Steller: New agency could save the next Roman Barreras

2014-06-01T00:00:00Z Steller: New agency could save the next Roman BarrerasTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 01, 2014 12:00 am  • 

For all the criticism that Child Protective Services workers get, they figured out the key problems in newborn Roman Barreras’ family right away.

In the end, the problem was their follow-through.

Newly released CPS documents from the case file on Roman, whose remains were found in March after he starved, include this observation:

“The father appears to be easily manipulated by the mother and is unable to be objective about the threat the mother poses to the children due to his relationship with her.”

Raquel Barreras’ neglect and drug abuse, the report says, leaves “Roman facing serious injury, grievous suffering, impairment and even death.”

That was in September 2010, less than two months after the boy was born, taken away by CPS and placed with a foster family. For the next two years, CPS workers kept up with their concerns. They took away Martin and Raquel Barreras’ other four children too, then gave back custody only to the father, Martin.

Until he regained full custody in August 2012, case workers repeatedly expressed concern that Raquel Barreras was back living with the family and that Martin wasn’t taking the threat she posed seriously.

Both remain jailed today, Martin Barreras charged with child abuse and Raquel Barreras charged with first-degree murder in Roman’s death.

The release of Roman’s case file this week — perhaps half of its hundreds of pages redacted — coincided with the passage of a bill establishing the new Department of Child Safety and providing it with $845 million in total annual funding, including a new $60 million in added funding. The governor appointed Charles Flanagan to take over the agency and end the pattern of allegations going uninvestigated and children going unprotected.

Would this new agency have saved Roman had it existed back in 2010? And will it save the next Roman? Those seem the key questions as the department gets started. The answers come in an examination of the details of his case.

Roman was born in July 2010 addicted to methadone, which Raquel Barreras had been taking in an effort to get off narcotic painkillers. She had not had any prenatal care, and hospital workers were forced to wean Roman from the drug, using a morphine drip before he was placed with a foster family.

CPS workers drew up a plan for Martin and Raquel to follow in order to get their kids back. Only Martin followed through, and a June 2011 report says he completed parenting training.

In October 2011, CPS worker Patricia Lara reported, “The father has engaged in services and the children have been transitioned or are in the process of being transitioned home. The mother remains out of the home, at this time.”

But suspicions continued that Raquel had returned.

“The father has not demonstrated he is in a position to protect his children from the mother’s substance abuse issues and allowed the mother back into the home against CPS recommendations,” one report said.

In November 2011 and again in January 2012 Lara reported visits, including one in which Martin Barreras acted strangely and she suspected Raquel had been living in the home. But Lara could not find the mother there and left with a warning that the children could be taken away if the Raquel was having unauthorized contact.

After CPS ended its dependency case in August 2012, the agency got a new report in November 2012, from someone whose name is obscured, worrying that Roman had not been out with the other kids on Halloween. CPS asked Tucson police to investigate, and though they found Roman “very thin,” and though CPS reiterated its concern that the mother was living in the home, “the allegations were found unsubstantiated.”

Late the following year — perhaps in December 2013, the kids later told police — Raquel Barreras was living in the home and stopped feeding Roman. She kept him locked in a laundry room, where he stayed in a crate layered with blankets and sheets, with no top.

Martin objected to the treatment and yelled at his wife, who would promise to feed him, but she wouldn’t, the kids said, according to the CPS reports from after Roman died. Martin would not intervene himself.

CPS received a final hotline report from someone worried about the little boy’s whereabouts in January 2014. CPS workers couldn’t find the family, who had moved since their last contact. That was it. Unbeknownst to anyone but the family, he was starving to death in the laundry room, or perhaps was already dead.

Roman’s remains were found on March 4, after the family had been evicted from the home on West Idaho Road and the landlord came to clean out the Barreras family’s belongings.

All along, the CPS workers’ insights were right, but their follow-through didn’t measure up.

There’s hope that the new department will stop a similar deterioration before it reaches a tragic end like Roman’s death, said Dana Wolfe Naimark, CEO of the Children’s Action Alliance. She helped push through the new bill and says three features of the new entity make it more likely to stop such a dynamic before a death happens.

One is that now families with multiple child-welfare reports have “a much higher level of scrutiny.” The Barreras’ family’s involvement with CPS dated back to March 2008, more than two years before Roman was born.

Another is that the new agency’s Office of Child Welfare Investigations is tasked with working closer with police to do cross training and work more closely on child abuse and neglect cases. Potentially, a police officer with more training would have seen something wrong with Roman’s “very thin” stature in November 2012 and perhaps would have asked about Raquel’s whereabouts.

Finally child-welfare investigators now have access to law-enforcement databases that they didn’t have before. That could allow them to find a flighty group like the Barreras family.

“These are features that could potentially change the outcome,” Wolfe Naimark said.

What a shame it’s taken the death of Roman, and so many children before him, for the state to make the changes that have the potential to save kids’ lives.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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