Baby, interrupted

A Carmichael couple’s 3-month-old son died days after Child Protective Services took him away. Six months later, they’re still seeking closure.

Diana Lasick leaves her baby’s toy at his gravesite.

Diana Lasick leaves her baby’s toy at his gravesite.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Diana Lasick admitted in a deceptively frail voice that she had a past.

“A DUI in 1998. Do you think they can hold that against me?” asked the powerful-looking redhead with the tattoos. She failed to mention other charges, including one for wielding a knife with intent to injure.

In the middle of her Carmichael cottage, Lasick stood among a seemingly random and multi-layered collection of documents and clothes. A nearby CD player was caked in pink candle wax. An enormous dog, Cinnamon, watched her from a comfortable pile on the floor as Lasick rifled through papers, looking for a copy of the recently released coroner’s report about her son, Tommy Stacey. He died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the report, at 3 months old. He had been under the care of a foster family for less than a week. Six months later, his parents were still trying to reconstruct the details of his death.

On the morning of January 3, Lasick and her husband, Tom Stacey, showed up at court expecting to discuss the possibility of reunification with their son. Instead, said Lasick, a court staff person approached and told them their son was ill and was being treated at Mercy San Juan Hospital. Lasick was convinced he’d be fine.

“We hadn’t eaten,” said Lasick, “so we stopped for a bite.”

When the couple got to the hospital, their son had already died. According to the death certificate, it appeared that he had died even before the couple was told of his illness.

Tommy’s foster-care placement in December was the second of his young life. He was Lasick’s fourth child and the only one of whom she had custody. In a Child Protective Services (CPS) report that Lasick shared with SN&R, a social worker claimed that on December 28, Lasick had cut her wrist either as an act of self-mutilation or as a suicide attempt after quarreling with Stacey. (Though Lasick said she was free of drug dependency, the report also claimed that she had tested positive for opiates, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and benzodiazepines while pregnant with Tommy.) Stacey proved he was unable to care for Tommy, stated the report, when, rather than call law enforcement after the incident, he went to Lasick’s parents’ house for help with his wife and son in the car.

Though Stacey and Lasick both admitted to serious mental- and physical-health problems, they insisted they had taken good care of their son, and the CPS report did state that Tommy was kept neat and clean and appropriately dressed. In pictures, the boy appears healthy, happy and pudgy.

Though Lasick and Stacey didn’t believe the incidents of December 28 proved them unfit parents, they sought to forge a good relationship with the foster mother.

“I just had a good feeling about her,” said Lasick.

Laurie Slothower, public information officer for CPS, put it best when she said that children at Tommy’s age aren’t supposed to die. A tragedy under any circumstance, death puts great stress not only on the child’s family, but also on the agency and the foster family. Marian Kubiak, manager of the Court Services Bureau, estimated that SIDS deaths occurred no more than once or twice a year in foster care, but when they do occur, she said, social workers contact the parents as gently and as soon as possible. The social workers also recommend support services.

Lasick said that she and Stacey were guided toward grief counseling and that it helped a little. Lasick said she used to feel her son’s presence everywhere. She believed his spirit kept knocking the family’s bereavement cards off a shelf, so she bought him some wind chimes.

“There’s something for you to play with,” she said into the air.

Based on appearances, Lasick and Stacey, an aspiring tattoo artist, have their tough sides and their gentle sides. Their tough sides—partly the result of years of drug addiction, which they both claim to have escaped, and mental-health conditions including bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder—have come out when they argued, sometimes loudly enough to alert the neighbors. But as they sat together in the cottage, reminiscing about their son, their gentler sides appeared. Lasick became warm and matronly, her head cocked to the side sadly as she remembered her son smiling, laughing and munching enthusiastically on mashed bananas. While she talked, Stacey grew increasingly solemn, his face serious and grievous under crumpled eyebrows.

Because Tommy died while in custody, his parents have become suspicious of the details of his death. They claim one source said he had died during the night, though another claimed he’d been sent to the hospital breathing laboriously.

“Why are there conflicting stories?” asked Stacey angrily. He talked himself through a few possible scenarios, all of which centered on someone’s negligence, but then gave up in frustration. Until May 5, five months after Tommy’s death, there wasn’t even a coroner’s report.

The one-page report Lasick shared with SN&R says little more than the cause of death, “sudden infant death syndrome,” and the manner of death, “natural.”

