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Abandoned in Hell
The majority of Kentucky children who die or nearly die in abuse and neglect cases had previous contact with social workers, five years after the state committed itself to being a better protector.
Doctors suspected child abuse as soon as the girl was wheeled into Kentucky Children’s Hospital at the University of Kentucky in October 2014, three days before her ninth birthday.
The girl was catatonic, unable to move or speak. She was terribly malnourished. Her undersized body was covered in bruises and sores. Her temperature was 86 degrees, more than 10 degrees below normal. Her heart was slowing.
Her father, Julio Alberto Valladares, told the hospital staff that his daughter had been sick for a week, but he insisted that he didn’t know what ailed her. It might be an intestinal parasite, he said. Or maybe it’s allergies. When doctors pressed for more information, he became angry. “I’ve already answered that!” he snapped.
Valladares was lying, according to a subsequent police investigation. For months, he and his live-in girlfriend, Linda Ernestina Richmond, tortured the girl nearly to death in the privacy of their home in Berea. They beat her with a leather belt so savagely that the original belt was ruined and had to be replaced. They kept her naked to humiliate her, made her sleep on the floor in her own feces, starved her and forced her to take cold showers throughout the day and night. “Showers on the hours,” they called it.
The doctors at UK realized there was more to the injuries than Valladares admitted. Following protocol, they phoned social workers at the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services, which is responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect.
But the social workers already knew about the girl. As with the majority of suspicious child fatalities and near-fatalities in Kentucky, DCBS had been involved in her life. It just hadn’t done much to save her.
In 2013, social workers at the DCBS office in Madison County confirmed a tip that Valladares physically abused his daughter, called in by someone at the girl’s elementary school who saw her badly bruised thighs. Another school official reported to DCBS that the girl’s right hand was swollen, red and painfully raw, possibly even broken. The girl told someone that she was hit with a belt at home regularly.
Valladares responded to these disclosures by withdrawing his daughter from public school to “home-school” her, isolating her from the outside world — a perfectly legal maneuver in Kentucky, even during an abuse investigation.
The social workers improperly closed the case after Valladares refused to cooperate with their investigation. He wouldn’t return calls. Sometimes he testily shut the door in their faces as they attempted to visit. Valladares was “difficult to work with,” they mentioned in their notes.
“Case was closed in February 2014 without Julio’s progress, cooperation and completion of a case plan,” DCBS supervisors later wrote in an internal review. “The case should have been taken back to court instead of closing.”
The lead social worker assigned to the case, Robert Wayne Baldwin, had a history of unpaid suspensions and written reprimands because of his poor performance. The previous year, Baldwin was suspended for five days for failing to make mandatory home visits to two dozen families assigned to him for supervision. Baldwin, who declined to comment for this story, remains employed by DCBS, an agency spokesman said.
DCBS received a follow-up tip in March 2014 warning that the girl had a black eye and was kept indoors by her father, who constantly screamed at her. But social workers misfiled that report under the wrong last name, so they failed to reopen her case.
This systemic breakdown was nothing new for the girl. Records show that child-protection agencies knew her well in Florida and California, where she lived with her chaotic family until moving to Kentucky in 2012. Social workers documented filthy homes full of roaches and fleas but no food, a lack of medical care, chronic domestic violence and the time that police found her, at age 5, wandering alone down the street in her underwear.
Hundreds of pages of reports had been filed in three states by the time her broken body arrived at UK’s pediatric emergency room.
The girl’s father and his girlfriend are now in prison because of what they did to her. Madison Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jennifer Smith helped put them there. Smith called it one of the most disturbing crimes she has prosecuted, made worse by the people who failed the girl along the way.
“I think, in hindsight, there’s not a single person who would look at this case and deny that there were a lot of red flags that needed more attention,” Smith said recently. “It’s indisputable that had they stayed involved, (she) would not have ended up almost dead.”
DCBS commissioner Adria Johnson said she can’t discuss how her agency responds to individual cases. Without going into detail about what the state’s social workers did, Johnson said their efforts obviously fell short of protecting the girl.
