Last spring, a state worker cut short his investigation at a rural Stevens County foster home after a caregiver approached him with a chisel, according to internal Child Protective Services documents.
The caregiver, 28-year-old Christina Burns-DeLeon, became upset during questioning about burn marks on a foster child and yelled at the worker, according to a report filed on May 18, 2004.
“I saw that she had a chisel in her hand,” investigator Bob Tadlock wrote. “I asked her to please put the chisel down. She looked at me, then at the chisel and then took three more steps towards me.”
After the encounter, Tadlock told his supervisors at state headquarters in Olympia: “I strongly recommend that Christina no longer have contact with these children.”
But Burns-DeLeon continued to care for the children, according to court documents, CPS records and interviews. She was with Tyler DeLeon on Jan. 13, the day of his death, according to Mike Bradford, a relative of Tyler.
The Spokane Medical Examiner’s Office initially listed the cause of death as severe dehydration. The office said additional testing is being conducted, and the final cause of death may not be determined for several weeks.
Burns-DeLeon is listed as one of two suspects of homicide by abuse and criminal mistreatment in the death of 7-year-old Tyler, according to an incident report from the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department. The investigation into her possible role in Tyler’s death is illuminated by hundreds of pages of internal CPS reports obtained by The Spokesman-Review.
At the time of the May 2004 incident, Tadlock’s office was overseen by state officials in Olympia. Last fall, several months after the report was filed, oversight was transferred to the Spokane office, according to a state employee.
State officials in Olympia refused to comment on Tadlock’s recommendation. A CPS spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on details of the case until the investigation is complete.
“Our hands are tied,” said spokeswoman Kathy Spears. “We can’t release the records until the cause-of-death finding is in.”
Burns-DeLeon did not return phone calls to her home Monday. A Stevens County sheriff’s captain also did not return a phone call.
Both before and after Tadlock’s visit to the home, the state’s child welfare system received allegations that Burns-DeLeon – a state-paid caregiver – had injured children in her care. None was determined to be “founded,” meaning the agency did not believe abuse or neglect occurred.
Burns-DeLeon provided the care for her mother, 50-year-old Carole Ann DeLeon, who is Tyler’s adopted mother and has also been named as a suspect in Tyler’s death. The state’s Child Protective Services received reports that Tyler suffered a broken leg as a toddler, stitches and bruises on his face, and the boy’s own testimony that he was pushed down a flight of stairs at home, according to court records.
The May investigation began after officials at Lake Spokane Elementary School noticed burn marks on the face of Tyler’s foster brother. The school noted that the boy returned from a two-day absence from school with burn marks that were “blistering” and oozing pus.
The boy told a school worker that he placed his face in a bowl of hot oatmeal.
“He was apprehensive to talk to her about it,” according to the May 17 report. “He ran into the classroom and said he didn’t want to talk about it.”
Tyler told a school worker that Christina “had thrown the oatmeal at (the boy) and it had hit his face,” according to a state report.
Tadlock visited the home the following day and interviewed DeLeon and Burns-DeLeon.
“Christina became very upset during the conversation,” Tadlock wrote. “She began yelling that she was upset … “
The previous month, an investigator visited the home after receiving a report of an injury to Tyler, who had an abrasion about the size of a half-dollar on his abdomen, according to state documents. The report noted that “the house was very cluttered.” Dirt and empty pop bottles littered the floor, according to the report, and a dead sheep was visible in the back pen.
When the investigators asked how Tyler received the injury, he told them that Burns-DeLeon hit him with her hand and he fell down the stairs, according to CPS reports. His foster brother told the same story.
According to the report, Burns-DeLeon denied the allegation. She said Tyler tripped on the stairs while getting ready for school.
Larry Bell, a former foster parent who has known the family for four years, said Burns-DeLeon – as well as her mother – appeared to be an excellent caregiver.
“I think she’s amazing for as young as she is,” Bell said. “Most young people aren’t as responsible as she is.”
In interviews with the state investigators, DeLeon defended her daughter.
“I love Christina to death, but if she was beating my children I would not have her there,” she said in February, according to reports.
The reports also state a third foster child told Lake Spokane school officials that Burns-DeLeon hit the children with a spatula and her hand, according to the state reports.
The child told the school that “Tyler falls down the stairs on Wednesdays.” School officials told the agency that Tyler does not attend school on Wednesdays but is supervised at home by Burns-DeLeon.
The agency received multiple referrals about abuse or neglect at the DeLeon home, but none was determined to be founded, according to reports.
In the 1980s, three children left DeLeon’s care after reports of abuse and neglect in the home. DeLeon did not have a foster license at the time. She received a state license in 1996.
In February 2001, the agency received an allegation that DeLeon and Burns-DeLeon had struck a young girl in their care, resulting in bruises on her face. The caller said DeLeon told her that the girl fell down the stairs while walking in the dark, according to a CPS report.
On Jan. 4, 2005, the agency received a report from the school that Tyler had bruises on his nose, both cheeks and right eye. Tyler said he fell down the stairs, according to the CPS report.
The agency did not do a home visit, according to court records. Tyler died nine days later after being transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.