Child dies hours after social workers close case

TULALIP — Hours before a Tulalip child died from neglect, state social workers closed a months-old investigation into allegations that the girl’s mother wasn’t properly caring for her two young daughters.

State and tribal social workers attempted to locate Christina Carlson for months after visits with her earlier this year. State social workers closed the case around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 8 because they hadn’t been able to find the Tulalip woman since May, according to documents from the state Department of Social and Health Service.

Relatives told social workers that they hadn’t seen the woman for some time and suspected that she was dodging authorities. Carlson had a history of neglectful treatment. Four other children were removed from her care in the past, according to the state records.

There’s no indication that social workers ever believed that her young daughters were in imminent danger, which likely would have resulted in removing the girls from Carlson’s care, at least temporarily.

But on Oct. 8, the woman’s daughter, Chantel Craig, died, a victim of neglect.

The 19-month-old girl was found unresponsive in a car on the Tulalip Indian Reservation just before 5 p.m. Carlson, 36, reportedly was living in the car with her two daughters.

Carlson allegedly told authorities that she’d left Chantel and her other girl, 2 1/2, inside the car for a couple of hours.

Police reported that Chantel and her sister were buckled in their car seats and it appeared that they’d been in the vehicle for several days. The girls were covered in feces, infested with lice and appeared malnourished and severely dehydrated.

Both children were rushed to the hospital. Chantel didn’t survive. The Snohomish County medical examiner has ruled the girl’s death a homicide from parental neglect.

Tulalip police swiftly arrested Carlson. She was charged three days later in Tulalip Tribal Court with criminal endangerment and failure to care for her children. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also is expected to review the child’s death. Federal prosecutors have joint jurisdiction over serious crimes on the reservation involving tribal members.

Meanwhile, state officials plan to conduct an investigation into Chantel’s death and how social workers handled the previous referral to Child Protective Services.

“We want to look closely at these cases. If there is something we can learn, we want to improve our work and move forward,” said Sharon Gilbert, the deputy director of field operations for the state’s Children’s Administration.

The law requires the state to complete a fatality review when a child, who is under state care or receiving state services, dies unexpectedly. A Tulalip Tribal official likely will be part of the state probe. The report must be completed within six months of the child’s death. The findings are made public.

DSHS officials said they couldn’t answer questions about Chantel’s death or the earlier investigation because the case is under review.

“We want the panel to look at the case before we start offering answers,” said Thomas Shapley, the department’s senior director of communications.

Tulalip Tribal officials also declined to discuss any child welfare investigation involving Carlson. Tribal policy prevents anyone from commenting on social service investigations. Additionally, all child dependency court hearings and records are confidential. That is done in an effort to protect children and avoid stigmatizing families, tribal officials said.

Under state public records laws, DSHS recently provided The Herald nearly 200 pages of reports, documenting the state’s investigation into past allegations of neglect and the initial notes about Chantel’s death.

The records confirm that tribal social workers were involved with Carlson. It’s not clear if the Tulalips closed their case.

It’s also unclear if the records capture the complete picture of what tribal social workers did to investigate the allegations or what services they offered the family.

Child Protective Services had launched an investigation on Dec. 2, 2011, after a relative reported concerns about the welfare of the girls. The caller alleged that Carlson’s young daughters had lice and open sores from scratching the bites. The tipster said the girls were dirty and only given bottles, not solid foods. She also reported that Carlson drank daily, often to the point of passing out.

A state social worker immediately contacted a tribal social worker about the allegations.

The state and the Tulalip Tribes have an agreement sharing responsibility for investigations of abuse or neglect allegations and delivering child welfare services to Tulalip children. The agreement clarifies the role of the state and is aimed at enhancing cooperation between the two governments.

The roles of state and tribal social workers vary depending on the local agreements between DSHS and specific tribes, officials said. Additional layers of complexity are added by the state and federal Indian Child Welfare Acts. The laws govern how states respond to allegations of abuse or neglect involving Indian children and spell out the tribes’ jurisdiction over their children. The federal act was passed in 1978 in response to the disproportionate number of Indian children being removed from their homes and placed away from their tribes. The state law was passed last year.

