The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

June 11, 2010
When children die... personal anguish vs. public access

Autopsy reports can be devastating for grieving families, especially those who lose children to violent crime. But should their personal anguish keep autopsy findings private, concealed from public inspection?

A bill backed by the San Diego District Attorney's Office would allow family members of child crime victims to request that autopsy reports be sealed -- a proposal vigorously opposed by First Amendment advocates.

The bill by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, was drafted after family members of a murdered Southern California teen argued this year that some details of the criminal investigation, including the girl's autopsy, should be withheld. In April, a San Diego judge denied the request by the family of Chelsea King, 17, of Poway who was killed this year by a man who admitted to murdering Chelsea as well as a 14-year-old Escondido girl a year earlier.

Opponents of the measure, SB 982, are citing The Bee's coverage of a 4 1/2-year-old foster child's death as an example of why such records must remain open.

The Bee's investigation into the unsolved death of Amariana Crenshaw raised new questions about how the girl died and the quality of care she received in her foster home. After reviewing the child's autopsy at The Bee's request, several well-known forensic experts challenged the Sacramento County coroner's findings and raised the possibility the girl was already dead when the house fire broke out in January 2008.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which opposes the bill, said he has researched media coverage of Chelsea's murder and found no offensive or "extremely graphic" reporting based on the autopsy. Newton said he believed the bill is "an emotional reaction to a tragic death" that would have unintended consequences for both the public and for law enforcement, which often relies on citizen input to solve crimes.

May 17, 2010
California and Sacramento foster care numbers plunge

The number of children entering foster care in Sacramento and all of California is plunging, a trend being viewed as both remarkable and concerning.

A new report from the Public Policy Institute of California shows that, since 2000, the state has had a 45 percent drop in the number of children in foster care - even as the population of children increased. That development is reflected in Sacramento County, where the number of children in foster care dipped by about 35 percent between a peak in October 1999 and a decade later, according to data compiled by UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research.

While the study concludes that California has made "some remarkable advances" in the last decade, successfully moving children out of foster care and into stable placements, there also has been a "worrisome increase" in the percentage of children who return to foster care.

Again, Sacramento County has experienced the same trend. A Bee investigation published in June 2008 revealed that, among the 20 largest counties, Sacramento had the highest percentage of kids who land back in foster care within two years of Child Protective Services returning them to their families. Some child advocates blamed the churn on a push within Sacramento CPS to reunite families, along with poor assessments by social workers.

Sacramento County's re-entry rate has shown steady improvement in the last few years, though CPS officials acknowledge that steep budget cuts are affecting the way the agency does business.

"As a result (of budget and staff cuts), CPS is focusing resources on children with the most critical needs, and opening investigations only on cases that meet the strict legal definition of abuse or neglect," CPS officials said in a statement released this week.

-- Marjie Lundstrom

May 13, 2010
Amariana's foster mom is subject of police review

More than two years after the death of 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw, a new report into conditions inside the girl's foster home is being reviewed by Sacramento police for possible criminal charges.

The state's Community Care Licensing Division, which oversees children in foster care, is attempting to put Amariana's foster mom, Tracy Dossman, permanently out of business.

The state's investigation also has piqued interest in local law enforcement. Because the report alleges the girl was hit by Dossman, and sustained at least 17 injuries before her January 2008 death, city police are looking to see if there's a criminal case, said spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong.

Leong said detectives have determined that the allegations will "not assist" their homicide investigation. However, the report alleging numerous licensing violations is being reviewed for possible child abuse or child endangerment, too, he said. "It is being looked at, but we don't know if there's enough there," Leong said.

Amariana's charred body was removed from Dossman's rental property near South Natomas after at least one Molotov cocktail ignited on or near the child.

Police have said that Amariana was asleep on the floor of the vacant home. But several forensic experts who reviewed the autopsy for The Bee said they believed she was already dead when the homemade firebombs erupted around 3:30 a.m.

The state, which focuses on licensing violations, found that Dossman's story about putting Amariana to sleep on the floor of the empty house violated department regulations and Amariana's "personal rights."

The state detailed a series of alleged violations in the foster home, including a locked refrigerator and deadbolts on the children's doors.

Dossman continued to care for foster children until this year, when the state ordered that she stop. She is challenging that decision. Police will have to weigh the statute of limitations, which precludes the filing of some child abuse-related charges, Leong said.

-- Marjie Lundstrom

About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at:

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