Sherill Small was headed to criminal court for passing a bad check when a state-hired company approved her to care for foster children.
Her husband has two convictions for delivery of marijuana, court records show. Her two adult daughters, who live in the area and visit the Small house, had legal problems of their own. One served prison time for robbery. Court records show the other has an unresolved drug charge.
Still, Texas Mentor, the child placing agency, approved the Smalls as foster parents, and it continued to send them children even when the home showed more signs of trouble.
Now Small is charged with murder in the death of Alexandria Hill, a 2-year-old girl in her care. Police say the 54-year-old Rockdale woman slammed Alex’s head on the floor, causing a traumatic brain injury that killed the toddler two days later.
It is unclear how many warning signs Texas Mentor saw when it licensed the Smalls as foster parents last fall, but the case illustrates the kind of judgment calls that child placing agencies have to make when choosing caretakers. And it underscores weaknesses in a fragmented system that spreads the responsibility for 11,500 children among more than 200 private vendors.
The state takes custody of children. Private organizations find them homes. Subcontractors often study homes for eligibility. That splintered process makes it much more complicated to deconstruct why warning signs were missed, parent advocates say.
Officials with Child Protective Services say the state shoulders the blame for Alex’s death. But the current system makes it nearly impossible for the state to know what’s going on with the children, said Johana Scot with the Parent Guidance Center, which advocates for parents of minors in the foster system.
“They’re trusting that people like Texas Mentor do what they’re supposed to do,” Scot said. “But do they really have capacity to monitor those contracts? Probably not.”
This year, the state put even more responsibility into private hands by hiring Providence Service Corp. to coordinate foster care services for children in West Texas. And that, Scot said, adds more layers of bureaucracy.
“It keeps going on, letting them kick the can down the road, and the kid is still dead,” she said.
Texas Mentor, the child placing agency that signed off on the Smalls, said it couldn’t specifically discuss Alex’s case because of privacy laws and the ongoing criminal investigation. But the Austin-based company says it takes numerous steps to ensure the safety of its foster homes, such as ordering background checks, conducting extensive interviews and performing home studies.
The Smalls met the legal requirements to be foster care parents, said Wendy Bagwell, Texas Mentor’s state director. The company is “appalled” by the allegations against the family, she said, and is working closely with investigators.
“Our team is committed to providing safe and caring homes for the children of our state, and we take our obligation to select nurturing foster families seriously,” Bagwell said.
The state is investigating whether Texas Mentor adequately vetted the Small family before approving them as foster parents, said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for Child Protective Services. The state also wants to know whether the group ordered background checks on frequent or regular guests to the Small home.
Based on what the state has discovered in its preliminary investigation, Child Protective Services is now doing safety checks on about two dozen of the 70 or so foster homes in the Austin area monitored by Texas Mentor, Crimmins said.
“This is a particularly rough case because Alexandria Hill was a foster child,” Crimmins said. “She was one of ours. In this field, children are traumatized and children are killed, and you never really get used to it, even after many years.”
Alex Hill was a healthy 2-year-old before her parents’ messy breakup landed her in foster care.
The blond, blue-eyed toddler adored butterflies and the color purple. Mary Sweeney, Alex’s mother, described her daughter as sweet, loving and smart.
“She was my angel,” Sweeney said.
Child Protective Services entered Alex’s life in early November 2012, after a family member told the agency that Sweeney and her boyfriend, Joshua Hill — both of whom lived in Williamson County — were arguing and that Alex was being neglected.
After several visits, the caseworker found no evidence that either parent had abused or neglected Alex. But investigators said they needed to remove the child from the home because the couple had physical, mental health and drug problems, court records show.
“People make mistakes,” Sweeney said. “But there was never a time that I didn’t care for her, feed her or love her.”
Texas law allows Child Protective Services to remove a child from a home if an investigator can prove to a judge that the child is at risk of harm, Crimmins said. The law doesn’t define what “at risk” means.
At first, Alex was sent to live with Hill’s mother, but that didn’t work out and the state put her in foster care.
That never should have happened, said Marty Cirkiel, Sweeney’s lawyer. The couple had agreed to go through Child Protective Services for help such as counseling, therapy and parenting classes. Those services should have been provided while Alex was still in their home, not after, Cirkiel said.
“You start off thinking as a human being, not a government,” he said.
In late November, Alex became one of the state’s 16,700 foster children.
An $11 million contract
Child Protective Services places foster children in a variety of settings: family homes, residential treatment centers, children’s shelters. Some children remain under the direct care of the state.
But about 11,500 are assigned to one of approximately 200 child placing agencies. For decades, Child Protective Services has paid these groups — some private companies, others nonprofit organizations — to recruit, train and monitor foster parents.
Over the past year, the state has paid almost $11 million to Texas Mentor, which coordinates care for about 700 children.
