Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dad kills 2-year-old son during court-ordered visitation; family now suing judge (San Bernadino County, California)

This is NOT the first time a judge has refused to believe the mother or look at the evidence in a child abuse case involving the father. Judge Robert Lemkau (also of San Bernadino County) was recently drummed off the bench for allowing a similar miscarriage of justice in the murder of Wyatt Garcia.

Now Judge John M. Pacheco is also being looked at for granting dad ALEX BAEZA unsupervised visitation with his 2-year-old son, despite credible evidence of child abuse. The little boy later died of a head injury "allegedly" inflicted by his father. The father is facing homicide charges.

Note that the mother was threatened with loss of custody for even mentioning her concerns.

We previously reported on this case here:

Family: System failed to protect boy, 2
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06:53 PM PDT on Tuesday, August 3, 2010
By JOHN ASBURYThe Press-Enterprise

PDF: Read transcripts of the custody hearing for Isaac Gallegos

The family of a 2-year-old Inland boy who died in his father's care has filed a complaint asking that a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge be disbarred for granting visitation to the boy's father.

Seven months after the judge's order, in which court records show he chastised the mother for overreacting to injuries, Isaac Gallegos was dead and his Moreno Valley father was charged with murder.

The state Commission on Judicial Performance would not confirm whether it had received the family's complaint against Superior Court Judge John M. Pacheco. It said the proceedings are confidential and the judge had not been disciplined.

San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Douglas Elwell said Pacheco could not comment directly since it was part of an ongoing criminal case. He said the family court always considers a child's safety in its rulings.

"In doing so, it's not only based on the credibility of those testifying, but family service reports and trying to weigh all of that with an appropriate decision under the law," Elwell said.

During a Sept. 4 custody hearing, Isaac's mother, Andrea Gallegos, 22, of Ontario, told the court that her son came home with bruises on his buttocks and scratches on his back after a visit in Moreno Valley with his father, Alex Baeza, 23, of Moreno Valley. Isaac was taken to Pomona Valley Hospital where police and Child Protective Services were notified, Gallegos said.

Baeza told the judge Isaac had slipped and fallen on the edge of a hot tub.

A Riverside police report was inconclusive about whether child abuse had occurred, and the case was deferred to CPS, Sgt. Wayne Ramaekers said.

"Your honor, I fear for my son, he came back with all the bruising," Gallegos said, according to court transcripts, not finishing her sentence.

"I already made my order OK?" Pacheco said. "I talked to the detective; the detective talked to the doctor. I've done my investigation, I feel very confident this man did not hurt his son all right? ...

"I think you're overreacting all right? Now, if you continue to act this way... I'll have to take custody away from you and... I will give custody to the person that is most willing to cooperate with the other parent, and giving them custody OK?" Pacheco said, according to court transcripts.

"I understand you want to protect your child, and that's fine. That's the way moms are, and dads too. But I don't see anything here to stop him from letting him see his son OK? I really don't."
Pacheco ordered the mother to continue allowing overnight weekend visits between the toddler and his father and threatened to take away custody if she made additional allegations against the father.

multiple failures

Andrea Gallegos said the child welfare system failed her at every turn.

"My boy's dead because of that judge's failure," Gallegos said. "I couldn't believe it. I thought we would go to court and they were going to help us."

Isaac died in April of a head injury that Riverside County sheriff's homicide detectives said was inflicted by his father.

Riverside County Regional Medical Center officials summoned police after the boy was brought to the emergency room with a severe head injury. He was declared brain dead and was kept on life support so his organs could be donated to another child.

Baeza's family previously said Isaac was sick when he arrived at their home and that he fell off a bed while in Baeza's care shortly before he died, but he was not abused. The family said Baeza had also filed CPS complaints against Gallegos for bruising in April.

Homicide detectives said the injuries were consistent with abuse and not with a fall. Baeza was identified as a suspect because he was the only person in a bedroom with Isaac when the injuries occurred, authorities said.

Baeza was charged with murder and assault on a child. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for this month. His attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

Gallegos moved in to her parents' house in Ontario when she became pregnant with Isaac. She said her relationship with Baeza was distant.

After Isaac was born, Baeza wanted to become part of his life. The couple agreed to share custody, but she didn't know where he lived. During the Sept. 4 hearing, the judge ordered them to hand off Isaac for visits at a Rubidoux sheriff's station.

She believes Isaac had been abused at least three times before the fatal injury.

After she was unsuccessful in September at stopping the court-ordered visits, Gallegos said Isaac came back from a visit with his father with bruising on his ears. Fearful of returning to court, the family took him to a pediatrician and called Ontario police, which opened a CPS case.
A third CPS case was opened in Fontana shortly before Isaac died for other bruising, said Isaac's grandfather Mike Lester.

In each case, CPS and authorities found insufficient evidence of child abuse, Lester said.

San Bernardino County officials said they could not confirm or deny a CPS history without a public records request because Isaac died in another county. A records request is still pending.
Riverside County CPS officials said Isaac's only history with their office was filed April 11, the injury that caused his death.

"The whole system failed us from start to finish. All we wanted was for someone to help us," Lester said. "This is their job. They have to investigate in order to save these kids. I don't want this to happen to another child."

why no investigation?

University of San Diego professor Robert Fellmeth said the case points to not just the court's failure but to a larger indictment on the system in place to protect children from abuse. At the very least, an investigation should have been opened, said Fellmeth, who founded the Child Advocacy Institute and co-wrote the state's CPS open record law.

"If it comes up, they're supposed to do something. The court is tasked with protecting children with abuse," Fellmeth said. "The mom is doing the right thing in raising the issue. To imply the mom did anything wrong, and if she did it again would lose custody, is outrageous."

Family courts can often overlook signs of abuse because false allegations are frequent in embattled custody cases, Fellmeth said. But the courts should not deem an allegation false, solely based on whether a detective planned to file a case, he said.

"Obviously there was a failure," Fellmeth said. "The family court judge made an imprudent remark, but the larger failure is not his. Where was CPS and the juvenile dependency court? Why wasn't there a further investigation?"

DeAnna Avey-Motikeit, director of San Bernardino County Children and Family Services, said legislation is being proposed to remove some of the confidential barriers that surround child cases.

"We definitely need a better communication system between family court, CPS and law enforcement," Motikeit said. "This is an issue people are becoming acutely aware of and shows the need of greater communication in a lot of the battles between the parents."