The Tulalip Tribes began assuming jurisdiction over dependency cases more than a decade ago. The Tulalips’ child welfare services program, beda?chelh, investigates all reports of child abuse and neglect. That includes any complaints that aren’t accepted for further investigation by state social workers, lead case manager Jennifer Walls said.

“We go out on all referrals. We believe they are all important,” Walls said.

On their end, the Tulalips have established public policies to address child welfare issues, including the rights of parents and tribal court’s jurisdiction over Tulalip children. The guiding principal, according to the code, is that “Indian children are the most valued resources of the Tulalip Tribes and constitute the future of the Tribes. The Indian family and home are important for the support of Indian Children.”

Meanwhile, DSHS has specific units designated to the cases involving tribal children. That’s in large part because of the complex federal mandates involving Native American children. They are tasked with working with the sovereign nations and building relationships that respect and honor the values of the child’s tribal culture while keeping children safe, state officials said.

“We have a very good working relationship with the Tulalip Tribes,” Gilbert said.

In this case, two separate governments assigned social workers to investigate the allegations of neglect. From the beginning, they had difficulties locating Carlson. Once they received the relative’s call in December 2011, they tried on three separate occasions to find the family.

The tribal social worker told his state counterpart he would be asking tribal police officers to try to locate Carlson. The mother reportedly called and agreed to meet with the social workers the next day.

The social workers visited Carlson, who reportedly had moved in with the girls’ father. The social workers noted that the home and children were clean.

“Children appeared to be healthy and had no scratches,” the social worker wrote.

The parents reportedly admitted they drank alcohol but said they had contacted authorities to be evaluated for substance abuse problems and possible treatment. They agreed to sign a safety plan with the tribal social worker.

Based on the social workers’ observations, there wasn’t a recommendation to remove the children, Shapley said.

“Social workers are required to make reasonable efforts to keep the family together. Social workers offer services and if the family says ‘no,’ the social worker must decide if there is such a level of risk that the child should be placed out of the home,” Gilbert said. “The challenge is the balancing act between supporting, maintaining and strengthening families and keeping children safe.”

The Tulalips take a similar stance.

“The goal always is to reunify families, but safely reunify the families,” Walls said.

State records show that social workers, despite not finding any signs of abuse or neglect during their visit, continued to try to assist the family. About two weeks after the first visit late last year, the tribal social worker discovered that the parents weren’t engaged in services as they had reported. He planned to meet with them again.

“In a situation like this one, you can’t force services on people,” Shapley said. “If you have a situation where there is serious neglect or abuse, it may be necessary to remove the children and the court may order the parent to partake in certain services for the child to be returned.”

Records indicate that Carlson had participated in mental health counseling, medication management, drug testing and a drug and alcohol assessment. It’s unclear when these services were provided. A social worker also noted that Carlson declined counseling for one of her daughters, and also said no to parenting classes or resources for domestic violence victims.

In February, the state social worker received an update from the tribal social worker that the parents still weren’t engaged in services. Plans were made for social workers to visit the family again. The next note, dated May 17, says social workers were still trying.

Four days later, the social worker wrote, “attempt to locate family again with no success.” Several similar notes appear in the records. The notes say that the tribal social worker planned to check with tribal housing authorities for help finding Carlson.

Social workers are expected to make diligent efforts to locate families, said Yen Lawlor, a deputy regional administrator with DSHS.

“A lot of folks we work with can be transient,” Shapley said. “It’s not unusual not to be able to locate a family.”

Social workers generally check state databases for current addresses. That may include the rolls for those who receive state benefits. Police generally aren’t asked to get involved unless social workers believe a child is in imminent danger or a victim of a crime.

“Neglect in most cases doesn’t rise to the level of a crime,” Gilbert said.

In September, a social worker deemed the Carlson case a “moderate high risk,” but noted that the investigation couldn’t be completed because the family hadn’t been found.

The next month, Carlson’s car was found parked in a wooded area off Marine Drive with her daughters strapped inside. It’s unclear how long she had been living in the car with her children.

Tulalip is a tight-knit community. If blood lines don’t connect people, kinship does, the deputy general manager Deanna Muir said.

And neighbors and extended family take responsibility for each other’s children. The death of a Tulalip child impacts the entire community, said Niki Cleary, communications manager for the Tulalips.

“We all take ownership over it,” she said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

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