The mother of Peyton Valiente, the toddler who was severely abused more than two years ago while under the care of his baby sitter, is seeking a federal investigation of the way the state Department of Human Services handled her son’s case.
Chelsea Valiente alleged in an Aug. 28 letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the state agency mishandled the case, wrongfully implicating her and her husband, Rey Valiente, for the abuse and, when they were cleared, failing to hold the suspected perpetrator accountable.
The couple temporarily lost custody of their then 17-month-old son after he was hospitalized with unexplained, life-threatening injuries in January 2015. At the time, DHS raised the possibility of seeking termination of their parental rights — until the agency identified the baby sitter caring for Peyton Valiente as the alleged perpetrator, according to DHS and court documents.
The department cited the findings of a multidisciplinary team that examined Valiente’s case just days after he was hospitalized with severe head trauma, determining the toddler was not in his parents’ care when he suffered the nonaccidental injuries. He was most likely at the sitter’s home, the team concluded.
In a Feb. 13, 2015, letter to Family Court Judge Catherine Remigio, DHS indicated that the parents had been ruled out as the alleged perpetrators and confirmed a finding of physical abuse by the sitter, Manuela Ramos.
Eric Seitz, Ramos’ attorney in a pending civil lawsuit filed by the Valientes against her and her husband, former Honolulu Police Department officer Mark Ramos, questioned how DHS could issue such a finding when his client wasn’t even a party to the Family Court case, has no records of what happened and wasn’t questioned about any accusations.
“It’s all a little bit bizarre,” Seitz said. “The allegations seem to be a little reckless.”
Chelsea Valiente filed her investigation request with Debra Samples, regional program manager for the Children’s Bureau, which is part of HHS, in San Francisco. Samples could not be reached late Tuesday for comment.
Valiente told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that she has not heard from the federal agency about her complaint.
Peyton Valiente’s case generated extensive media coverage after the online news site Civil Beat earlier this year disclosed that HPD did not follow recommended procedures when it initially investigated the case. At the time, Mark Ramos was with the police force, but he has since retired.
Prosecutors eventually determined the evidence was insufficient to pursue a criminal prosecution, and HPD later admitted that it fell short with its investigation.
The case subsequently was referred to the Attorney General’s Office for review. A spokesman would not comment Tuesday on the review’s status.
The case has exposed a potential gap in the child welfare system involving unlicensed caregivers.
At the Valientes’ request, Remigio eventually agreed to expunge state records to remove them from a child abuse and neglect registry or database that linked the couple to their son’s abuse case. The registry is regularly checked by would-be employers and others.
But Patrick Pascual, a deputy attorney general representing DHS, told Remigio in a March 2015 hearing that such an expungement likely could not be done without removing the entire record, including the finding that Peyton Valiente was seriously injured and that the baby sitter was the alleged abuser, according to court documents.
If the entire record were expunged and the sitter later applied for a caregiver license or to become a foster parent, a check of the registry would not have any information showing confirmed abuse on the sitter’s part, the judge was told.
Remigio granted the expungement motion for the Valientes but instructed DHS to do its best to try to maintain records regarding the department “confirming the babysitter being the perpetrator,” according to her order.
If DHS were not able to separate the two matters and had to expunge the entire record, “everyone will have to take their chances in the future if she (the sitter) tries to get licensed,” Remigio said at the hearing, according to court records.
“I think that’s just absurd,” Chelsea Valiente told the Star-Advertiser.
Josh Wisch, a spokesman for the AG’s office, would not say whether the state was able to expunge just the Valientes from the record.
But in response to a general question not specific to any case, he said in an email that the state could expunge parents from the record while maintaining a record on a baby sitter as an alleged perpetrator — depending on the facts at issue.
Valiente criticized DHS for what she said was misleading and intimidating behavior in the case, accusing the agency of trying to get them to sign away their parental rights to their son until the multidisciplinary team concluded they were not the alleged perpetrators.
Because the couple had never been through anything like that before, she added, they simply did what DHS instructed, sometimes at the expense of their parental rights.
After the couple was ruled out and the baby sitter named as the alleged perpetrator, Valiente said she asked DHS to investigate the sitter.
But DHS told the couple that the department could not conduct such an investigation because the sitter was not related to Peyton Valiente or was not an institutional caregiver, she said.
“The inept and inexcusable mishandling of Peyton’s CAN case has resulted in the perpetrator never being sanctioned and placed in the CAN database,” Chelsea Valiente wrote in her complaint letter, using the acronym for the child abuse and neglect registry.
Several national experts told the Star-Advertiser that many states would investigate a baby sitter under similar circumstances.
Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor, said in an email to the Star-Advertiser that anyone deemed by a court to be a person “legally responsible” for caring for a child — a status one can acquire merely by accepting the responsibility for providing care for more than a tiny amount of time — can be charged with civil child neglect or abuse in most states.
“I’m surprised to learn things are different in Hawaii,” Guggenheim wrote.
DHS declined to answer questions about Peyton Valiente’s case but issued a general statement saying it was committed to the safety and well-being of Hawaii’s children and has a statutory mandate to work with children, their families and DHS-licensed child care providers to address abuse and neglect.
“We believe in continuous quality improvement and will work with our federal partners as well as the community to improve the way we serve children and their families,” the statement said.