“It was horrific,” Johnson said. “We own what’s ours. And I can tell you that the issues that were identified in this case that I feel we could have done better or that were deficient within our own system have been addressed and will continue to be addressed.”
Tim Feeley, deputy secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees DCBS, agreed: “It was a horrendous situation. We agree 100 percent that it was a horrendous situation. In hindsight, we would have done things much, much differently.”
Sending up red flags
Last year, an independent panel of medical, legal and social work experts met in Frankfort to examine 116 suspicious child fatality and near-fatality cases in Kentucky that were referred by DCBS. Nearly half of the children were a year old or younger. An estimated 29,000 Kentucky children were abused or neglected in 2015, but these 116 cases represented the worst outcomes: those who either died from mistreatment or came close to it.
Fifty-nine percent of the time, the panel said, social workers had “prior involvement” with families before the fatality or near-fatality. On average in those cases, there had been four contacts between DCBS and each family. The panel concluded that nearly half of the deaths or grave injuries were “potentially preventable” had someone — a social worker, a doctor, a neighbor, a teacher, a judge — done something different.
“It’s always disappointing,” the panel’s chairman, Roger Crittenden, a retired Franklin Circuit Court judge, said in a recent interview.
“That’s something we’ve been trying to point out,” Crittenden said. “It sends up red flags when there are three or four incidents in a family that we’ve somehow failed to look closely enough at or act on, for whatever reason. We’ve seen cases where, based upon what’s happened previously, we honestly don’t know why those children were still in that family.”
Internal review records from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services show other disturbing examples of “red flags” that flew in the months after the 8-year-old girl in Berea was tortured.
▪ In August 2015, a 4-day-old baby in Carroll County died from head injuries after his intoxicated mother dropped him. DCBS had investigated multiple reports of child abuse and drug use in the family since 2012. The baby’s mother, a heroin addict, was abusing prescription medicine on the morning he died. Her new live-in boyfriend, unknown to social workers, was a convicted criminal. At least one older child had beenremoved from the home previously and placed in foster care. In 2016, the mother and her boyfriend were indicted for murder because of the baby’s death.
▪ In September 2015, a 2-month-old baby was shaken and battered in a Barren County home, surrounded by a marijuana-growing operation. She died two days later at a Louisville hospital. The mother’s boyfriend — who had a documented history of domestic violence and drug abuse — was charged with murder. The baby’s mother had her own criminal and drug histories, and before the infant’s death, four children had been removed from her custody by the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, including two small children who had lived with her and two men in an active meth lab.
▪ In October 2015, a 4-month-old baby in Kenton County died when his stomach ruptured from being fed solid foods for two months. DCBS had investigated the baby’s mother for neglect after she left two other children, ages 3 and 18 months, alone multiple times so she could get her hair done. When the infant was born in June 2015, a hospital social worker called DCBS to warn that the family — about to be discharged — was homeless and had no baby supplies. DCBS marked the report “unsubstantiated.” Days later, police charged the mother with drug possession; she was sentenced to probation.
▪ In January 2016, a 5-year-old boy in Grayson County with epilepsy and autism drowned alone in a bathtub about midnight. His stepfather, who was responsible for watching him, had left the apartment for nearly an hour to buy cigarettes. Since 2007, DCBS had received three complaints against the stepfather alleging child abuse and domestic violence. An internal review at DCBS concluded that social workers failed to conduct the necessary home visits or adequately assess the adults in the household for their histories of violence and drug use or their parenting abilities.
▪ In March 2016, a 15-year-old boy whom the state had placed in a Warren County foster home was found dead in bed from a drug overdose. DCBS had received six complaints about that foster home in the previous three years, alleging drug and alcohol use by the children, unsanitary conditions, and physical and sexual abuse among the children, among other problems. After the boy’s death, police found alcohol and drug paraphernalia in children’s bedrooms in the home. DCBS concluded that it had failed to adequately assess the foster parents’ competence at supervising children.
