The South Los Angeles foster mother under investigation in the fatal beating of a 2-year-old child had been the subject of five previous child-abuse complaints, including one substantiated allegation that she had severely neglected her own biological child in 2002, confidential records show.
Kiana Barker's troubled history, coming in the wake of disclosures about her live-in boyfriend's criminal record, has raised questions about how she could have been approved last year as a foster parent by child-welfare authorities. Under state rules, both adults should have been disqualified from caring for or living with foster children.
Barker's home was supposed to have been a refuge for Viola Vanclief, born in 2007 to a schizophrenic mother who proved dangerously neglectful when off her medications. Instead, confidential child-welfare records reviewed by The Times show, Viola was moved from one high-risk home to another.
After Viola's March 4 death, Barker told investigators that the toddler had been trapped in a bed frame and that she accidentally struck the child with a hammer while trying to free her, according to coroner's records. Viola had multiple bruises on her body, the records say. The death was deemed a homicide caused by blunt-force trauma.
Barker and James Julian were arrested on suspicion of murder, then released after prosecutors sent the case back to the police and coroner for further investigation.
Neither Barker nor Julian could be reached for comment.
Two weeks after Viola's death, child-welfare officials still are unable to say why Barker's past had not ruled her out as a foster parent.
"I'm still in the information-gathering phase," said Trish Ploehn, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services director. "I'm still pulling the state regs to determine who was responsible to assess the history and who was responsible to follow up following the subsequent hotline calls. It's a complicated and complex analysis."
Jeff Hiratsuka, head of the state Community Care Licensing Division, which is responsible for licensing foster parents, was unable to explain why the 2002 substantiated-neglect probe did not lead his workers to disqualify Barker when she applied in 2005 for a child-care license and in 2009 for foster-care certification.
Hiratsuka said it was unclear whether Barker's history had not been reported to the state database by county workers, or if it had been reported and overlooked by his staff.
"We need to gather more information," said Lizelda Lopez, a spokeswoman for the state agency.
Reached Wednesday, Viola's sister, 23-year-old Sonja Vanclief of Columbus, Ohio, said the family regretted that Viola had ever been taken away from her mother, Olivia. "These people should go and do whatever time," she said, referring to Barker and Julian. "Viola was a baby and she was defenseless, and they were supposed to protect her."
As for the county, "they are sloppy," said Sonja Vanclief, who was herself placed in foster care as a child.
Viola first came to the attention of Ploehn's department shortly after her birth when child-welfare investigators determined that her schizophrenic mother was not taking her medication, according to the records. Viola was briefly removed from the biological mother's care and then, as is common practice, reunified with her as the county tried to help the woman care for her infant.
But seven months later, the investigators determined that the mother was still not taking her medication, was using cocaine and had violently attacked another person. The county initiated court proceedings to terminate the mother's parental rights, the records show.
The infant was later placed with Barker, 30, who has two children of her own. It is unclear whether county social workers at that time were aware of the five previous complaints against Barker.
The records show, however, that county Children and Family Services investigators substantiated the severe neglect charge in 2002 -- a finding that should have placed Barker on the California attorney general’s database consulted by employers and regulators to vet foster parents and other child-care providers.
Details of the 2002 case and others were not contained in the records reviewed by The Times.
Over subsequent years, callers continued to report abuse or neglect by Barker but social workers were unable to substantiate the complaints, the records show. In 2005, someone accused Barker of emotionally abusing a child and investigators deemed the allegation unfounded. In July 2008, a caller alleged neglect of two foster children -- a charge deemed inconclusive. One month later, Barker was accused of general neglect and sexual abuse of foster children. Investigators determined the neglect charge to be inconclusive and the sexual-abuse charge unfounded. Three months later, investigators concluded another complaint of sexual abuse of a foster child was unfounded.
Under state rules, the inconclusive cases should have beenentered into the state database and might have precluded a state license.
In addition, the records show, Barker's boyfriend went undetected in Barker's home over the course of the couple's three-year relationship. Julian, who is known as "Big Bird," is also under investigation in Viola's death, and was convicted in 1992 of armed robbery -- a fact that should have disqualified him from living in a home certified for foster care.
When Barker applied to become a foster parent, state regulators apparently did not discover his presence -- despite the three 2008 child-abuse investigations that should have documented everyone living in the home, the records show.
The foster care agency that Barker worked for, United Care Inc., also had a record of problems. The agency, which contracts with the county and oversees 88 homes with 216 foster children, repeatedly has been cited in recent years after caregivers choked, hit and whipped their charges with a belt. In 2007, a foster child under the agency's care drowned while swimming unsupervised in a pool.
Viola's death comes as Ploehn's department is facing scrutiny in the deaths of more than 30 children who passed through the county's child-welfare system over the last two years. All but two cases have involved children killed while in the custody of their own parents.
A series of reforms has been initiated by Ploehn and the county Board of Supervisors, but Viola's death indicates that communication among key personnel remains a serious problem.
It also shows that the L.A. County system sometimes affords abused children no good alternatives.
"The options are few and they are not well-researched or investigated, and we are not getting the right people to care for these children," said Jorja Leap, a child-welfare expert at UCLA. "My 16-year-old daughter was subjected to more scrutiny to obtain her driver's license than this woman underwent to become a foster parent."
Times staff researchers Kent Coloma and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times