Parents file $10 million claim against Riverside County for death of ‘Princess Diane’ – San Bernardino Sun

October 11, 2019 in San Bernandino


Her body was confined to a wheelchair, but her mind was sharp and her heart was full. At 17, “Princess Diane” Ramirez had big plans for the future: She wanted to go to college, get a California ID, open a savings account, move out of a foster home for severely disabled kids and live again with her dad, whom she adored.

Diane didn’t like to wear socks or shoes. She was a bit “boy crazy,” lighting up with peals of delight whenever anyone mentioned Jeff Miller, the star quarterback for Murrieta Mesa High School who took her to the school’s “Spectacular Prom.” Her dad was putting the finishing touches on Diane’s new room when he got the call on April 6:

Diane, who he had just visited the day before, was dead.

An autopsy concluded an obstruction caused by a twisted intestine was to blame, something that might have been corrected had Diane gone to the hospital at the first signs of distress.

An investigation by the state Department of Social Services concluded that the Michelle Morris foster home in Murrieta — controversial across two counties for nearly 20 years — “neglected to obtain emergency medical care for (Diane) in a timely manner.” The staff’s actions posed “an immediate risk to the children placed in care,” it said.

Foster mother Morris, 78, refused to sign the document when social workers presented it to her in September, but in many ways it was moot: She had surrendered her foster license in May, about a month after Diane’s death.

Diane’s parents, Alberto Ramirez Jr. and Angel Ramirez, filed a $10 million claim against Riverside County on Oct. 3, saying the county knew — or should have known — that placing Diane in Morris’ home “was a death sentence waiting to happen.”

“There have been so many red flags over the years — so many reports that something there is wrong,” said attorney Charles Krolikowski, who represents Diane’s parents. “The county sends social workers to go out to ‘investigate’ complaints for 15 minutes. The social workers can’t talk to the kids themselves, because most of the kids are nonverbal. So they talk to the foster parents, who say the reports are wrong and everything is fine. Then they leave.”

Calls for comment went unanswered at the Morris home, and messages left on cellphones were not returned.

Riverside County officials said they could not discuss details due to impending litigation and client confidentiality. “However, when a critical incident occurs, our hearts are broken,” spokeswoman Brooke Federico said. “We strive to understand the circumstances surrounding that injury or death as part of our commitment to continuous improvement and ensuring the highest safeguards for children.

“Since May, the Children’s Services Division at the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services put a number of measures into effect. Those measures include expanded safeguards, enhanced training for social workers, extended hours in the Specialized Placement Unit to better accommodate child placements, expanded audits for high-risk cases and stronger contracts with foster family agencies to ensure supervision and compliance with policies and best practices.”

In life, an indomitable spirit

Diane was a holiday baby, born on Dec. 15, 2001. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and other challenges, she nonetheless had an indomitable spirit and mischievous sense of humor that people found infectious.

She was in 11th grade, assessed at grade level and flourishing at Murrieta Mesa High School, where her “prom-posal” to quarterback Miller made the TV news, and where she’d place fake spiders in her locker to scare the teachers who helped her open it, according to records and family members.

From her birth until 2018, Diane lived with both her parents and siblings. Then the Ramirezes separated. A difficult divorce ensued. Diane spent the majority of time with her mother, visiting often with her father, until her mother’s personal issues made caring for Diane difficult. Her father was not yet in a situation where he could take over, so the county temporarily placed Diane in the Morris home while the parents worked toward reunification.

Complaints about the quality of Diane’s care soon followed. Morris “does not take good care of Diane or the children she takes and ‘is just doing it for the money,’ ” one of Diane’s teachers told county workers, according to social workers’ internal logs.

The state pays about $6,000 per month for the care of one severely disabled child in foster care. Morris was licensed for five, and had adopted several more disabled children for which she also received adoption assistance from the government.

The teacher also complained that the school’s concerns were not being taken seriously, including reports of four seizures at school from October 2018 to February 2019. Morris “was questioning whether Diane was having seizures, when the staff has seen Diane having the seizures,” the logs said. The teacher said Morris “always minimizes their concerns.”

Social workers followed up on a complaint about this to the county child abuse hotline. “The caregiver reported she has doubts whether Diane actually had seizures, as she has not seen them,” says a county report. “The caregiver stated that Diane ‘gets a lot of attention’ when she has a seizure, so the caregiver believes this may be a reason why Diane has reported seizures.”

Diane’s Tobii communication device was often uncharged for visits with family and social workers as well and during school, effectively silencing her, according to the complaint logs. “The caregiver indicated that Diane gets tired while using the ‘Toby” (sic) and that Diane ‘doesn’t like it.’ ” After complaints, the device was charged up and often available, records show.

Diane also received a feeding tube directly into her stomach, which Morris said allowed Diane to finally gain weight. There were several reports, however, that the feeding tube would fall out and be shoved back in without proper cleaning or disinfecting, according to the parents’ claim.