▪ In May 2016, a 3-month-old baby in Kenton County was found dead on the floor of a cluttered garage, where she had suffocated in a pile of blankets. Police determined that the baby had been sleeping unsecured in a car seat on an ottoman before she toppled to the ground. The mother had smoked marijuana that night; the father, a drug user, told police he had drunk whiskey but denied being drunk. The previous year, a medical professional had called DCBS to warn that the couple was overdosing on heroin while they were supposed to be caring for their children. The agency’s finding: “services not needed.”
‘Dying on the inside’
Julio Alberto Valladares’ daughter was born in October 2005 in Jacksonville, Fla. He and his wife, Kelly, already had two small boys. Valladares beat his wife, according to her and to state investigative records, although she usually declined to press criminal charges. Living conditions in their rented homes were deplorable enough to attract the attention of authorities as they noisily bounced among states.
Child-protective agencies sent the couple to parenting and anger-management classes to become better caretakers. They helped the family sign up for disability checks and food stamps. But nothing seemed to improve. Eventually, the girl’s older brothers were given to relatives to be raised in safer environments. In 2011, Kelly departed to join an ex-boyfriend in Ohio.
“He (Valladares) kicked me out,” Kelly told the Herald-Leader in a recent interview. “It’s not like I just moved out. He kicked me out of the house, and he wouldn’t let me take my daughter with me.”
That left the girl alone with Valladares, a devoutly religious Navy veteran with a fiery temper. The pair moved to Berea from California in 2012 so he could reconnect with Richmond, an old high school sweetheart who was working at the local Arby’s. After spending some time homeless, father and daughter rented a small brick house near Berea’s Interstate 75 exit. Richmond and her 15-year-old son from a previous marriage soon joined them.
The two children could not have been treated more differently. Richmond’s son was given a television and a refrigerator for his bedroom and was allowed to do more or less as he pleased.
But the girl was subjected to brutal discipline. Any violation of household rules — wetting her bed, leaning against a wall instead of standing upright, asking for food, rubbing her chin or chewing her lip — brought beatings, cold showers and ice baths. She was forced to sit silently at the dining room table, naked and hungry, watching the rest of the family eat its meals. Some days she was told to subsist on water and a handful of crackers.
“We would whoop her in her room, and then she would get a cold shower, and then she’d get out of the cold shower and get whooped again,” Valladares testified in April 2016 at Richmond’s criminal abuse and assault trial in Madison Circuit Court.
(Valladares pleaded guilty to his own abuse and assault charges the previous month in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence. Richmond insisted on presenting her case to a jury, which barely needed an hour to convict her. She was given 70 years in prison.)
“Then it was like, ‘Well, that’s not enough, let’s just whoop her in the shower,’” Valladares testified. “And it started out with my black leather belt, until that thing got really beat up because of the wetness and its use. So then I went out and bought one of those stranded, those braided belts.”
“At first she jumped,” he said. “Then she just went with it, like she was feeling broken down. Her emotions were killed, if you would. Kind of like dying on the inside.”
Although Valladares told the Madison County school district that he would teach his daughter after he withdrew her, she received little education at home other than Bible study. Under the law, home-schooling parents are supposed to maintain basic documentation, including attendance records, lesson plans and student work portfolios. The Madison County school district didn’t respond to repeated questions asking whether Valladares was ever told to produce such documents.
Dr. Christina Howard, chief of pediatric forensic medicine at UK HealthCare, told the Herald-Leader that she worries about how easily abusive parents can pull their children from school in Kentucky.
“It actually makes me very nervous to get a call asking for a consult on a case where we’re told, ‘Oh, they’re being home-schooled,’” Howard said. “It takes away eyes that were on the kid and it puts them at risk. School teachers are a great resource for us because they see things.”
Instead of teaching from textbooks, Richmond and Valladares ordered the girl to spend hours sitting naked on a hard, wooden chair to write her “corrections.” They gave her sentences to copy, page after page, criticizing what they saw as bad behavior. She sat for so long in the chair — as long as 15 hours at a stretch — that her buttocks developed raw pressure sores.
Kentucky State Police detectives later found boxes of these “corrections” in the Valladares home, full of pages covered by the child’s spidery handwriting.
