A Tucson woman was allowed to adopt the foster child she is accused of scalding, even though a relative says he warned the adoption agency she was unstable and abusive.
Samantha Osteraas, 28, was arrested Jan. 5 on child-abuse charges after the 5-year-old girl she adopted last year with her husband, Justin Osteraas, suffered third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body.
In an interview with Pima County sheriff’s detectives, Justin Osteraas’ brother said he had advised the adoption licensing agency, Christian Family Care, that “Samantha had mental issues and had a breakdown in the past.”
He said he told them his sister-in-law had been physically and emotionally abusive toward his brother for years and that he was “very frustrated” when the agency “licensed them anyway.”
Mark Upton, president and chief executive officer of Christian Family Care, said the agency is grieving the child’s suffering and praying for her quick recovery.
“In 2015, our agency was involved with St. Nick’s and the Arizona Department of Child Safety in the certification of the family to adopt (the girl),” Upton said in an emailed statement. “We all are concerned about the welfare of Arizona’s children and no one wants to see ... any child suffer.”
The other adoption agency he referred to, St. Nick’s or St. Nicholas of Myra Center, has since closed.
Records on licensing for foster care and adoption are private and state officials cannot discuss the Osteraas case, said Darren DaRonco, a public information officer with the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
The brother interviewed by sheriff’s detectives said Justin Osteraas confided that “Samantha had made death threats” toward him and that his brother was “truly afraid of Samantha.”
He said Justin Osteraas kept a journal about his wife at his workplace and instructed relatives that if he were found dead to “get his journal because it would be Samantha.”
Additionally, Samantha Osteraas accumulated a high level of debt, her brother-in-law said, and would threaten to “beat herself up and claim domestic violence” whenever Justin Osteraas threatened divorce. She drank daily, he said.
A friend of Justin Osteraas’ also was interviewed by detectives and said he and his wife had distanced themselves from the Osteraas family in the last two years because of Samantha Osteraas’ increasingly erratic behavior. The couple would no longer let their children play at the Osteraas house because of Samantha Osteraas, the friend said, who had “not been very stable lately and has mental issues.”
The Osteraases moved here from Seattle and were married in 2010, according to court records.
They became foster parents to the girl in October 2015 and adopted her the next summer, according to law enforcement and DCS records. The couple have three biological children, as well.
When paramedics arrived at their home shortly after 8 p.m. Dec. 29, they reported that Samantha Osteraas was hysterical, saying she didn’t realize she had bathed her daughter in scalding water.
One deputy who responded to the 911 call reported he was “taken aback on the color of the girl’s skin,” which was bright red and almost a purplish hue.”
Deputies also noted bruises to the girl’s neck and left arm, and saw blood and signs of trauma on her upper lip.
Her feet began turning black after she arrived at the hospital, and doctors believed they were at risk for amputation.
A doctor interviewed in the report said she was in organ failure due to extreme heat. Her major veins were clotted and her body was unresponsive to re-hydration — all of which were indications she had been left for five hours without treatment, the doctor wrote.
There were also “no indicators that the extensive burns were accidental.”
“The child should have been able to react by screaming or quickly attempting to get out and there were some indicators, in his opinion, that the child was held down,” the report said, quoting the doctor.
After the girl’s hair was cut during surgery, doctors found bruising on her head, and noted signs of new and old injuries.
Sheriff Mark Napier called it “a tragic incident that hits all of us very hard.”
The child remains hospitalized in stable condition and is alert and undergoing therapy, said Chief Deanna Johnson, head of the Sheriff Department’s investigation bureau.
When detectives interviewed Samantha Osteraas, they encountered inconsistencies about what had happened to her daughter and what she was doing at the time.
She told detectives that she turned on the faucet and plugged the bathtub drain before leaving the room to do laundry and watch a TV show, and that when she returned to the bathroom 15 minutes later, the child was slumped over the side of the tub after getting in on her own.
“I asked Samantha to explain how she could do the laundry and watch half an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ which would be about half an hour, (and) the water to the tub ... had not overflowed,” a detective wrote in a report.
She told the responding deputy that she went to the bathroom because she heard whimpering, but later told a detective that she didn’t hear any screams or cries coming from the bathroom because she was “doing a lot of things at the same time” and had also turned on music.
She told detectives that after she pulled the girl out, she burned her own hand in the bathwater while pulling the drain plug and had to rinse it under cold water for several seconds.
Photographs of Samantha Osteraas taken at the scene showed “what appeared to be small scratch marks” on her forearms, but there was no coloration indicating she had been burned, a detective noted.
