HARTFORD—The state's top child welfare official was sharply critical Thursday of the way a hospital handled the case of a 3-year-old who police say was beaten to death, saying doctors could have saved the girl's life if they had noticed possible signs of previous abuse.
Athena Angeles was taken to Windham Hospital early on the morning of Nov. 23 with a cut to the head that required stitches, and her mother took her home. Later that night, an ambulance took her back to Windham Hospital and the girl died.
Athena more closely -- and looked at their own records -- they would have suspected that she had been abused, said Joette Katz, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families.
Athena's death, which led to the arrests of both the girl's mother and her boyfriend, has prompted Katz to step up a program to help hospitals across the state do a better job of catching signs of abuse or neglect.
DCF became involved with the family after Athena was taken to a local health clinic in Willimantic on Oct. 18 with two black eyes and a cut on her nose, according to an arrest warrant for Athena's mother, Rosa Gladis Diaz-Mendez. A doctor at the clinic made a referral to DCF.
Diaz-Mendez told the doctor, a DCF caseworker and at least one family advocate with the Windham Early Childhood Center that Athena bruised easily.
The child received a CT scan at Windham Hospital for facial bruises in October, Katz said. She said the October case was determined to be an accident.
"Had they looked at their records and seen the prior bruises and done a body examination and seen more recent bruises, my thoughts are that this child would be alive today," Katz said.
Windham Hospital has been working to improve the way it handles young patients, said spokeswoman Heather Tindall.
"Our sympathies are with the family during this time. Clearly, we are troubled by this tragic incident, which has motivated us to improve and develop a better process to identify and protect children who are at risk of abuse," Tindall said in a written statement. She said the hospital has not made any recommendations for changes yet.
Katz has been working with Dr. Lenworth M. Jacobs of Hartford Hospital, chairman of the Connecticut State Committee on Trauma, to come up with new guidelines for handling children who are treated for injuries at emergency rooms.
The guidelines, which Katz hopes will be put in place at the more than two dozen hospitals in the state, focus on children younger than 6, who are less likely to be in school, where staff members might pick up on signs of abuse.
Among other things, the guidelines will suggest that hospital staff review medical records that identify previous injuries to the child and reports that indicate whether DCF has been involved with the family, she said.
Katz said hospitals "treat the injury, but they don't always examine the child. ... They don't do a really thorough look at their own records."
Athena's mother and her live-in boyfriend, Fredy Alexander-Chingo Riz, have been charged with manslaughter in the girl's death. Riz was arrested in November; Diaz-Mendez was charged this week.
According to the warrants for their arrests, Riz told police he lost his patience with Athena in October because she refused to eat. He brought her into the bedroom and punched her in the forehead, the warrants state. Diaz-Mendez, who was working at the time, did not take the girl to the doctor when she got home even though the 3-year-old's face was swollen.
On Nov. 22, Riz told police, he again got angry at the child for not eating. He took her into the bathroom and "punched her in the stomach causing her to fall backwards striking the back of her head against the edge of the bathroom sink," the warrant states.
When Diaz-Mendez got home from work, Riz told her Athena must have hurt herself, the warrant states. Diaz-Mendez took Athena to Windham Hospital, where she received two staples.
About 9 p.m. on Nov. 23, after Diaz-Mendez had gone to work, Riz and Athena were eating in his bedroom. Athena was not eating the sausages Riz had cut up for her, and once again, he became upset, he told police.
He punched her in the stomach, causing her to fall backward into a wooden closet door, the warrant states. He later noticed she was pretending to eat and he grabbed her by the arm, lifted her up and punched her in the ribs.
Athena died later that night.