“If you choose to stop misbehaving and begin to obey your parents, you might have a chance to earn your clothes back.” “I made a choice to pee on myself. Now cold shower when I pee is what I get, and woopings. I get not clean sheets, nothing good. I need to obey dad and mom.” “Today my writing it’s bad mom said, so I will redo all my messy pages and will skip breakfast today.” “If I don’t listen or obey, mom will woop me good and hard. Bad hard. I better listen.” “I will get cold showers if I don’t obey. Showers on the hours. I must obey.”
‘This was just evil’
The torture went undetected by DCBS social workers assigned to investigate the family. They decided that Valladares was a strict but capable father. They approved leaving his daughter in his care, especially with the support of Richmond, whom they thought would be a protective substitute mother.
“Linda was willing to step up to the plate and supervise the child,” DCBS Madison County office supervisor Layne Caldwell testified at Richmond’s trial last year.
Robert Wayne Baldwin, the lead social worker on the case, said in his testimony that Valladares resisted the state’s investigation. He didn’t welcome outsiders into his home. During two of the home visits that Baldwin managed to make despite the father’s obstruction, Valladares ordered the girl to stand quietly with her nose against the wall until the visitor left. The father was frustrated because his daughter had acted playfully, Baldwin said.
“You give her an inch and she will take a mile,” Valladares said at the time, according to Baldwin’s case notes.
Initially frustrated by Valladares, DCBS filed a petition with Madison Family Court in July 2013 to force him to cooperate. The court dismissed the petition with instructions for “dad to complete case plan,” according to agency records.
Valladares never did complete a case plan. He told Baldwin he was a Christian, so Jesus Christ was the only counselor he needed. Nonetheless, DCBS closed the case in February 2014, citing the father’s lack of cooperation. By then, social workers had not seen the girl in several months.
“We were making no headway with Julio. But he’s not abusing his kiddo,” Baldwin testified at Richmond’s trial. “He’s just amazingly rigid and has unrealistic expectations. It was a difficult case for me to work with because I just didn’t feel comfortable. But there wasn’t abuse.”
He was wrong. A month before Baldwin made that statement, Valladares pleaded guilty to abusing his daughter.
Baldwin wasn’t disciplined for his role in the case, said Johnson, the DCBS commissioner. He appeared to perform his duties appropriately, consult his supervisor and work within his chain of command, she said.
“I can’t speak to the case specifics. I wish that I could,” she said. “There are some case details that I would share with you.”
Details of the case were reviewed in December by the independent panel of experts in Frankfort that examines suspicious child fatalities and near-fatalities. As the panel’s staff analysts read aloud from the file, several panel members sitting around the large table gasped or shook their heads.
“The case should never have been closed,” said Karen Bremenkamp, a forensic medical analyst assigned to the panel.
“It just feels like everything that could go wrong with this case did go wrong,” said Sherry Currens, a panel member and executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Usually what we’re dealing with here is, like, impaired caregivers. But this was just evil. I don’t see how it kept falling through.”
The girl spent two weeks recovering in the pediatric intensive care unit at UK before she was released to a foster mother. Later, she was adopted by a family in Central Kentucky and was given a different last name. Her mother, living in Florida again, expressed an interest in taking her daughter back, but she didn’t pass a review by DCBS. Among other problems social workers mentioned was that the mother shared a one-bedroom apartment with a new boyfriend.
The girl needed behavioral and physical therapy after escaping her father. Her medical problems included self-harm, according to DCBS records. She became so agitated by even the most routine problems that she pushed her fists into her mouth hard enough to knock out her teeth. She worried a lot about getting enough to eat. However, she successfully returned to school and enjoyed playing with other children and wearing nice clothes, her foster mother reported.
Just before she left the hospital in late 2014, the child nervously asked one of her nurses if she was being returned to Valladares and Richmond.
No, the nurse assured her, you won’t ever see them again. You’ll have a new family now.
The girl beamed.
“This is an awesome day,” she said.
About this story
This story was reported from several thousand pages of child abuse and neglect documents obtained through the Kentucky Open Records Act from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and related investigative files from Kentucky State Police, as well as video recordings of trial testimony from the Madison Circuit Court clerk’s office. Quotations not attributed to interviews with the Herald-Leader came from those sources.