Remembering an Angel
Liana was her sister, Isabella's best friend. They were inseparable and shared everything, until that last day in late Sept. 2001. Two months earlier, a man had moved into the house they shared with their mother, Virginia Venegal. His name was Juan Velazquez.
During visits with their father's family, severe bruises were noticed by several family members. The live-in boyfriend was the likely suspect. It was decided that in order to protect the girls, Child Protective Services would be called. One of the aunts made the phone call with the blessings of the girls' father, Anthony Sandoval. They thought Liana and Isabella would be safe and protected, but to their horror, the opposite occurred. A case worker from CPS began an investigation. She interviewed the mother and the boyfriend and they said the bruises came from the girls falling down. The preschool teacher was asked about abuse and said "the mother would never hurt the girls". The case worker filed a police report, but never followed up on it and neither did the police department.
Another aunt was interviewed and said Isabella had said, "Juan did it".
Later when Isabella was asked who hurt her, she said "Juan did it". A supervising case worker concluded that since the same words were used, that the child had been coached and the case was closed as "unsubstantiated".
One day earlier, Liana had been reported missing by her mother. Hundreds of people began searching for her, including her uncle, Gabe Cruz, who is a student at Glendale Community College and Editor of The Voice. "This tragedy had hit our family and GCC had stepped up to the cause by printing flyers about Liana's disappearance. Many volunteers passed out flyers and searched tirelessly for the little girl they didn't even know."
The next day, Virginia broke under pressure and confessed that Juan had killed Liana and together, they had disposed of her body. To make this scenario even more despicable, Isabella was in the back seat when they did this.
Several procedures by CPS were not done in this case, such as criminal background checks on people involved and medical examinations of the children. Juan Velazquez had a long history of criminal abuse, including crimes against pregnant women. Had either of those steps been taken this tragedy would not have happened.
In the weeks prior to her death, Liana was subjected to repeated beatings that finally led to her death. To disgrace this tiny soul even more, a heavy weight was tied to her little legs and her body was thrown into the dirty waters of a canal.
After Venegas and Velazquez were arrested, Anthony went to pick up his surviving daughter and hardly recognized her. She has black eyes and her head was swollen from repeated blows from an adult's fist. The torture these two little girls must have endured is unspeakable. How Isabella must feel when she told the truth and Liana still died.
Some may say CPS was negligent, even irresponsible, and contributed to not only this child's death, but several others recently. Some of the cases that have become public are Charlie Johnson, Anndreah Robertson, Henry and Odessa Greer.
Previously, the major philosophy for CPS was to keep the family intact and removing children would be an extreme last resort. The black and white guidelines might appear to be various shades of gray when it comes to child welfare. At what point should a child be removed from a dangerous situation? Shouldn't the priority be to protect the child at all costs? Had Liana been removed from her abusive surroundings, it is almost certain she would be preparing for four birthday instead of her family having to visit her grave. Ironically, the man accused of killing her is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 25th, the two year anniversary of Liana's death and the National Day of Remembrance for murder victims.
There is a movement working towards reformation and improvement of CPS. Maricopa County Attorney General, Rick Romley is leading the cause. For years, he has been trying to improve the child welfare system either through legislative or political methods. As recent as Sept. 9th, his team went before the legislature on behalf of all children. He has commissioned a report entitled "In Harm's Way" that explains conflicts in CPS policy and offers suggestions for improving the system. Liana is featured in this report.
Part of the problem, according to child welfare expert, Richard Gelles, is the persistent unwillingness to put children first. Children hold the same unalienable rights as adults; to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now is the time to heed their cries for help, to help them when they cannot help themselves.
Some of the changes proposed by the report are: The legislature should change the primary goal of CPS to child protection. Establish a protocol as a required standard so all cases would be handled in a competent way. Remove CPS from the Department of Economic Security and improve competency, training, and retention of CPS workers. Improve and strengthen mandatory reporting laws. Child abuse and neglect laws need to be clarified and strengthened. Define "imminent danger" more clearly. Mandate coordination of child abuse investigation protocols and timelines between CPS and Police Departments. Confidentiality laws must be reviewed and amended to open records and proceedings to other professionals and to the public.
You, too, can be a part of the child protection overhaul. Mr. Romley urges us to contact Govenor Napolitano and our legislators to express support for reform. We must act now if we are going to protect our most precious assets - our children. If we don't try, then who will?
Isabella is recovering from her injuries and still asks about her sister. She doesn't like being away from her father and stays close by his side. Also, she is receiving counseling for her ordeal and her life is getting somewhat back to normal.
Some of her family members have received grief counseling from the Counseling Services center at GCC. The services are free to any student and the staff is highly qualified. Grief is a very heavy burden to carry alone and sometime it helps to share the load. Walk-ins are welcomed or appointment are available.
Department Director, Susan High, and her staff are eager to help. The center is open Monday through Saturday.
It's hard to forget an angel. Although Liana hardly had time to live, her life has made a large contribution to the future of Child Protective Services and how suspected child abuse cases are handled. Hopefully, no child will have to endure pain and suffering like Liana. Change will come. It is her legacy.