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Delylah Tara

SALINAS -- The tragic deaths of Shaun and Delylah Tara, whose bodies were found last December in a Northern California storage locker, again have thrust the state's Child Protective Services departments into a harsh spotlight, raising questions about whether the agencies can truly protect the state's most vulnerable children.

Despite high-profile child abuse and neglect cases, including many in the Bay Area, authorities have been slow to make substantive changes to the often underfunded and undermanned agencies, experts said.

In the horrific case of Shaun, 6, Delylah, 3, and their 9-year-old half sister, 135 pages of Monterey CPS documents obtained by this newspaper -- and the state's highly critical review of the case -- found that social workers called repeatedly to the home in 2015 violated five state regulations and ignored best practices intended to keep children safe.

A car drives by as candles glow at a makeshift memorial outside the apartment where Tami Joy Huntsman lived on Fremont Street in Salinas on Friday December
A car drives by as candles glow at a makeshift memorial outside the apartment where Tami Joy Huntsman lived on Fremont Street in Salinas on Friday December 18, 2015. (David Royal, Monterey Herald)

But that branch of CPS is not alone. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that in about 12 percent of all 2014 child fatalities involving abuse and neglect, the families had prior contact with CPS. During that year, 3.2 million children were the subject of at least one CPS report and 1,546 kids died from maltreatment, 70 percent of those under the age of 3. Of those fatalities, 131 were in California.

Bill Grimm, senior attorney with Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, said CPS agencies throughout the state make the same mistakes over and over. He recommended a legislative oversight hearing to improve the quality of investigations.


"The state gathers data about how quickly the agency responds to a report of suspected abuse, but this is a very poor measure," said Grimm, who has researched similar fatal abuse cases. "It tells us nothing about the quality of the investigation. Until adequate criteria are adopted and applied to assessing the quality of investigations, these tragedies will not end."

On Feb. 28, 2-year-old foster child Kelly Nguyen died in Santa Clara County two months after social workers placed the girl, who suffered from a chromosomal birth defect, with her biological father in a transitional home for recovering drug addicts following his release from jail. While not being treated as a homicide, that case has raised questions about the South Bay agency tasked with overseeing vulnerable children.

In 2008, 15-year-old Jazzmin Davis, of Antioch, died after years of abuse by her caretaker aunt. San Francisco social workers violated state regulations in overseeing the foster child, such as failing to check in with her doctors and other "collateral contacts." Her twin brother received a $4 million settlement from the city and $750,000 from the Antioch Unified School District.

Jazzmin's death did prompt some local changes: The school district implemented new procedures to monitor student attendance, and the San Francisco Human Services Agency, which oversees foster care social workers, said it increased caseworker supervision and stopped exempting some homes from monthly visits.

The attorney for Jazzmin's brother said that because of confidentiality laws, these cases often go unheard, and that slows any reforms. In 2007, a new state law made CPS reports public for children killed in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, which has shined a light on concerns but also leaves the nonfatal cases largely a mystery.

"It's almost set up for a cover-up," said El Cerrito attorney Darren Kessler, who has litigated CPS cases for 25 years. "Anything done to keep it under wraps is done."

Jazzmin, who was beaten with a padlock attached to a belt, a broken closet rod, carpet tack strips and a clothes iron in her aunt's Antioch home, was failed by a chain of weak links in the protective system, Kessler said.

The same year, Contra Costa health officials paid $300,000 to the biological parents of a girl who died in foster care. Deonna Green was nearly 3 years old, yet weighed only 19 pounds, when she died in 2006. She was being fed baking soda by her guardian. The agency announced reforms, including new health clinics for foster children and a computer tracking system for those kids in the county health system.

Those types of changes -- which are usually in reaction to well-publicized tragedies -- are often piecemeal and patched together by individual agencies rather than broad reforms that might help children throughout the state and country.

