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Originally published Sunday, February 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Homicide trial to start for boy's mother

The trial of a Grant County woman charged in the death of her 2-year-old son — a case that spotlighted failures in the state's foster-care...

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — The trial of a Grant County woman charged in the death of her 2-year-old son — a case that spotlighted failures in the state's foster-care system — is set to begin Monday with pretrial motions.

Grant County Prosecutor John Knodell said opening statements could begin Wednesday in Ephrata in the Superior Court case against Maribel Gomez.

Gomez, 32, has asked for trial before a judge, rather than a jury, on charges of homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in the Sept. 10, 2003, death of her 25-month-old son Rafael, nicknamed "Raffy."

Born with methamphetamine in his system, Raffy suffered two broken legs, concussions, burns and bruises while in the care of his mother. He was placed in foster care four times, but each time, state caseworkers would return him to his birth parents.

Six months after the state reunited him with his family for the last time, Raffy died of blunt-force trauma to his head. Gomez told police her son died after throwing himself out of a high chair three times while eating noodles.

The state Department of Social and Health Services conducted a fatality review that concluded social workers were biased toward the birth parents, ignored obvious signs that Raffy was in danger and failed to follow the agency's own rules.

Others who could have intervened either didn't get the necessary information or failed to ask critical questions, the DSHS team found.

Knodell said the state child-welfare agency's actions won't be at issue.

"This trial is not about the DSHS," he said. "This trial is about Maribel and her responsibilities."

If convicted of homicide by abuse, Gomez faces 20 to 26 years in prison. A manslaughter conviction carries a sentence of about half that length. Gomez has five other children in foster care, and she could regain custody of them if acquitted, Knodell said.

Defense lawyer Robert A. Moser of Moses Lake has said he expects to call a medical expert from Minnesota among 10 witnesses in the trial, expected to last two weeks.

Moser did not return several calls for comment from The Associated Press.

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Knodell said there were no eyewitnesses.

"You rarely have a case where a guardian or parent abuses a child this violently in front of other witnesses," he said.

The prosecution plans to call medical experts who will testify about the nature of the child's injuries, he said.

"The degree of force needed to inflict this type of brain injury is something none of us can comprehend," Knodell said.

Denise Griffith was Raffy's foster mother for more than half of his life. She is also the court-appointed representative of the boy's estate. In a civil-rights lawsuit filed on the child's behalf in U.S. District Court in Spokane, she claims Raffy's death was caused by breaches of duty and negligence by the birth parents and by Murray Twelves, a social worker based in Moses Lake.

Twelves, who was singled out for much of the blame in the DSHS fatality report, no longer handles child-custody cases and was demoted for more than a year while undergoing training, DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears said. He remains with the agency as an intake worker, receiving reports of child abuse or neglect, she said.

He is expected to be called as a witness for the defense, Knodell said.

Knodell said he intends to call Jose Arechiga, Gomez's partner and the boy's reputed biological father, who was not home when Raffy died. He has not been charged in the child's death.

Raffy was born in the back seat of a car on Aug. 7, 2001, and was placed with foster parents Bruce and Denise Griffith three days later after tests showed he and his mother had cocaine and methamphetamine in their systems.

As a result of the Raffy case, DSHS conducted statewide "lessons learned" training on issues such as worker bias, Spears said.

Foster parents are now more involved in making decisions regarding children in their care, and legislation being considered gives foster parents the right to speak in court hearings regarding children in their care, she said in an e-mail to the AP.

Asked if the agency had any comment on the case, Spears replied: "We've done all the commenting on this case three years ago. Other than that, it's a tragedy."

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