A foster mother and her boyfriend are under investigation in the death of a 2-year-old child in their care who was beaten with a hammer, according to authorities and coroner's records.
Viola Vanclief's death March 4 is the latest in a series of troubles linked to United Care Inc , a nonprofit foster care agency that contracts with Los Angeles County to provide shelter for abused and neglected children.
Records show that United Care, which oversees 88 homes with 216 foster children, has been repeatedly cited in recent years after caregivers choked, hit and whipped their charges with a belt. In 2007, a foster child drowned while swimming unsupervised in a pool.
South Los Angeles residents Kiana Barker, 30, and her boyfriend, James Julian, 38 were arrested last week on suspicion of murder in connection with Viola's death, according to Los Angeles police records. They were released two days later, with no charges filed. Police are continuing to investigate the couple.
Barker was decertified as a foster parent last week, and state regulators posted a notice near one of the no trespassing signs outside her house saying that a child-care center license there had been suspended.
Barker told investigators that Viola was trapped in a bed frame when 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.
It is unclear how the child came to be in the couple's care. Julian had been convicted in 1998 for felony robbery using a firearm -- a fact that should have barred him from living in a home with foster children, according to state records.
Trish Ploehn, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, declined to comment on details of the case, but said: "This child's death is extremely saddening for everyone."
In a prepared statement, Craig J. Woods, the executive director of United Care, also said he could not comment because the facts aren't fully known. "The entire United Care Foster Family Agency family . . . are all mourning the tragic and unfortunate loss of Baby Viola; and our thoughts, prayers and support remain focused on the families involved."
While the death is being investigated by Ploehn's department and the Los Angeles Police Department, all county social workers involved in the case have been placed on desk duty, and United Care is not receiving new placements.
The death comes as Ploehn's department is facing scrutiny in the deaths of children under its watch. All but two of the more than 30 cases to come to light in the last two years have involved children killed while in the custody of their own parents.
On Monday, Barker's grandmother, who lives next door, said that the day Viola died, she had been at a doctor's appointment. She returned to find Barker screaming.
"Grandma, she's not breathing," Claudia Barker recalled Kiana saying of Viola. "She was hysterical that the baby was not breathing."
Kiana Barker didn't say anything about a hammer, Claudia Barker said, but said the baby was diabetic and had low blood sugar. She said Julian tried to revive the infant while Kiana called 911.
Claudia Barker said her granddaughter has two biological children, a 6-month-old daughter and a 9-year-old daughter. Kiana also had two foster children, including Viola.
She said Kiana Barker and her boyfriend have been together about three years. Early in the relationship, she ran a child-care facility out of the house but stopped doing it because business was slow. She was licensed as a foster parent a year ago, records show.
"She has many children come through there until the mammas take their children back," Claudia Barker said.
Family friend Phillip Brown was standing nearby. He said he has known Kiana Barker for eight years. "She was more of a spiritual lady, not a violent lady," he said. "I don't know what happened."
According to records on file with the state's division of Community Care Licensing, Barker was a foster parent for United Care, an agency whose caregivers sometimes left children in dirty clothes or placed them in rooms without a single working light bulb. In the 2007 drowning, the foster mother was distracted during a family reunion, the records showed.
In addition, county auditors issued a 2007 report that uncovered financial irregularities at the agency. According to the report, United Care was paid $3,954,796 for the care of 232 children, but $274,608 in expenditures were determined "questionable" and was ordered to be repaid to taxpayers.
Ploehn said her department hadn't been able to begin collecting the money until late last year. But Woods, the executive director of United Care, said the delay was not his fault.
United Care was "a good faith partner" trying to resolve the discrepancies, he said, but was delayed by the county's inability to offer timely appeals.
Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this report.