Four-year-old Sirita Sotelo had been in state child care custody her entire life - since she tested positive for cocaine at birth. She was placed in the custody of her biological father and just two months later, in January 2005, Sirita was beaten to death by her stepmother at the family's Lake Stevens home.
According to police reports, the stepmother, Heather Ewell beat the defenseless child, fracturing her skull and severing her liver. Ewell was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for Sirita's death.
A subsequent investigation by the state's child safety ombudsman found a woeful lack of oversight by the state Department of Social and Health Services. Child welfare workers simply failed to live up to their obligation to do regular home checks.
And now Sirita is dead.
But her death will not be in vain if state lawmakers pass "Sirita's Law," a bill aimed at keeping children out of abusive homes. House Bill 1333 is based on recommendations of a bipartisan task force that met for two years after Sirita's death.
Both SB5381 and HB1333 have similar elements developed by the Joint Task Force on Child Safety for Children in Child Protective Services or Child Welfare Services:
* If a child is twice removed from a home because of allegations of abuse or neglect, the court must hold a planning hearing to decide appropriate action, including possible termination of parental rights.
* The state must identify all cases in which the child has not been placed in a permanent home within 15 months and report that information to the Legislature.
* Prior to placing a child in the home of a parent, the state must identify all caregivers of the child and assess whether they need services such as drug treatment. If a caregiver does not participate in such services, the state must report that to the court.
* The state must conduct background checks on all adults residing in a home in which a child will be placed.
* The state must ensure that parents receive priority for court-ordered services.
There are 9,000 children in foster care in Washington state, and more than half of them have been in care for nearly three years. Those who testified noted that prolonged stays in foster homes are not only expensive but they rob children of the best years of their young lives and put them through psychological stresses.
Bill advocates are right when they say a child moved one home to another, who goes through multiple placements, learns that homes are something that can change, that human bonds are made to be broken, that adults cannot be trusted and a real home and happiness are not in their future.
Foster kids deserve better. Lawmakers can start by passing HB 1333 and SB 5381. They can protect the state's most vulnerable children by remembering the horrible death of Sirita Sotelo and passing "Sirita's Law" in her honor.