SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — When 22-month-old Tyler James Walter died while in foster care in 2018, the ABC 10News investigative team sought to understand how it happened.
After a year of asking the County of San Diego, Team 10 filed a legal request asking the County to release all of the child's court and social worker files.
A judge agreed, and we got around 700 pages of documents that detail the last days of Tyler James Walter's short life.
Tyler should be a little more than 4-years-old now, but instead of playing at a park with friends, he died in the parking lot of a Long Beach park two years ago.
"The victim here was a baby, and the price he paid was his life," said Shawn McMillan, attorney for Tyler's mom Lisa Walter.
The new court-ordered documents show the County's efforts to monitor the toddler who was placed with his teenage relative out-of-county, but experts say they also raise some questions.
WHAT HAPPENED FIRST
In June 2018 Tyler was taken away from his mother after a search of her house uncovered drugs. Lisa Walter was arrested, and Tyler was placed in protective custody.
Social workers petitioned the Juvenile Court to begin dependency proceedings. After about a month with a classified foster placement, Tyler was placed with a relative: his mother's 19-year-old relative who lived in Long Beach.
Child advocate experts have questioned this move by the County.
"We want to favor relatives, and we do, but usually we're talking about grandparents or uncles or aunts or sisters or brothers," said Robert Felmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at University of San Diego in a 2019 interview.
We're not naming Tyler's foster parent because she hasn't been accused of anything.
According to a legal response to Lisa's lawsuit the County of San Diego said, "Although Lisa requested TW (Tyler Walter) be left with (Tyler's Grandmother), E and K (social workers) placed him in protective custody. Social Workers then petitioned the juvenile court to begin dependency proceedings."
With Tyler's grandmother not given the placement, court records state, "Lisa told social workers she'd like Tyler to be placed with her relative."
The documents say she had concerns about her relative being too young, but she believed her relative would provide good care for Tyler.
In the documents, the social worker states that Lisa was willing to do "whatever it took" to be reunited with Tyler and would immediately enter drug treatment and participate in reunification services.
An emergency placement was approved, and a few days later, Tyler was in Long Beach.
The records don't detail how the court ultimately decided to greenlight the placement of a young child with a teenager. But they do state that there was "clear and convincing evidence the child should be removed from the custody of the mother" and "the court finds there is a relative who is able and willing to care for the child."
The court records also say, "Reasonable efforts are being made to identify and finalize a permanency plan that is in effect for the child; the current placement of the child is necessary and appropriate; and the child is being provided adequate and reasonable services. The social worker has used due diligence in conducting an investigation to identify, locate, and notify all of the child's relatives within 30 days of the child's removal from the home of his/her parent or guardian."
TYLER'S NEW HOME
That was the end of July 2018.
According to the social workers' log, staff made phone calls regularly through most of August before making an announced home visit to see Tyler and his approved caregiver on Aug. 29, 2018. Tyler's new home also operated as a daycare.
There were a few more phone calls and then another announced visit to his home in Long Beach on Sept. 21, 2018.
On that day, the social worker noticed a small dime-sized bruise on his left cheekbone and a small scrape next to the bruise. It was explained away as an accident involving Tyler and a tricycle.
Tyler's caregivers told the social worker that day they had recently taken him to the ER because he was "fussy and was not eating much." They tried to see a pediatrician but had issues with Tyler's health insurance.
They talked about other things and toured the house; nothing seemed off, which was the end of the visit. The social worker who visited the home reported that overall, Tyler seemed well cared for.
The next day, he died.
THE FACTS SURROUNDING TYLER'S DEATH
A homicide detective contacted the San Diego social workers and informed them of Tyler's death. That's when they found out Tyler and his caregiver weren't living at the house they'd just visited.
There'd been a falling out, and Tyler's foster parent was asked to leave the house. According to the court records provided to ABC 10News, she'd been staying with a friend in the days leading up to his death.
According to a Child Welfare Services Critical Incident Report the caregiver, her girlfriend and Tyler began living in a car that was parked in a park near Long Beach. Released court records note the morning of Tyler's death, he was babysat by a friend of his caregiver. They reported that he was fussy the whole day.
Later, his caregiver went to the park and smoked marijuana in the car with the windows down, Tyler in the backseat.
His caregiver looked back, and Tyler was "lifeless." She attempted CPR at the park before Tyler was taken to the hospital, where he died.
An autopsy later revealed the cause of death was blunt head trauma, but the manner of death was undetermined.
AN ACCIDENT OR SOMETHING ELSE?
Tyler's mother Lisa sued the County of San Diego, claiming wrongful death and failure to provide minimally adequate care and ensure his continued safety, among other things. Her lawsuit asks for no less than $5 million.
Her lawsuit asserts, "The day Tyler was taken from his mother, he was up to date on all vaccinations, well-nourished, well developed, and showed no signs of distress whatsoever. It took just three months in San Diego County's care for Tyler to turn from a happy and healthy toddler – into a dead one."
"It's really the government's complete and total failure to do what they were supposed to do for this child," McMillan said.
San Diego County won't comment on the claims saying there's an active lawsuit. However, the County filed a motion to dismiss, a legal filing where they argue the lawsuit is legally invalid.
In the filing the County wrote in part, "The Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee that individuals in the County's care (whether it be foster children or incarcerated individuals) be constitutionally protected from all harm sustained while under their care. There is not strict liability for individuals in protective custody. In fact, a state actor's negligent conduct does not violate an individual's substantive due process rights. In other words, a social worker is not automatically liable when a child is injured in foster care."
Team 10 shared about 200 pages of the court documents we received through our petition with Jessica Heldman, a professor in residence in child rights at the University of San Diego.
"Looking over the documents that you shared with me, frankly it raises more questions and important questions than it actually answers," said Heldman.
Heldman went on to explain, "It seems like requirements for visits were met by the San Diego County social workers, but there's still questions about whether given some of the considerations about the caregiver - her age - whether additional visits might have been valuable."
Heldman also said she'd like to know more about Los Angeles County's involvement in the out-of-county placement.
Experts say state law requires if a child is placed in another county, then that county needs to know about it.
The two counties will decide who will be responsible for assessments and monitoring moving forward.
Records show LA County was notified a child from San Diego County would be placed in LA County.
Based on the court documents Team 10 received, it's unclear what communication the two counties had in the months after his placement.
Team 10 asked LA County for more information, but a spokesperson for the Department of Child and Family Services said confidentiality laws prohibit them from providing case-specific information.
"As you may know, state law protects the confidentiality of records for all children and families that come to the attention of child protective services, and prohibits confirming whether a child or family has been involved with the department. These laws are intended to protect the privacy of any siblings or family members and to respect sensitive family matters," the spokeperson said.
Lisa's lawsuit against the County is in limbo. The County tried to get it thrown out, a judge said it could move forward, and the County appealed that decision.
Now, both sides are awaiting a decision from the appeals court.