But last month, a federal commission charged with developing a national strategy to eliminate child abuse released the results of a two-year probe that delved into case studies, examined what went wrong and what can be done to stop vulnerable children from falling through the cracks. The National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities commission estimated that between four and eight children will die every day from abuse and neglect unless major reforms are made. The commission criticized the lack of communication among various agencies, and issued several recommendations for agencies and states to follow to save children's lives, among them:

  • Conduct a five-year review of past abuse and neglect fatalities to identify family and systemic circumstances.

  • Review policies on screening reports of abuse and neglect to ensure those most at risk -- under ages 1 and 3 -- are prioritized for service.

  • Identify ways to share information among CPS and law enforcement and other critical agencies.

  • Enact federal legislation designating professionals who will be identified as mandated reporters of abuse or neglect.

    In the case of Shaun and Delylah, social workers spent most of their time trying to keep the children under the care of their guardian, Tami Huntsman, rather than taking them into protective custody or placing them with other relatives. The paper trail shows multiple failures to fully investigate serious accusations of abuse, including a screener who failed to start an investigation in October after receiving a report of the kids being zip-tied to a bed.

    By mid-December, the children were dead, stuffed in plastic bins in a Redding storage unit, and their half sister was found in Plumas County, severely beaten and starving.

    Huntsman and her then-17-year-old boyfriend, Gonzalo Curiel, have since been charged with murder, torture and great bodily harm and are awaiting trial in Monterey County.

    The director of Monterey County's Department of Social Services defended his agency's handling of the case, saying a social worker cannot pull a child into protective custody unless there are "exigent circumstances," meaning the child is in immediate danger of bodily harm and there is no time to secure a warrant.

    "Despite the tragic outcome, those kind of ... circumstances did not seem to exist during the investigations," Director Elliott Robinson said in an email to this newspaper. "We are continuing to assess how these children's cases were handled. We always look for ways to improve, especially when cases end up in tragic circumstances like these."

    The department is hiring six more social workers, transferring an experienced supervisor to its intake unit, and has reached an agreement with the Superior Court to start a warrant process for investigations and protective custody.

    At the time of the children's' deaths, Monterey County had 58 social workers and about $14.9 million in funding spread over various programs. Based on complicated state funding, Robinson said they struggle to keep social worker caseloads at a reasonable level.

    "Am I underfunded? Yeah," he said. "We're close to crossing the bridge where I start screaming, 'What are you guys doing to me?' "

    Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at

    [[[Normal]]][[[Normal]]]{"Infobox Head"/}cps violations
    {"Infobox Text"/}California Department of Social Services officials found Monterey County social workers violated numerous state regulations or best practices last year while monitoring Shaun and Delylah Tara, 6 and 3, respectively, along with their 9-year-old half sister:
    {"Body Text Bullet"/}n When a social worker received a mandated abuse report that included allegations Shaun and Delylah were zip-tied to a bed, she sent police to conduct a welfare check. They knocked and when no one answered, they left. No further investigation was done, and Shaun and Delylah were dead a month later.
    The social worker, after receiving a referral of an endangered child, was required to launch an emergency protocol or in-person investigation within 10 days. The department said the report "was reportedly mistaken as a duplicate to a previously investigated referral."
  • Shaun told a social worker his siblings were being beaten with a belt, but the social worker had been only probing a report of neglect. The new allegation should have been added to the investigation and the social worker failed to properly investigate the belt abuse, such as interviewing the accused, a teenage boy in the house.
  • The oldest sister was given to Tami Huntsman by the girl's stepfather, who was not her biological father, and Monterey social workers should have further investigated whether the girl belonged in Huntsman's custody.
  • Two referrals for the children were open longer than 100 days and remained open at the time of the children's deaths. Those types of investigations should terminate within 30 days of the in-person visits "to ensure that investigations of child abuse and neglect, and needed services, are provided timely," the state said.
  • On multiple instances, the social worker failed to conduct body checks on all the children to check for evidence of physical abuse after the referral mentioned allegations of belt striking and children being tied up, particularly since the "family was evasive."