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Skid row baby died as social worker delayed

Times Staff Writers

The investigation into the death of a baby at a skid row shelter last month is focusing on a social worker who was ordered by a supervisor to take baby Jasmine from her mother to see a doctor but instead went home because she had worked a long shift without a break.

The social worker arrived early the next morning to find the 7-week-old child dead.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office has ruled the death a homicide, saying Jasmine died of starvation, dehydration and neglect even though she had lived all of her seven weeks with her mother at the Union Rescue Mission.

The social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services, whose name has not been released, had checked the child during an emergency visit early on Aug. 9, and had reported that the baby’s face was “narrow and skinny.”

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She made an appointment for the child at a nearby clinic but learned later that day that the mother hadn’t kept the appointment.

When her supervisor then told her to take Jasmine to a 24-hour clinic herself, the social worker decided to wait, even though overtime pay had been approved for her to take the child that night, according to county records obtained by The Times.

The social worker logged a message into her department’s computer system saying she was “unable to go back” to the mission because she had already worked “11 hours without a break” and thought she could take the child the next day.

The investigation raises new questions about how Jasmine died despite both social workers and counselors at the Union Rescue Mission knowing about her dwindling size and health. Though she weighed 6 pounds at birth, the infant weighed just 4 pounds when she died on Aug. 10.

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And although the county social worker and shelter employees looked into possible neglect, none of them knew enough about the child to know her sex until she died. Before then, they thought she was a boy because the child’s mother often called her Michael Gabriel.

The case has prompted both the rescue mission and the county to consider changes in policy to better protect children on skid row.

But some county officials said Jasmine’s death is particularly perplexing because the county started an extensive program more than two years ago to better serve young children who live in the blight and homelessness of downtown L.A.

“Quite bluntly, we think it’s appalling,” said Roxane Marquez, a spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina.

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“This is the type of work that the social worker is being paid by the taxpayer to do. If she couldn’t do the visit herself, it’s incumbent upon her to find someone who can,” she said.

If Department of Children and Family Services social workers need help, they can call the department’s command post and ask for another social worker to assist.

The documents show that Jasmine’s social worker did call the command post, but there is no record that she sought help. Instead, she asked a supervisor whether she should wait until the morning. She wrote in her department’s computer log that she did not get an answer.

Police initially arrested Jasmine’s mother, Ranetta Maxwell, on suspicion of murder, but they released her four days later when prosecutors said they needed a coroner’s ruling on a cause of death before deciding whether to file charges.

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On Monday, Los Angeles Police Department officials said they began searching for Maxwell, who has not returned to the mission since her daughter’s death.

A district attorney’s spokeswoman said prosecutors plan to file felony charges against Maxwell today, accusing her of inflicting injury on a child. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison.

During the social worker’s visit, Maxwell described herself as a weight trainer who “watches what she eats,” according to the documents released by the county.

She insisted Jasmine was fine but acknowledged that she needed to “put some fat on the baby.”

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Maxwell told the social worker Jasmine would not drink Enfamil formula but promised she would supplement her breast milk with another type of formula and would take her to the clinic appointment.

The social worker wrote in the log that the mother “appeared coherent and appropriate to take the child to the doctor” because she had taken the baby for a medical exam three weeks earlier.

Maxwell’s sister, Sharonne Vinson, said she had not seen Maxwell since she disappeared from her home in Atlanta about two years ago.

Vinson said her sister had told her shortly before she vanished that she had been diagnosed as bipolar and wanted to visit California. She said Maxwell has not contacted her since then.

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“When she got out to California, something drastic must have happened, something very drastic,” Vinson said.

“I believe in my heart that she would not neglect that child. . . . She is the sweetest and most loving and most compassionate person,” she said.

According to shelter officials, Maxwell first turned up at the mission when she was four months pregnant.

She told staff she had been the victim of domestic violence. Workers said she had been seen roaming skid row in June looking for Jasmine’s father.

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Jasmine was born June 24, and Maxwell returned with her to the mission that month.

A shelter worker noticed that the baby continued to lose weight and called the county’s emergency child hotline, prompting the social worker’s visit on Aug. 9 after she failed to find Maxwell the day before.

Patricia S. Ploehn, the director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said the social worker who handled Jasmine’s case is on leave and would not be assigned children’s cases if she returns to work before the agency’s internal investigation is complete.

She said the department investigation is focusing on whether the worker did enough to keep the child safe and get appropriate medical attention for her. The social worker could face discipline if she is found to have erred.

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“I think it broke a lot of people’s hearts in the department. Our job is to help protect children and to also help families,” Ploehn said.

The death of Jasmine (who is listed on the county documents as “Jashline”) will probably reshape the way social workers deal with similar cases in the future.

Social workers are not accompanied by public health nurses on emergency visits unless physical abuse or severe neglect is suspected.

In Jasmine’s case, the initial call from the mission reported the baby’s weight as 10 pounds, small for her age but not an obvious indication of severe neglect, Ploehn said.

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In the future, she said, public nurses will accompany social workers on emergency visits involving neglect of children younger than 3. Social workers will also be asked to disrobe babies for examinations if malnutrition is suspected.

In Jasmine’s case, the social worker did not unwrap the baby’s blanket but looked only at her face before recommending that her mother take her for a medical examination.

“The bottom line is that common sense would say that if the baby’s face is thin, what is the rest of the body like?” Ploehn said.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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