The Department of Public Safety conducts criminal background checks on prospective foster parents and other people who live in the home. It is up to the child placing agency to provide the names of those to be investigated. The checks are supposed to include people who regularly visit the home.
Some crimes are absolute bars to becoming a foster parent, such as murder, sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping. But child placing agencies have more latitude in other cases. People found guilty of delivering marijuana, for example, can be considered for the job.
The child placing agency is responsible for a home study that assesses the family’s home, income, relationships and other factors. Basic requirements include financial stability, a bedroom for the child and a valid driver’s license. Some agencies do their own home studies. Some hire other companies to do that work for them.
Texas Mentor does it both ways, said Sarah Magazine, the group’s spokeswoman. She declined to say who performed the Smalls’ home study.
Background checks faulted
In October 2012, the Smalls started taking in foster children. Over the next 10 months, they would house seven children, all between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 years old.
Because Texas Mentor is refusing to release any details about its decision, it’s unclear what the company knew about the Smalls before licensing them.
Court records show that Sherill Small was accused of theft by passing a hot check in February 2012 for $41.81 at a Speedy Stop in Southeast Austin. A judge signed a warrant for her arrest in August 2012, two months before she was approved as a foster parent.
Small’s husband, Clemon, had at least four misdemeanor convictions, all of which had occurred more than a decade earlier. Two of them were for delivery of marijuana, two for driving with a suspended license.
Court records show that one of Sherill Small’s adult daughters, Tracy Forester, had an unresolved misdemeanor drug possession charge at the time the Smalls were approved for foster care.
A second daughter, Amber Forester, was convicted in 2002 of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery, according to court documents. Police said she and a man staged a robbery at a gas station where she worked, taking one of her co-workers hostage before letting her go and making off with cash, lottery tickets and money orders.
Forester pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Amber and Tracy Forester couldn’t be reached for comment. Clemon Small couldn’t be contacted, and Sherill Small is in jail. Her attorney declined to comment.
Texas Mentor has been cited at least a dozen times over the past two years for failing to ensure that criminal background checks are done or updated on residents or frequent visitors to its foster homes. The state doesn’t fine child placing agencies for such failures, Crimmins said. But when problems are serious enough, it stops sending children to the agency.
“We haven’t suspended placements to Mentor homes yet,” he said
Alex went to live with the Smalls in January 2013.
It is unclear how much contact the adult daughters had with Alex and an 8-month-old foster baby in the home. But in November 2012, Amber Forester posted on Facebook a photo of an infant, stating that he was one of her parents’ foster children.
“He spends the weekend with me cause I try to give my mommy a break,” she wrote.
In June, Sherill and Clemon Small moved to Rockdale. Sherill was unemployed. Her husband ran a karaoke show at a local Mexican restaurant on Saturday nights, said Lt. J.D. Newlin of the Rockdale Police Department. The family received between $650 and $700 a month for housing Alex.
Meanwhile, Sherill Small was scheduled to appear in court on July 30 on her theft charge.
Last visit with mom
Sweeney says she never met the Smalls, but as the months passed, she said, her toddler became more withdrawn and started pulling out her own hair.
Their last visit was at an indoor playscape about a week before Alex’s death. When it was time to leave, Sweeney said, the child started screaming, kicking and crying, something she had never done before.
“I said, ‘It’s OK. I love you, baby. I’ll see you next week,’” she said. “That’s the last time I saw her.”
On July 29th, Sherill Small was upset that Alex woke up too early, and she made the toddler stand in time-out for two hours, Newlin said.
At 7:06 p.m., Sherill Small called 911 and said Alex wasn’t breathing, Newlin said. The child was flown to McLane Children’s Hospital at Scott & White in Temple, where she was put on life support. Doctors said the toddler had sustained a traumatic brain injury.
“I stood looking at her and knew in my heart she wasn’t going to make it,” Sweeney said.
On July 31, Alex’s parents took her off life support.
Small was arrested Aug. 1 after telling police that Alex’s injury was an accident that occurred while she was swinging the child over her head as they played, an affidavit says. The police say they charged her based on inconsistent details in her statement, interviews with family members and a medical examiner’s report that ruled Alex’s death a homicide.
A grand jury indicted Small on a capital murder charge last week, meaning Small could face life in prison or the death penalty if she is convicted.
“Texas Mentor should never have allowed her anywhere near that child,” Cirkiel said.
Since Alex’s death, Sweeney has created a little memorial to her daughter at home, a purple shelf decorated with Alex’s stuffed animals, pictures, sneakers and other personal items.
In the center of the display, in a box made of wood and stained glass, rest Alex’s ashes.
Andrea Ball has covered social services for the American-Statesman since 2002. Recently, her work prompted a federal investigation that concluded poor health care killed a patient at Terrell State Hospital. She has also reported about sluggish efforts to find affordable housing for homeless people and complaints about adult guardianship services in Texas.