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Originally published June 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 28, 2007 at 4:27 PM

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Boy died of thirst: a pattern of abuse emerges

DSHS records say other children in her care were deprived of food in the years before the death. But signs of trouble went largely unheeded.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The night before Tyler DeLeon turned 7, he was so thirsty he ripped a hole in the screen of his bedroom window to eat snow.

By the next evening, Tyler was dead. He weighed just 28 pounds, the size of an average 2-year-old.

Dehydration is the official cause of death, but authorities think Tyler suffered a variety of abuses at the hands of his adoptive mother, Carole DeLeon, a woman who led a seemingly ordinary life as a paralegal with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Spokane.

Records released this week by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) say that between 1988 and 2005, DeLeon had deprived at least four other adoptive or foster children of food and that she was accused of punishing her biological children by withholding food, as well. Yet DSHS didn't recognize the pattern until after Tyler died in January 2005.

The records, which document DeLeon's history with DSHS and the investigations into Tyler's death, say that while in DeLeon's care, one 12-year-old girl's hands were tied behind her back so she couldn't get food; a 9-year-old girl dropped from 176 pounds to 104 in less than a year; a pre-school-age girl gained just 3 pounds in two years; and a boy of 7 went from above-average weight to 34 pounds, below the fifth percentile, in four years with DeLeon. Some of them said they were beaten, as well.

Other children she took in, however, have not claimed abuse, leading investigators to suspect some were singled out.

On July 16, DeLeon, 52, faces trial on a homicide-by-abuse charge in Stevens County in Tyler's death and criminal mistreatment in the alleged abuse of the other 7-year-old boy. She has pleaded not guilty. Her 31-year-old daughter, Christina Burns, has pleaded not guilty to assaulting the other boy.

After Tyler's death, DSHS took a close look and confirmed the two boys had suffered abuse. But the agency didn't recognize it at the time it happened, a review of Tyler's death by an outside panel stated, because some incidents hadn't been reported, DSHS hadn't thoroughly investigated DeLeon's history and because DeLeon was very convincing.

"The social workers, doctors, therapists, counselors and school personnel had been collectively convinced by Carole DeLeon that Tyler's injuries and behaviors were due to factors other than abuse or neglect," DSHS said in a statement Wednesday. "All of the professionals believed Ms. DeLeon was honest and credible when explaining Tyler's injuries and health concerns."

The agency has made changes since the boy's death, including requiring faster response to reports of abuse.

But a Seattle law firm plans to sue the state for at least $55 million on behalf of Tyler and five other children. The lawyers see the problem as much broader than a mother's alleged lies.

Part of the legal claim is based on the idea that DSHS should have known that DeLeon had previously abused her own children and a foster child, and never should have licensed her to care for more children.

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"The amount of damage to these children is phenomenal," attorney Cynthia Novotny said.

A different picture

On paper, DeLeon seemed like the perfect foster mom.

"Breakfast for the kids is usually pancakes, eggs, oatmeal, etc.," DeLeon, then living in Wyoming, wrote in a 1987 application to be a foster parent. She liked to bake apple pie, do crafts and watch movies, and loved kids of all ages.

Her foster-care license was granted, and a 12-year-old girl was placed in the home. Not long after that, they moved to Stevens County, Wash., where neighbors became concerned. The girl wasn't allowed to talk to others, according to a DSHS summary of the case; DeLeon allegedly even made her apologize to a dog for saying hello to it. A sheriff's investigation revealed she spent most of her time hiding in the basement or doing chores, such as milking goats and feeding chickens.

The girl was thin and later was diagnosed as suffering from dehydration, the records show.

One day, a babysitter noticed a bruise, and the stories began to spill out. The girl said DeLeon had struck her in the face and deprived her of food. Once, after the girl took an unauthorized snack, DeLeon tied her hands behind her back with needlepoint yarn and left her to sleep on the cold basement floor all night, the girl told investigators.

She was removed from the home immediately by authorities. But soon, DeLeon's two biological sons, teens who had been living with their father, came to live with her. Police received several disturbance calls and removed the boys soon after one of them emerged from the house bruised and bloody.

DSHS investigated the girl's and the boys' abuse claims and found them to be valid, according to the records.

In 1996, DeLeon applied for a foster-care license in Washington, not mentioning that she had lost custody of the three children. Although there was a case number indicating there had been a previous abuse investigation in DeLeon's record that should have been a red flag to DSHS licensors, no one recognized it as such at the time, and the license was granted. Over the years, she took in 14 foster children and adopted five of them, according to DSHS.

DeLeon took in Tyler in 1998, when he was 4 months old, an average-sized baby. But the longer he stayed, the less he grew, according to the investigation after his death. And he was often injured.

Novotny, the attorney, said the evidence was clear Tyler and other children in the home were being abused.

Once Tyler had a broken femur, the recently released DSHS files show. Another time, they show, his two front teeth were knocked out. On yet another occasion, he had blood inside his ears. Tyler's 7-year-old foster brother also was unwell and was admitted twice to the hospital, after suffering perplexing seizures. DSHS knew about some of the incidents but didn't learn about others until after Tyler died.

But time after time, professionals who were supposed to look after their well-being failed to call Child Protective Services, according to the outside investigation into Tyler's death. Not the emergency-room doctors. Not his psychiatrist. Not even his pediatrician.

DeLeon fooled them all, the outside investigation later determined. She gave them explanations for all the injuries, often saying Tyler had behavior problems and would hurt himself. She even had an explanation for why Tyler's lunch was so small.

Tyler, DeLeon claimed, had a disorder that caused him to gorge himself until he was sick, according to the records. He'd even drink from the toilet if he had the chance, she explained. That's why Tyler was allowed only a half-sandwich and a few gulps of milk at lunch, and why teachers had to make sure he didn't drink any more on his own. It could be "life-threatening," she told them.

She claimed the other boy -- the 7-year-old who was hospitalized -- had the same disorder.

There was no evidence that either boy suffered from such a disorder, the records state.

"Professionals commented on her credibility, articulation and knowledge without considering her ability to deceive or misrepresent," the outside review said. It's called "confirmatory bias," and it's a well-known issue in child-abuse investigations. Put simply, parents who come across well are more likely to be believed.

Even if the other professionals didn't recognize problems, Tyler's teachers saw something was amiss. On numerous occasions, Tyler and his foster brother told teachers they were abused by DeLeon and her adult daughter, and the school called CPS several times.

Both women denied abusing the boys. The boys told investigators their stories but were deemed not credible.

"Confidence in Ms. DeLeon had a significant impact on the assessment of all the events that occurred in her home," the outside review states.

Since Tyler's death in 2005, DSHS has made numerous changes. Among other things, its computerized records have improved, so histories like DeLeon's will be more easily identified. And Gov. Christine Gregoire required the agency to complete high-risk child-abuse investigations within 24 hours of a report; DSHS says it meets that goal 96 percent of the time.

Yet child advocates such as Novotny aren't satisfied the agency is doing enough. "It's unbelievable how often this is happening," she said, noting that her firm represents many clients who were allegedly abused while under DSHS care.

DSHS, in fact, has been the state's most-sued agency for a decade, but most cases are settled before trial.

In 2004, the agency agreed to make dozens of changes to the foster-care system in response to a class-action lawsuit. But it has had trouble meeting some of the agreed-upon goals, some because of financial constraints, others for reasons that are unclear.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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