Rafael Gomez was the tragic poster child for all that was wrong with Washington’s child welfare system.
Nearly ten years after his tragic death at the hand of his abusive mother Rafael’s surviving siblings are having problems of their own with the State Department of Social and Health Services, according to the boy’s oldest sister.
“We look so happy, but it’s not really like this,” said 20 year old Maria Gomez as she looked at a photo of herself with her four sisters and brothers.
“I would love from them to go into a stable home that loves them, that actually wants them,” says Gomez.
She says that since their mother was sent to prison for Raffy’s death several years ago, none of the children has been adopted, none live in the same foster home and they have all bounced around through up to seven foster homes apiece.
Gomez says she’s also had a hard time getting visitation with her siblings.
“We’ve been in this for 10 years and they have no permanency, they have no home, they just keep getting moved all the time,” says Gomez.
At least one foster care expert says the Gomez case could underscore a larger problem in Washington State.
“This is happening far too often. Some of these kids feel like we’ve forgotten about them,” says Casey Trupin, an attorney and child welfare advocate.
Washington isn't living up to its parts of its agreement in a landmark 2004 court case.
The state hasn't met the requirement that 75 percent of foster kids be placed with their siblings, as it agreed to do in a settlement in Braam v. Washington State.
Only 62 percent of foster kids were placed with their siblings last year, according to a report by the Braam oversight panel.
The State is woefully short of the 90 percent of siblings who are supposed to receive monthly visits with their brothers and sisters.
Only half met that mark last year.
"I think when siblings are separated from each other in foster care, it's about as big a deal as possible. They're losing the last connection to family that they may have,” says Trupin.
Trupin says the State has done well making meeting other benchmarks since the Braam settlement.
The State Department of Social and Health Services had lots of evidence that Raffy Gomez was being abused in his mother’s home.
Maribel Gomez blamed Raffy’s tantrums and his behavior for the broken bones, burns and wounds that CPS workers recorded after he’d been home with his mother.
Foster mom Denise Griffith feared for Raffy’s life, but three times CPS workers decided to send Raffy back to his biological mother.
It was a fatal decision.
Raffy died from repeated blows to the head in 2003. His mother was eventually convicted in his death and is now in prison.
“At first I thought it was my fault because I didn’t do anything about it. But I told myself I was so young I didn’t know any better,” says Maria, who witnessed some of the abuse.
The state responds
A spokesperson for the Department of Social and Health Services say the agency feels it handled the care of the Gomez children correctly.
In a statement, DSHS says Gomez has been in regular contact with her siblings.
“The challenge more recently is that Maria is living in Seattle and the children are in two different Eastern Washington communities. Including Maria in the visits is more difficult now then when she lived nearer to her siblings.”
DSHS would not comment on an specifics regarding the younger Gomez children and their foster care situation, citing client confidentiality.
Maria Gomez says she feels alone trying to hold her family together, even the little brother whose gravesite she visits in Central Washington.
"I go visit his grave, take him flowers on his birthday and stuff like that. Just when I'm feeling down I go see him," she says.