California’s Grandmother Sues Social Workers Over Fentanyl Overdose In Young Children

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The grandmother of a 14-month-old girl who died of a fentanyl overdose last year has sued Riverside County and three social workers for failing to remove the child from her drug-addicted mother despite warnings from hospital staff.

Hazel Yoshida, Allison Kittrell’s paternal grandmother, said Monday the 21st, Allison died on June 7, 2020 after being exposed to fentanyl in her parents’ Riverside apartment.

Social workers Marlene Zaragoza and Alejandra Juarez-Espinosa and their manager David Purcell are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“Because of what you didn’t do here – because you didn’t act – this kid is dead. I’ll pin it on you,” said Yoshida’s attorney Shawn McMillan.

According to the lawsuit, staff at Loma Linda University Medical Center contacted the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services on February 20, 2019, two days after Allison was born, alerting them that the newborn had tested positive for amphetamines, barbiturates and opiates , as well as her mother Tehra Waite.

Zaragoza and Juarez-Espinosa were charged with the case; Zaragoza was the lead investigator.

Warned against substance abuse of mother

According to the lawsuit, Waite had a history of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl abuse, had used drugs throughout pregnancy, and was not seeking treatment for her addiction. She had been admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center several times in the months prior to Allison’s birth with drug problems, and on one of those occasions left the hospital against medical advice, only to return days later.

Waite admitted during an interview that she smoked methamphetamine twice and heroin once within 10 days of Allison’s birth, the lawsuit said.

Zaragoza and Juarez-Espinosa also learned during their investigation that Waite had not bought any baby food, bassinet, clothes or diapers for their baby before the birth. Hospital staff warned Zaragoza about Waite.

“They explicitly told her that Ms. Waite did not show up and they feared that she could not be trusted,” the lawsuit said.

Newborns are allowed to stay with their mother

But instead of seeking an injunction to detain Allison or place the newborn in the care of a relative, the social workers – with the consent of their manager, David Purcell – allowed the child to be with their mother. They allowed Waite to participate in a “voluntary safety plan” that included no drug use.

However, on March 4, 2019, Zaragoza was informed that Waite had not participated in their program and had not reported for a planned drug test. During a home visit on March 13 of the same year, Zaragoza Waite said there were potential ramifications for failure to comply with her program, according to the lawsuit.

Purcell and Zaragoza failed to report Waite to the police, left Allison in the care of their heroin addicted mother and closed the case on March 18, 2019, according to the lawsuit.

“With Purcell’s approval, the case closed without warning,” said McMillan.

More than 14 months later – around 8:15 p.m. on June 7, 2020 – Riverside Police responded to an 911 call from Waite at their apartment on the 3400 block on Ramona Drive after Allison stopped breathing, Officer Ryan Railsback said.

An answering police officer performed Allison CPR until paramedics arrived and took her to the hospital, where she died, Railsback said.

Fentanyl blamed for death

Detectives found evidence of drug use in the home, and Allison was later found to have died of a fentanyl overdose. Traces of the synthetic opiate were found in various places around the apartment, including on the couch, Railsback said.

Waite and Allison’s father, Collin Kittrell, were arrested on October 19 and October 8, 2020, respectively, and charged with murder and child molestation. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 1st in the Riverside Superior Court.

“This was a very sad and tragic case, and of course it should never have happened,” said Railsback.

County: No comment

Riverside County spokeswoman Brooke Federico said the county had not been served the complaint and was unable to comment on the case.

“Our social workers advocate best practices and keep children safe. We are sad when a child suffers a premature death and we think about the circumstances of that death, ”said Federico in an email. “Our hearts are with Allison’s family and loved ones.”

McMillan believes the facts of the case not only justified Allison’s removal from her mother, but made it necessary, at least until Waite could wash himself off.

“This was one of those times when there was an emergency,” McMillan said. “Instead of petitioning or getting a (court order), which the social worker should have done, she let go of the child to the mother and said, ‘Go take some drug classes.’ ”


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