“If, in fact, he was going to pass,” Stacey said of his son, “I feel robbed of those last five days.”

To fill in some of the missing details, Stacey said he tried to find out what happened from CPS.

“They hang up on us,” he said.

Kubiak declined to discuss the details of the case for confidentiality reasons, but she did acknowledge that social workers have the option, when clients are belligerent or threatening, to warn them once to be more respectful and then hang up if they don’t comply.

Kubiak also said that every death in custody is investigated. But the resulting report, said Kubiak, would have been an internal document and would not have been shared with the parents. She did say that social workers should have maintained contact with Stacey and Lasick and passed on information as it became available.

“Our clients are the family and the extended family,” said Kubiak.

For further information, Kubiak said, parents also can rely on their appointed attorneys. But attorneys are appointed to help parents navigate the foster-care system; once a child has died, no representation is necessary.

The couple’s previously appointed attorney, Hana Balfour, said she wasn’t even sure she was officially appointed to the case because Tommy died before the hearing occurred. She further said that as a dependency attorney, she had no access to the internal CPS investigation report and could add nothing to what Stacey and Lasick knew about their child’s death.

Stacey also went to the foster mother, with whom he and Lasick had a good relationship, for further information. According to Lasick, the foster mother claimed she was advised not to comment.

Though Tommy apparently died of natural causes, Lasick and Stacey are considering a lawsuit against the county, but they have been unable to find a lawyer who would take their case. Lasick said one attorney advised her that it was a lost cause because the county isn’t considered liable for deaths or child abuse in custody as long as the social worker placed the child with a licensed foster family and provided appropriate oversight.

The fact that the county and its social workers are not liable for what happens in foster-care homes has led to some new legislation. Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, D- Compton, introduced Assembly Bill 1151 in February because it appeared that some courts were interpreting the law very broadly and allowing social workers to get away with little oversight on behalf of the children in their care. A small section of the bill also insisted that CPS release the name, date of birth and date of death for children who die in foster care.

Though the bill originally was written to allow for litigation against a county or a social worker, that portion of the bill was stripped in rewrites. The current bill does little more than declare that “the state assumes an obligation of the highest order to ensure the safety of children in foster care,” as stated in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill analysis. The portion of the bill referring to the public release of information regarding deaths of children in foster care remains in the legislation. Though the release of such information wouldn’t help Tommy’s parents, it could help child advocates compare death statistics and identify patterns.

Assembly Bill 1151 passed the state Assembly unanimously in June and is now before the Senate.

Even if new laws address public access to the most basic details of a child’s death, they don’t strengthen the county’s responsibilities to parents after a child dies, and they do nothing to help parents handle the irony of having a child die in the care of someone supposedly more responsible than them. The only option for relief, Lasick has decided, is the future possibility of a lawsuit.

On June 3, exactly six months after Tommy died, Lasick filed a complaint that claimed neglect leading to injury and death. Her complaint went through Sacramento County and straight to investigative consultants at George Hills Co., who will determine whether her complaint has merit. Simply because she filed the complaint, Lasick automatically has another 180 days to find an attorney who will take her case.

“I know this is a David and Goliath story,” said Lasick.

John DeRosa, the claims administrator handling Lasick’s complaint, said that he, too, has had trouble getting enough information. He has to request court orders to get access to reports, and even with an order, he can wait months to get access to all the right documents. Though DeRosa couldn’t respond to direct questions regarding Lasick’s complaint, he did say that more access to information would not only help him assess the county’s liability, but also would lead to quicker resolutions for parents such as Stacey and Lasick.

As Lasick and Stacey have waded deeper into their case against Sacramento County, their feelings even for the foster mother have hardened.

In an early interview, Lasick sounded generous. “I don’t hold any hate toward her,” she’d said mildly.

By early July, though, things were different. Lasick’s complaint accused the foster mother of neglect leading to death, and when Stacey saw her in a local store, he intentionally embarrassed her, said Lasick, by asking loudly and publicly why his 3-month-old son had died in her care.

Though Lasick has little hope for a win against the county, a lawyer may at least have the power to access reports that answer her most basic questions about how and why Tommy died. For parents who’ve been trying to reconstruct the last days of their child’s life and learning to live with the fact that they had to lose him, access to that information may be victory enough.