This feeding tube — and the restrictions on solid food that it entailed — would become a point of contention in Diane’s death.

Spiral into death

Morris “explained that Diane’s main problem was eating by mouth,” a county report said. “She states the more they got to know her the more they realized she did not like to eat food. However, she was a people pleaser and would do it to please others.”

Morris accused school officials of feeding Diane solid food, which Morris said made Diane vomit dark brown, dried blood and required suctioning. Officials insisted they did not feed Diane by mouth.

Diane was visiting regularly with her father, and Morris accused him of feeding her by mouth as well — a charge he also denied.

It was an ongoing struggle for months, Morris told social workers.

By February, Diane was missing her family and longed to reunite with them, according to reports. She told them she needed help and asked for therapy. On Feb. 28, social workers requested a new placement for Diane, saying: “The child’s current placement has failed to meet the child’s needs.”

However, Diane wasn’t moved.

On April 2, Diane “appeared down and was not smiling as usual,” and began to vomit. She went to the hospital, where she was stabilized and released. Morris “was given specific discharge instructions, which indicated that should Diane’s condition worsen and include vomiting of blood, Michelle was to call 911 and have Diane transported to the ER immediately,” according to the county claim. Morris was instructed to follow up with Diane’s doctor in one or two days — or sooner if the girl’s condition worsened.

On April 5, Diane had a visit with her father. They went to the mall for a few hours, played video games and popped in and out of stores. Alberto Ramirez said Diane was feeling fine and showed no signs of ill health or discomfort, according to the autopsy.

But that night, at about 11:30 p.m., Morris heard a thud. She went to Diane’s room and found Diane “throwing up all over herself” and having difficulty breathing, according to county reports. The vomit was brown, which suggested old blood, Morris told officials with the Department of Social Services.

Staffers used another child’s medical equipment to suction Diane and administer oxygen. She was also given Zofran for nausea. Despite the hospital discharge orders, Morris did not call 911 or take Diane to the hospital. She told staffers Diane was sick because her father fed her solid food and would be all right, according to the reports.

The staffer who was up that night with Diane was not so sure. She “felt that Diane was not herself, and expressed concern to (Morris) that they should take her” to the hospital, a county report says. “Diane did not go to sleep and moaned all night.”

As the sky lightened with morning, Diane appeared alert, the reports say. She was suctioned again. But the situation soon changed: Diane’s pulse disappeared. An ambulance was summoned at 7:53 a.m., some eight hours after she began to vomit.

Diane was in full cardiac arrest when she arrived at the Inland Valley Medical Center, and was declared dead at 8:45 a.m., according to the state and coroner’s reports. “The attending nurse expressed concern about Diane’s blood sugar; it was so low it was untraceable,” the state report said.

An assistant coroner said that if Diane was vomiting blood on Friday, the caregiver should have called 911 right away.

“What kind of monsters would allow a young disabled girl to sustain such suffering?” the parents’ claim says. “This warrants a criminal investigation.”

Red flags

The Riverside County coroner’s autopsy on Diane took months to complete. She died from a “small bowel infarction” due to a “small bowel volvulus,” it concluded — essentially, an obstruction caused by a twisted intestine.

A proper diagnosis could have been made, and surgical treatment could have been provided, if the symptoms were observed sooner, Diane’s pediatric gastroenterologist at the Rady’s Children Hospital in San Diego told the California Department of Social Services.

While the state substantiated the claim that the Morris home neglected to get emergency medical care for Diane in a timely manner, it did not substantiate the claim that this directly lead to Diane’s death. “The Department has determined the staff negligence in initiating emergency medical services for (Diane) may or may not have played a factor in the child’s demise and is not supported or proven by the evidence gathered,” the DSS report said.

The coroner said Diane died of natural causes. Still, the parents contend, the county should have known better.

Complaints and accusations against the home began in Orange County, where Morris, a former social worker herself, entered the foster business in 1994.

Officials from the Orange County Regional Center — the agency that funds services for the disabled with public dollars — voiced serious concern about “the quality of care and health and safety of the consumers residing at the Michelle Morris Home” in the Tustin foothills and charged that Morris suffered from Munchausen by proxy, a behavior disorder in which caretakers exaggerate children’s health problems to gain attention and sympathy, subjecting them to unnecessary or inappropriate medical treatment, according to records.

Morris sued, accusing officials of slander, defamation and violations of child-abuse reporting laws. The agency’s insurer settled the case for $750,000 with no admission of wrongdoing, rather than face a jury trial where disabled children could take the stand.

In 2007, Morris moved to Riverside County to, in her words, escape “persecution.” “Only after Diane’s death did the county finally act” against her, the parents’ claim contends.

Heartbroken by the loss of their daughter, Diane’s parents hope this case ensures that no other children are put in harm’s way, and that more rigorous checks and balances for foster homes are put in place so other parents don’t have to endure their pain.



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