Social workers 'ignored' child's abuse before 2003 murder, panel rules
By Heath Foster; Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter; December 23, 2004

  In the two months before 2-year-old Emerald Champagne Loop was murdered in 2003, social workers in the Bellingham office of the state Department of Social and Health Services received five different reports of missing teeth and deep, unexplained bruises on the toddler's pale body.
  Emmie's many therapists did not believe her mother's explanations that the reappearing injuries were the result of frequent falls caused by her motor-skill delays.
  The toddler's caregivers at the Whatcom Center for Early Learning reported that her injuries were the worst they had ever seen on a child, and that her mother "seemed very unconcerned" and "casual and relaxed" in the face of her daughter's pain.
  But Emmie's Child Protective Services social worker and the social worker's boss never acted to take Emmie and her older sister out of harm's way.
  In fact, a panel of outside experts who reviewed her death has found they "effectively ignored ... attempts by outside agencies to emphasize the extent and the seriousness of the injuries."
  The damning fatality review, released yesterday after a year of investigation, concluded that the environment in the Bellingham child welfare office at the time "did not support quality investigations" into child abuse and neglect.
  According to the panel, which was co-chaired by former Arlington Police Chief Steven Robinson, social workers did not photograph Emmie's injuries or bother to write adequate descriptions of them. They tried to shift responsibility for her safety to local law enforcement officials and her outside therapists.
  This lack of action, the panel concluded, left her fate in the control "of a manipulative mother, who, at the very least, failed to protect her children from the abuse being inflicted on them."
In the end, it turned out that Emmie was being regularly shaken and abused by Brian K. Smith, the boyfriend of her mother's best friend.
  On July 1, 2003, Emmie's mother, April Champagne, went shopping and left Emmie with Smith and her boyfriend, Travis Brann.
  Brann later told police that when Emmie failed at one point to move out of Smith's way, Smith shoved her hard.
  Emmie's head hit an edge of a 100-year-old steamer trunk in the living room. Emmie lost consciousness the following day and died from the blow on July 4 at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
  In September this year, Brian Smith was sentenced to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in Emmie's death.
  Yesterday, DSHS officials were unwilling to say they could have prevented her death. But they acknowledged quicker intervention could have made the difference.
  Uma Ahluwalia, head of DSHS' Children's Administration, said: "We could have done a better job investigating the case and done more to protect Emerald. I don't know if we could have prevented the death because we are not in homes 24-7."
  At the time of her death, Emmie's case was assigned to social worker Kenda Bjerkness and Bjerkness' supervisor, John Campbell.
  Gia Wesley, the newly appointed DSHS regional administrator overseeing the Bellingham office, said the failure of the social worker and supervisor to act faster on the multiple reports of abuse they received was "mystifying" and "mind-boggling."
  But she said the Bellingham office has been badly understaffed for many years. Bjerkness was carrying between 30 to 40 ongoing cases at the time and dealing with 16 to 18 new referrals of abuse and neglect each month, she said.
  Though there are two new additional social workers in that office now, Wesley said they remain "inundated," expected simultaneously to work with troubled families, perform safety checks on foster children and investigate new complaints of abuse and neglect pouring in.
  "It might have been a challenge just to do the sheer workload" Bjerkness faced, Wesley said.
But Wesley added that there were serious flaws in Campbell's supervision of the case.
  Ahluwalia said he had a habit of downgrading risk in reports of abuse and neglect coming into the office.
  The fatality review panel found that of the five abuse referrals CPS received on Emmie's case between April 22 and June 26, three were downgraded by Campbell. These included reports from Emmie's teachers, doctors and therapists of abuse that were so "emergent and serious that we should have been right out there immediately" to check on Emmie, Wesley said.
  Even if social workers were unsure who was causing Emmie's injuries, they could have had Emmie and her sister removed from their home while the case was investigated, Wesley said.
  She said Campbell may have been downgrading Emmie's injuries because the office was overloaded with more reports than it could investigate.
  Both Bjerkness and Campbell have since been reassigned to DSHS positions in which they do not provide direct services to children and families, she said. Neither could be reached for comment.
  The fatality review panel recommended several changes in how cases are handled, including limiting the number of new investigations of abuse and neglect assigned to social workers to no more than eight a month. The panel also urged separating the investigation of abuse from the work of delivering services to troubled families.
  That separation of duties is a key piece of the sweeping $50 million agency reform plan Ahluwalia has asked the state Legislature to fund. Ahluwalia said yesterday it would take a $17 million investment to create three distinct groups of social workers who separately investigate abuse and neglect, counsel and provide services to at-risk families, and work with children who have been placed in foster care.
  "This reform plan has meat on it and it is starting to reach the front lines of social work," she said. "But if we want this reform to stick we have got to stay the course. And this Legislature is going to be pretty skeptical. It's a lot of money we are asking for, and they are reading in the newspapers about one fatality after another."

P-I reporter Heath Foster can be reached at 206-448-8337 or