list of changes to help future foster children. The central goals are to prevent them from being returned to abusive parents, to get parents the support they need, and to avoid wrenching kids from one home to another.

“If people knew what these kids were going through, there’d be a lot more of a public outcry,” he said.

The bills stem from a legislative task force convened after Sirita’s death. After months of study, the group – which included Robin Arnold-Williams, head of the state Department of Social and Health Services, as well as Child Protective Services official Amy Kernkamp – proposed more than a dozen changes to state procedures and laws involving children.

Malkasian, one of the members of the task force, said most of the recommendations have been wrapped into bills now before lawmakers.

Malkasian says he has profoundly mixed feelings about how Sirita’s fate helped launch the changes.

“I don’t want her to be the sacrificial lamb,” he said, standing in a Capitol parking lot after waiting an hour to testify for a couple of minutes on one of the bills. But if there was ever a situation that highlighted serious flaws in the state’s foster-care system, he said, Sirita was it.

“Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong,” he said. “No more.”

Among the changes that Washington state lawmakers are considering:

“Giving parents priority for court-ordered services when there’s a risk that the state might take the child. In Sirita’s case, Ewell told investigators and the court that she was overwhelmed trying to care for five children and just “snapped.”

“What she did was an evil thing, but I don’t think she was an evil person looking to hurt a child,” Malkasian said. “She was in over her head.”

“Before returning a child to a parent’s home, identify and assess all caregivers. In Sirita’s case, the state fatality review said, social workers should have looked more closely at Ewell’s ability to care for Sirita.

“After the state twice removes a child from parents due to abuse or neglect allegations, a court must consider whether removing the child permanently would be in the best interests of the child. As things stand now, courts and child welfare officials are too slow to sever parental rights, Malkasian said, which often leaves children in a years-long limbo bouncing between foster parents and birth parents.

“We just can’t keep putting kids back into the same abusive situation over and over again,” he said.

“Social workers must provide more documentation when a judge is weighing whether to remove a child from the home. This bill, House Bill 1334, was triggered by the death of Raphael Gomez, a toddler beaten to death by his birth mother, from whom he had been taken repeatedly after a long series of severe injuries. Like Malkasian, Gomez’s foster parents in Royal City were horrified and left wondering whether they could have prevented the boy’s death.

“Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Commission must develop more training on child abuse, neglect and fatality investigations.

“Foster children over age 12 who have not been adopted can petition to have their parents’ parental rights restored. This gives children a chance to rejoin their families, provided a court decides that reuniting them is in the child’s best interests.

Also, unrelated to the Sirita legislation, lawmakers have passed Senate Bill 5839, intended to discourage false reports of abuse. Under current law, intentionally or maliciously filing a false report of abuse is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine or a year in jail. The bill makes it easier to prosecute such cases, and requires Child Protective Services to include a warning statement on abuse reporting documents. Also, CPS must send a certified letter to people who make false reports, warning that future violations will be referred to police for investigation. SB 5839 passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously.

As for Malkasian, he struggles with guilt that somehow he didn’t save Sirita. He says there are several problems that he’ll keep working on in Olympia, such as the drug abuse that underlies many cases of child abuse and neglect.

Malkasian built a Web site, www.siritalaw.com, that’s partly a running update on legislation and partly a memorial to Sirita’s life and his struggles with his own grief.

Dozens of photos are posted on the site: Sirita snuggled up on the couch with Malkasian’s wife, Magda. Sirita pedaling a tricycle or wearing a tiny backpack and staring at her reflection in a car’s shiny finish.

The couple remains foster parents.

“When you bring a child into your home, you make them part of that life,” Malkasian wrote in an online diary two years ago. “Foster care isn’t some juvenile hotel service; it’s about opening your heart and your home.”

Shortly after Sirita’s 2005 death, Malkasian, friends and family went to the Shoreline cemetery where she is buried. Malkasian released some balloons for her. “I do believe that I’ll see her again someday,” he said recently, pausing as he struggled with the words.

“I think we’re probably going to meet just a little past Mars,” he continued, “because she knows where that is.”

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