Early childhood educators, doctors at a clinic and state child-protection workers had interaction with an often bruised and injured Athena Angeles and her mother in the weeks before the 3-year-old was allegedly beaten to death last year by the mother's live-in boyfriend.
On Oct. 18, five weeks before Athena's death, the state Department of Children and Families was called in over safety concerns for Athena and her younger sister, court records show. At that point, Athena had two black eyes and a badly swollen face, but her mother explained away the injuries, and no steps were taken to further intervene in the household.
Athena's mother, Rosa G. Diaz-Mendez, of 112 Hope St., Willimantic, was charged Tuesday with manslaughter for her role in her daughter's death. Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, announced new hospital guidelines Thursday that call for a review of all treatment records and a full-body examination when children are brought in with injuries. Diaz-Mendez's boyfriend was arrested in November.
Thus far, the focus has been on the actions of Windham Hospital, where Athena was treated for a head injury and released early in the morning of Nov. 23, 2011. Later that night, Athena was rushed back to Windham Hospital. She was transferred to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center and died later that night.
Katz was critical this week of Windham Hospital's decision to release the child on the morning of Nov. 23 without a review of her medical history and a complete physical examination. She said the new guidelines will improve the way hospitals deal with injured children.
Katz did not address DCF's involvement in Athena's case Friday, but she called the death a "terrible tragedy."
"We are not interested in pointing fingers," she said in a statement. "We are focused on working together with our partners in the medical and private service provider communities to make improvements to how we collectively respond to children in situations such as these."
Court documents show Athena's family received a number of visits from child-welfare workers in the four months before her death, and Athena's bruises caught the attention of a series of caregivers.
A family advocate with the child's preschool, the Windham Early Childhood Center, was assigned to Athena in August 2011, when the mother first expressed concerns that Athena and her sister bruised easily. In September, the advocate was contacted by one of Athena's teachers about a bruise on the child's nose. The mother suggested the injury must have happened on the school bus. In early October, the advocate noticed another bruise on Athena.
Arrest documents show that on Oct. 18, 2011, a doctor at a Willimantic health clinic noted injuries to Athena's face and made the DCF referral. The child's doctor also considered whether she has a medical condition that might have made her bruise easily, but subsequent blood testing proved negative.
Earlier that day, the family advocate at Athena's preschool program in Windham visited Athena and her mother at home and noted the child's eyes "were both black, and her face was so swollen that
Athena could barely open her eyes,'' according to the arrest affidavit by state police detectives.
The advocate told Diaz-Mendez to go to the clinic, where the doctor made the referral.
A different advocate from the preschool paid two other visits to the family in early and mid-November and did not report noticing any injuries to the child. Athena was twice assaulted later in the month, authorities say.
"We feel we did our part, that we did all we could,'' said Mary Jane Crotty, director of early childhood education for the Windham public schools, on Friday.
Diaz-Mendez repeatedly told caseworkers and doctors that she thought her daughter bruised easily, possibly because of a blood disorder, the warrant states. On other occasions, the mother explained fresh injuries on Athena by saying the child had tripped and fallen or that her younger sister had hit her with a toy. When she was asked directly, she said that her boyfriend, Fredy Alexander-Chingo Riz, did not hit Athena, according to the warrant.
Riz, charged in November with manslaughter, felony assault and risk of injury to a minor, admitted to detectives that he punched and struck Athena several times when the child wouldn't eat.
After Athena's death, her younger sister was examined and found to have bruises. She has been placed in foster care.
DCF records contain an interview with Diaz-Mendez about the events of Oct. 18, 2011, the day of the home visit by the childhood advocate and the doctor's referral to DCF.
"DCF records reveal that ... Rosa said she could see the children playing from where she was in the kitchen. Rosa stated that Athena tripped over a hard plastic toy and fell, hitting the bridge of her nose on the bed rail,'' the arrest warrant states.
"Rosa explained that Athena got right up and continued to play without crying,'' the warrant reports.
But when detectives interviewed the boyfriend after Athena's death, he admitted that at one point in October while Rosa was at work, he was alone in the apartment with Athena and Artimesa.
"During dinner, Athena refused to eat. Fredy stated that he lost patience with Athena and brought her into her bedroom. He then punched Athena in the forehead at the bridge of her nose with his knuckles and left her in the bedroom,'' the warrant states.
Riz also admitted to assaulting Athena on Nov. 22, sending her to the hospital with a gaping cut on her head, and again on Nov. 23, leading to her death.
On Oct. 26, eight days after the initial referral to DCF, Athena's mother, the early-childhood advocate and the DCF social worker had a meeting.
The advocate "voiced her concerns to DCF about the lack of supervision of Athena and Artimesa,'' the warrant states. The advocate also said that Diaz-Mendez had changed her explanation about the Oct. 18 injury, saying in a new version that the child had simply fallen into the bed rail, the warrant states.
Katz on Friday reiterated her call for child-welfare agencies to cooperate with each other.
"The best way for us to honor the life of this little girl is to work together -- all of us -- to improve our responses in the future. The medical, private provider and child protection systems are interdependent, and all are working together in the best interest of children. We are committed to improve that cooperative work so that we can better serve children and families going forward."
Series Of Caregivers Saw Marks On Child, 3, Before Death
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