Photos San Diego Police Detective Craig Isbell took Feb. 18 at a Logan Heights home aren't for the squeamish. The more graphic among them are titled, “Photo of large amounts of cockroaches on kitchen ceiling,” “Two photos of cockroaches on food in refrigerator” and “Photo of makeshift shower stall with bucket of urine and feces.”
Last month, police entered a converted garage located behind a single-family home on Ocean Beach Boulevard searching for 31-year-old Alejandro Mejia, who was wanted on a misdemeanor charge for being under the influence of narcotics. They also had a warrant for his brother Eulalio, wanted for parole violation. The brothers' mother owns the property and lives in the main house.
According to the police report, officers heard children crying when they approached the garage. That prompted them to conduct a “check the welfare” search, a procedure that gives law enforcement officials the authority to enter a property if they suspect children are in danger.
Behind a locked door inside the converted garage, Isbell said he discovered the most extreme case of child neglect he's ever seen. Inside the room, which was locked from the outside, police found two children, a boy, 4, and a girl, 2. The kids were naked and dirty. In the room were two soiled blankets, a dirty pillow and a bunk bed with a single stained mattress. The 2-year-old later told Isbell that she and her brother urinated on the mattress when their parents refused to unlock the door to let them use the bathroom-not that the bathroom would have made much difference; the bucket Detective Isbell photographed had been used in lieu of a broken toilet.
The children's' parents, Mejia and 34-year-old Rosa Valenzuela, told Isbell that the family had lived in the garage for two years. Isbell guesses the kids have spent most of that time in the locked room that had no lights, broken windows and a cockroach infestation. The 2-year-old spoke broken English and some Spanish. The 4-year-old, Isbell said, spoke only gibberish.
On the night the children were found, it was raining and water was leaking in through boarded-up windows. When Isbell went to find clothes for the children, he was informed by their mother that neither had socks nor shoes.
The list of deplorable, dangerous conditions goes on: cockroaches on rotten food in the refrigerator, natural gas leaking from a stove, exposed electrical wires within the children's' reach. The converted garage was littered with trash and the area surrounding the garage looked like a junkyard. The city attorney has since ordered the property owner to clean up the mess.
According to the police report, officers found methamphetamine and cocaine in the parents' bedroom along with drug paraphernalia. Mejia later tested positive for meth while Valenzuela tested positive for meth and cocaine.
A particularly upsetting detail of Isbell's report is a suggestion of how the children passed their time. The walls and the ceiling above the bunk bed were covered in drawings-some random scribbles, others more specific. “On the walls they had drawn pictures of people with smiley faces,” said Isbell. “It's really sad.”
After their parents' arrest, the children were taken to the Polinsky Children's Center in Kearny Mesa, a care facility for abused and neglected children. Isbell said that when his team dropped the kids off at Polinksy, they seemed happy to be there. “Sometimes when you separate children from their moms, you have a lot of problems,” he said. “These kids went willingly.”
Both parents were arrested on two counts each of child endangerment, possession of methamphetamine, possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia. On March 5, Mejia pleaded guilty in court to all counts. Valenzuela has pleaded not guilty and was scheduled for a March 19 arraignment. When Isbell later interviewed her in prison, through an interpreter she blamed the children's' living conditions on her husband. Her attorney, Tom LaVaut, would neither affirm nor deny Valenzuela's statement to police. He added that his client is currently asserting her Fifth Amendment rights. Both Valenzuela and Mejia are right now in custody with bail set at $50,000.
Early next month Mejia will be sentenced, most likely to probation, which could include one year of jail time, said his attorney, Dwayne Moring. It's a sentence that Moring acknowledged the public might not understand given Mejia's alleged severe neglect of his children.
Working in Mejia's favor, said Moring, is that he has no prior felony record. “To come in contact with the system for the first time at age 31, it's significant,” Moring said. Judges look at past behavior as an indication of the potential for reform, he explained. “A person who has gone through his 20s without coming into contact with the criminal justice system... has good prospects to be rehabilitated.”
Both Moring and Valenzuela's attorney, Thomas LaVaut, said their clients want to do whatever's necessary to regain custody of their kids. Moring said Mejia blamed his drug addiction for the way he treated his kids.
If his client is placed on probation, Moring added, “there's going to be a tremendous amount of supervision over him.... Additional drug use or unauthorized contact with the children will be violations of probation.”
Custody matters will be handled separately from the parents' criminal trials, and both Mejia and Valenzuela would have to complete several months of drug treatment, counseling and parenting classes to the satisfaction of a judge, the District Attorney's Office, county Health and Human Services and the children's legal representative. The children have already been assigned a public defender to represent them in that case, said prosecutor Mary Ellen Barrett.
Barrett said strict juvenile confidentiality rules prevented her from saying whether the Mejia children were still at the Polinksy Center. But, she added, “they're still safe, they're still warm, they're still fed.” She said both children tested negative for drugs.
Barrett said that despite the egregious nature of this case, the protocol that got the kids to a safe place illustrates the effectiveness of California's Drug Endangered Children program (DEC). The program, begun in 1998 under the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning, requires that the police, DA's Office and county Health and Human Services work as a team to ensure the safety and welfare of children found living with drug-addicted parents.
“Years ago,” Barrett said, “the way that it was set up, [police] would try to give the children to a responsible adult at the scene.” In this case, Barrett said, it would have been the children's' grandmother, a woman Isbell described as being far more concerned about her son's tendency to hook up with the wrong women than her own grandchildren's well being.
Barrett said half of her caseload involves drug-addicted parents who endanger their children's lives. Drug addiction and child neglect are “hand-in-glove” issues, she said. Most of the kids she comes across are, like the Mejia children, younger than 6.
Wendy Wright, a pediatrician at San Diego Children's Hospital, works with children of drug addicted parents who've been taken into protective custody. She said that due to some bureaucratic snags, coupled with the state budget crisis, DEC funding was cut entirely at the end of 2002. Though all the involved agencies are still working together, resources are stretched thin. For example, Wright said, downtown San Diego has only one social worker posted with the police department.
Regardless of funding issues, Wright said her counterparts throughout the country are working to compile information on the long-term affects that neglect and drug exposure have on kids-something that's yet to be studied comprehensively. Children brought into the Polinksy Center under the auspices of DEC are evaluated to determine to what extent their living environment has affected their development. Kids with identified problems can, with the proper attention, services and follow-up programs, rebound to a level considered normal.
“Part of the difficulty,” Wright said, “is that when you see two kids, like for instance these two kids, you're not quite sure if they've had malnutrition along the way, how much their development is behind and how much of the emotional impact of what they've been through is going to stunt their ability to progress. Only time will tell with any particular child.”