Grandmother Blames County in Latest Death of Foster Child

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives asked prosecutors Monday to charge a 53-year-old foster mother with murder for allegedly beating to death a 3-year-old girl authorities had placed in her care, department officials said.

Doris Jean Bennett of Willowbrook was given custody of both Gilbreania Wallace and her older sister Cashey, 5, after county social workers took the girls from their maternal grandmother, who then began waging a court fight to get them back.

Florence Wallace, 50, said in an interview that she lost custody of the girls two years ago after her house was flooded and county authorities deemed it unfit for children.

Although county officials Monday said they could find no record of the statements, Wallace said that over the past two months she repeatedly complained to social workers that her grandchildren were being beaten. Once, she alleged, Bennett shook Gilbreania in front of a social worker.

Gilbreania was admitted to King/Drew Medical Center in a coma June 6 and died Friday. Her grandmother will have a court hearing Wednesday on her request to regain custody of Cashey.

"If I'd have dreamed that the government would do this to me," Wallace said Monday, "I would have taken my babies, and they would have had to look for them. They would be safe and today both my babies would be living. It wouldn't have been right, but I would have done it."

Gilbreania's death comes at a tumultuous time for the county's Department of Children and Family Services, the nation's largest child welfare agency, which is responsible for protecting her and 70,000 other abused and neglected children.

The agency's longtime and controversial director abruptly resigned in April, and last month another 3-year-old child died in foster care after his mother had repeatedly complained about the conditions of the home in which the county had placed him. That death sparked a protest march on department headquarters last week. A candlelight vigil is planned for tonight in Leimert Park in the wake of the latest death.

Schuyler Sprowles, a department spokesman, said that statistically, "foster parents have been far and away the safest environment" for dependent children. The system has a record of better results than reuniting children with troubled parents or placing them with relatives, he said.

In the current case, Sprowles said, the department took extra steps to protect Gilbreania and Cashey by placing them with a well-regarded foster family agency, Grace Homes, which screens foster parents and supplements county social workers with its own.

Sprowles said the department is launching an investigation of Grace Homes "to make sure the rest of the kids are safe" and will not refer any more children to the operation during the probe. Grace Homes oversees about 250 children from the county, he said.

Grace Homes officials did not return a phone call for comment Monday afternoon.

Wallace was caring for four of her grandchildren when the pipes in the South-Central house she was renting broke in 1997, flooding the basement with sewage, she said. County social workers, who had placed all the children with their grandmother, then determined the home was unfit for them.

One grandchild was sent to stay with an aunt. Another, now 8, Wallace said, was put into foster care and raped, and is currently in a mental hospital.

The two youngest, Gilbreania and Cashey, were sent to one foster home where Wallace said they were happy. But in April they were transferred to Grace Homes, which placed them briefly with a new foster mother before sending them to Bennett's home.

Wallace said Bennett told her she did not want the responsibility of looking after the girls. During Wallace's weekly visits, she said, Bennett complained of headaches, and the girls cried and asked to come home. Cashey told her grandmother that Bennett was beating Gilbreania, and during visits, Wallace said, she saw the girl with a black eye and cut lip.

Wallace said that she complained three times to social workers, and that on Cashey's birthday, May 30, Bennett shook Gilbreania for not praying correctly. When Wallace asked the county social worker who was present to do something, she reportedly replied that a judge had already ordered Gilbreania to stay with Bennett and that her hands were tied.

That judge, Wallace said, told her at a May 29 court hearing that he would send Gilbreania back to her home soon. But Wallace saw her alive for the last time just a week later.

Gilbreania was bruised and barely conscious. Wallace said she remembered holding her and feeling her nodding off to sleep. She said the 3-year-old barely had enough strength to whisper her parting words: "I love you. I really love you."

The next day, Bennett brought Gilbreania to King-Drew Medical Center with trauma to the upper body, sheriff's officials said. Detectives arrested Bennett on suspicion of child abuse and she was held in lieu of $80,000 bail. Now, they say, they want the charges raised to murder.

Wallace said her nightmare is not over because social workers told her they cannot confirm that Cashey is her biological granddaughter and are beginning adoption proceedings. Wallace will try to regain custody of the girl at the Wednesday hearing in Dependency Court.

Wallace this weekend began raising money for her granddaughter's funeral, and family, friends and neighbors held a carwash in the Crenshaw district Monday to raise money for burial expenses.

But Sprowles, the Children and Family Services spokesman, said the county had pledged last week to pay $5,000 toward the funeral. Wallace said she had not received a firm commitment until Monday afternoon.

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