Navy officials said Tuesday they made two calls to the county’s child-abuse hot line last week to express concern about the welfare of three children who died Monday in a fire authorities believe was set by the children’s mother, a despondent Navy wife.
County officials acknowledge receiving one of the calls, but said they never opened a file on the case or sent a caseworker to investigate whether the children were in danger and needed to be removed from the home.
“Our worker never felt that that (the possibility of danger) had been communicated to her,” said Ray Fellers, deputy director for Children’s Services. “The worker’s understanding was that the concern dealt with whether there was adequate food and finances available to the family.”
Monday’s house fire on Brandywood Street in Paradise Hills claimed the lives of 36-year-old Esperanza Cabalbag and her three children: Jamie, 9; Tamara, 7; and Filomeno Jr., 5. San Diego homicide detectives say they suspect the blaze was intentionally set by Mrs. Cabalbag, who had been depressed for some time over financial and other family problems.
The Navy wife threatened suicide in a letter received last week by her husband, Filomeno, a senior chief machinist mate who has been at sea since Dec. 1 on the guided missile destroyer Henry B. Wilson. The suicide threat prompted police to visit Mrs. Cabalbag on March 15, when they confiscated a shotgun and advised her to seek counseling for her depression.
Navy officials also said they were so concerned about Mrs. Cabalbag’s chronic depression that they called the hot line, used to report child abuse or neglect. Navy officials said Monday that a worried chaplain called the hot line March 16 and was promised immediate action because of the “urgent situation” involving the Cabalbag children.
On Tuesday, a Navy spokesman, Cmdr. Dave Dillon said that, two days before the chaplain had called the hot line, a call had been made by a Navy ombudsman to report Mrs. Cabalbag’s troubled emotional state.
“She called the hot line and expressed her belief that the woman may have been heading in the direction of suicidal tendencies,” said Dillon. “The (agency) gave assurances that somebody would take action within 24 hours.”
Dillon said that the ombudsman, whom he declined to identify, told the Children’s Services employee that the family “didn’t have a lot of food or any food in the house and that the woman was a little bit withdrawn.”
At one point during the hot-line call, the Children’s Services employee asked the ombudsman directly whether Mrs. Cabalbag exhibited suicidal tendencies.
“She said they were were definitely heading in that direction,” said Dillon, adding that the ombudsman was assured that the county agency would “do something within 24 hours.”
Denies Receiving Call
Fellers said his agency has no record of the call. “As far as I’m concerned, we never received a call on the hot line about it on the 14th,” he said.
He added, however, that reports of parents’ suicidal tendencies usually prompt an emergency investigation by the county agency, which would determine whether the children should be removed from the home for their own protection.
“If we have what we feel is a pretty credible report of someone suicidal, yeah, we’re going to go out,” said Fellers. “We do that immediately, we get one of our emergency response workers to head on out.”
Asked if the agency would consider a call from a Navy ombudsman a credible report, Fellers said: “Generally speaking, yes we would.”
Fellers said his agency’s records show only the March 16 call from the Navy chaplain about the Cabalbags. Citing confidentiality laws, he declined to identify the hot-line worker who took the call or to release her written notes about the conversation, which county officials have maintained centered on where the family could find more money for food.
Fellers defended his agency’s decision not to open a file or immediately investigate the problems with the Cabalbag family, adding that the employee who took the chaplain’s call is a “very experienced worker” with four years of hot-line work.
Yet the Navy’s Dillon said Tuesday that the chaplain did more than tell the county agency the Cabalbag family needed money and food.
“He was concerned about the children . . . based on the woman’s mental state as he observed it. She was obviously agitated and upset, and things were bearing down on her.”
A Navy source, who asked not to be identified, stressed that the calls from the ombudsman and chaplain should have underscored to Children’s Services workers that the Cabalbag youngsters were in danger. The Navy has a variety of resources to deal with immediate hunger problems or destitution, the source said.
Police Removed Gun
“If a mother’s suicidal, and the father is seven zillion miles away, it is obvious there is a dysfunction in the family,” said the source. “If a call comes in from the . . . ombudsman, it’s already serious.”
Sgt. Ed Petrick of the San Diego Police homicide division said Tuesday that two police officers visited Mrs. Cabalbag on March 15 and confiscated a shotgun after discussing her written suicide threat.
“They said, ‘If you were going to commit suicide, what would you do it with?’ ” Petrick said. “She said, ‘Well, my husband’s got a gun.’ They said, ‘Gee, would you mind if we took it from you for safekeeping?’ ”
Petrick also said that investigators at the fire scene have found three canisters of kerosene in the house, where many fires were started early Monday morning. One fire was started where family photos were piled up near the living room couch, doused with kerosene and then lit, said Petrick.
A spokesman for the county coroner’s office said Tuesday that autopsies on two of the Cabalbag children showed that they died of smoke inhalation. Autopsies for Mrs. Cabalbag and the third child had not been completed by late Tuesday, he said.
Filomeno Cabalbag was informed of the tragedy late Monday and was scheduled to leave his ship for emergency leave in San Diego. The Navy declined to divulge the ship’s location.