Courts & Crime

Neglected baby dies amid communication snafu

A 5-month-old baby girl lay dead for days and possibly even weeks in her mother's Rancho Cordova apartment after a communication snafu between two Sacramento County agencies delayed an investigation into possible child neglect.

The decomposing body of Gracie Lynn Johnson was found Friday in her bassinet, 22 days after a sheriff's deputy first visited the apartment to check on the sickly child.

By the end of his swing shift, the deputy had placed a report and note on the desk of a social worker assigned to his station, according to sheriff's and child welfare officials. Unbeknownst to the deputy, the social worker had just begun a two-week vacation.

Both agencies said Wednesday they are reviewing the case to determine whether the tragedy could have been avoided.

"If there's a lesson to be learned here in the future as to how to do business better, we certainly want to do better," said Sheriff John McGinness.

The deputy, assigned to Rancho Cordova Police, went to the apartment complex on Data Drive on April 8 after a family member expressed concern about how well the mother was caring for the severely disabled baby.

But it was not until Friday that the case came to a gruesome end when a social worker from county Child Protective Services followed up on the officer's report, which had reached CPS on April 26.

The discovery led to the arrest this week of the child's mother, 40-year-old Jennifer Blanchette, charged with felony child endangerment.

The three-week gap between the officer's report and CPS action is the kind of communication breakdown the county had hoped to avert by placing social workers alongside peace officers. The scenario also raises questions about the duty of mandated reporters. Under state law, all people required to report suspected child abuse or neglect – including peace officers – must call Child Protective Services immediately and file a report within 36 hours.

McGinness confirmed that the deputy did not call CPS. However, he said that was not required in this case because the deputy and his sergeant found no evidence of abuse or neglect. Instead, the sheriff said, they filed an "incident report," to make the agency aware of the situation.

"The fact they cared enough to document it ... tells me their heart and minds were in the right place," he said.

McGinness described the baby as a "very, very, very unhealthy child in a less-than-pristine environment." She was born with hydrocephalus, he said, meaning she had an enlarged head due to fluid. She also lacked an esophagus and had extra fingers.

Child Protective Services began to move on the case once they learned of it. Ann Edwards-Buckley, director of the county's Department of Health and Human Services, said that when the social worker returned to work on April 26, the worker forwarded the report and note to the agency's hotline.

The case then was referred to a social worker specializing in medical neglect on April 27. That worker visited the apartment two days later, but found no one home, the director said. When she returned on April 30, no one answered – but noises inside prompted her to call for backup.

The Sacramento County Coroner's Office completed its autopsy on Gracie's body Sunday, but her official cause of death remains unknown, pending test results, said Assistant Coroner Ed Smith.

McGinness said the mother was arrested because the child was found dead in her home and because of the "overall condition" of the apartment.

But McGinness said that the case may prove to be a tragedy rather than a crime. There is "strong potential" that the baby's cause of death will be ruled natural, he said, and the mother's decision to leave the body to decompose could be attributed to anything from mental instability to overwhelming grief.

"I, too, look for somebody to blame when a kid dies," McGinness said, "but I'm not sure the mother even has any culpability."

From the Sacramento County Main Jail – where she was, for a time, held on the psychiatric floor – Blanchette declined to be interviewed.

A relative of Blanchette's reached by The Bee said only that "my only concern is that Jennifer gets the psychological help she needs."

The baby's death highlights another challenge for local agencies: how to deal with "medically fragile" children.

In recent years, CPS began placing additional emphasis on monitoring children with chronic medical conditions and special health care needs – a population vulnerable to abuse and neglect. The perils faced by such children received widespread attention after the July 2006 death of Daelynn Foreman, a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who starved to death.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.