In addition to caring for her four children that day, Samantha Osteraas was baby-sitting two other children who had gone home with their father between 3 and 4 p.m.
She told detectives she has a prescription for Aderall, which she takes twice a day “so she can better focus,” and drank two beers that night. A search of the home found two empty beer bottles near the top of the trash can, and a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the kitchen counter.
Detectives asked questions about how she disciplined her children, which she said included timeouts and spanking under the clothes, “on their skin.”
She denied any problems in her marriage but said she’d previously had an affair and had sent text messages to other men.
Cellphone records revealed that she called her husband and a neighbor multiple times before dialing 911 that night.
Detectives also found previous text messages with a man in which Samantha Osteraas discussed divorcing her husband and asked how much money she could get for child support.
On Jan. 12, detectives met Justin Osteraas at the hospital while he was there for a visit with his daughter, who opened her eyes and “grinned at Justin upon seeing him.” At that point, the girl was answering yes or no questions by nodding her head.
Justin Osteraas told detectives he was shocked by his wife’s cellphone records and that while he couldn’t believe she would intentionally hurt their child, “what Samantha had told him happened did not make any sense to him, and he had to question her how it happened.”
He also said that he’d had to remove Samantha Osteraas from their checking account because of her wasteful spending.
When detectives asked about life insurance policies for the family, Justin Osteraas said that they had $10,000 policies for each of the children.
As part of the investigation, a plumber was brought to the home to examine the hot water heater and test the water temperatures from faucets, which tested between 130 and 140 degrees.
The plumber noted that the hot water control knob had been turned to the hottest level, and said owners are typically advised “not to turn the heat setting higher than 120 degrees, as anything hotter will cause scalds.”
A detective who spoke to a DCS employee noted that part of a foster parent’s required training includes inspection of the home’s hot water heater. Before January 2016, foster parents were required to have their water heater set under 120 degrees, and the Osteraases became licensed while that rule was in effect.
During interviews with employees from Children’s Advocacy Center, the Osteraas’ 3-year-old son said he didn’t see anything but heard “big cries” coming from the bathroom when his sister was taking her bath. Their 5-year-old said that he heard his mom put toys in the tub and his sister falling on the toys, after which he heard his mom tell the girl to “be quiet.”
The Osteraases’ three biological children were removed from the home after the incident and have been placed in foster care, according to DCS records.
The DCS did not take custody of the victim, and her adoptive parents still have control over medical decisions, the sheriff’s report says.
Samantha Osteraas, who was released from Pima County jail on Jan. 26 on a $25,000 bond, petitioned the court Thursday to modify her conditions of release, which bar her from having contact with the victim and any other minor children.
In a motion filed Feb. 14 in Pima County Superior Court, her attorney, Jeff Rogers, said his client wishes to reunite with her other children, and can’t begin taking the necessary steps with the DCS until she’s allowed supervised contact with her children.
The motion also said that Samantha Osteraas is planning to move out of the home she shares with her husband, so that he can regain custody of their children “as soon as possible.”
“The defendant anticipates that she will be required to move out of the home by DCS and will have to live with a friend,” the motion says. “In those circumstances, the defendant may have incidental contact with minors but always in the presence of other adults.”
Samantha Osteraas attends church every week and will also have “incidental” contact with minors in those situations, the motion said.
The motion did not seek visitation with the victim.
Superior Court Judge Jane Eikleberry granted Osteraas’ motion, saying that the visitation with her three biological children would be controlled by Pima County Juvenile Court and the DCS, Rogers said Thursday.
“This doesn’t mean that visitations will happen, it just means that we won’t have to come back to Superior Court with this issue,” he said, adding that Juvenile Court will make the final decision.
Before living with the Osteraases, the child was removed from her biological parents in 2013 and placed by state authorities in the Sierra Vista home of foster parent David Frodsham, where she lived with other foster children until 2015.
Frodsham was arrested last year after federal authorities accused him of sexual misconduct with children and of providing a child to an alleged child pornographer for sexual contact. Frodsham pleaded guilty to counts involving a child over the age of 15.
The burn victim’s biological mother, whose rights to the child were severed by a judge in 2015, petitioned Juvenile Court last week to remove the girl from the Osteraases’ legal custody and declare her a ward of the court under DCS control. Her motion was denied.
“We all are concerned about the welfare of Arizona’s children
and no one wants to see ... any child suffer.” Mark Upton, president and chief executive officer of Christian Family Care