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Proposals focus on preventing deaths like Summer’s

Summer Phelps (Courtesy Family / The Spokesman-Review)
Summer Phelps (Courtesy Family / The Spokesman-Review)

Four-year-old Summer Phelps died March 11, 2007, after being burned, beaten and drowned. Her father and stepmother were sentenced in January to long prison terms for causing her death.

Today, the Department of Social and Health Services Children’s Administration issued its “Executive Child Fatality Review” report in the case, examining the actions of Child Protective Services employees and making recommendations that could help prevent a similar death in the future.

CPS had eight referrals on the case before Summer died, most of them when she resided with her biological mother. The mother accused the father of sexually molesting Summer. He later contacted CPS claiming Summer’s biological mother had abandoned her.

Among the report’s recommendations:

– Agencies that help at-risk children should be able to share information that identifies high-risk families. Summer eventually moved in with her father and stepmother. The stepmother’s infant, Summer’s half-brother, was being seen by nurses and other professionals from Medicaid-funded programs targeting at-risk mothers and their newborns. But the professionals were unaware of the family’s CPS history.

– CPS supervisors should review every referral, regardless of the decision made after the screening, keeping in mind the history of the entire family. Supervisors may have more experience spotting patterns of recurring and severe abuse that might be happening over time in a family, as was the case with Summer’s family.

– The (visiting nurse) programs restrict services to the childbearing woman and her infant. The report recommended that DSHS see if options exist to expand the services to other children in the home, based on need.

Child Fatality Reviews are limited in scope, and do not replace or supersede other investigations. “Nor is it the function or purpose of a Child Fatality Review to take personnel action or recommend such action against DSHS employees or other individuals,” according to the report.

Jonathan Lytle was sentenced to 75 years in prison – the longest homicide-by-abuse sentence in Washington state history – for his role in killing Summer. Adriana Lytle, Summer’s stepmother, was sentenced to 62 1/2 years.