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Court documents tell sordid tale in child's death

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007

They affectionately nicknamed her "Tater tot."

The caseworkers and their contractors -- at Penn State Cooperative Extension and Outreach, Armstrong County Children, Youth & Family Services and the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau -- dutifully recorded the nearly daily traumas that tiny Kristen Tatar endured.

From her birth in 1999, through nearly two years of foster care and the 2001 court order that returned her to parents Janet Crawford and James Tatar, and then in the weeks leading up to her 2003 starvation murder in her Parks home, the words put to paper would fill a steamer trunk.

Days after detectives discovered her emaciated corpse stuffed into a cooler next to a Kepple Hill trash can, these same social service agencies began doctoring documents and destroying details that pointed to their own negligence, according to a 68-pound mound of federal court filings, e-mail traffic and paperwork culled over the past three years as part of a wrongful death lawsuit.

The filings allege:

• Penn State Cooperative Extension personnel admitted to burning documents that might be potentially embarrassing to the university and Westmoreland County officials;

• Armstrong County supervisors and caseworkers conceded they added entries to Kristen's case files after state police found her body;

• Armstrong County became so convinced that Westmoreland County child welfare employees altered documents that they hired a forensic chemist who is scheduled to testify that dates and signatures on forms don't match.

The trial is set to begin in April before U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Lancaster in Pittsburgh.

Brought by Kristen's aunt, Cathy Fondrk of Hyde Park, on behalf of the child's surviving brother, the lawsuit names Penn State and Extension supervisor Nancy Wallace; Westmoreland County and employees Daniel Fitzpatrick, Marilyn McSparrin and Sandra Pallatto; Armstrong County and caseworker Stephen Fancella; former Armstrong County caseworker Carla Danovsky; and Kristen's parents, who are serving life prison terms for their 2004 murder convictions.

"There's only so much we can do to change the laws to protect children, so we have to use the courts to make the agencies themselves change," said Fondrk, who adopted Kristen's brother.

From birth, Kristen suffered from a rare but treatable stomach ailment. Within weeks, Children's Hospital doctors diagnosed her with "failure to thrive" syndrome because her parents weren't feeding her, a pattern of abject disregard that would be repeated for the rest of her life in the case files. Her parents tied a pacifier to her mouth and roped her to a seat to keep her still; they failed to feed, bathe or nurture her; they skipped her routine medical appointments; they dodged caseworkers by moving.

In 1999 and 2000, the Children's Bureau twice rescued Kristen and placed her into foster care. By May 2001, officials sought adoptive parents, hoping against returning her to the biological parents who had fled across the Westmoreland County line to Parks in Armstrong County.

Four months later, Westmoreland County officials changed their minds. They urged a judge to reunite Kristen with her parents. Although Pallatto testified during a Sept. 17, 2001, hearing that she was "under a little bit of pressure to transfer the case to Armstrong, which I don't want to do," judges returned Kristen to her parents under a plan designed to keep child welfare workers monitoring the situation for six months. After that, the case would transfer, if necessary, to Armstrong County.

During the monitoring period, Pallatto's supervisor, Dan Fitzpatrick, wrote a 2002 report citing "remarkable progress" on the part of Kristen's parents. But Pallatto disagreed, firing off a memo that Kristen was losing weight and that Tatar and Crawford were lying about taking her to medical appointments.

"As soon as they thought the case was closed, they stopped being medically responsible," Pallatto wrote.

Despite her warnings, Pallatto's files show that she marked the case "closed due to progress." She then phoned Armstrong County and alerted officials that "problems continue to exist" with Kristen's family, saying caseworkers needed to get "into the home ASAP to monitor situation," according to court documents.

In their lawsuit, Armstrong County officials and plaintiffs' attorneys James R. Hankle and Jennifer R. Andrade contend that's when Westmoreland County officials began to bungle the transfer and later sought to cover it up, allegations the Children's Bureau denies.

Because Kristen's family no longer lived in Westmoreland County, protocol demanded that Pallatto transfer the case and accompanying reports and documents to Armstrong County. According to court filings, Pallatto promised to send a dossier including the case file, "legal info, dictation, etc." to Armstrong officials. Without those documents, Armstrong officials were led to assume that Kristen's family was "low risk" for abusing her.

Pallatto insisted she faxed the information. But records show Armstrong County demanded the paperwork four times, and there's no evidence officials ever received it.

These officials also believe the Children's Bureau faked dates and signatures on the paperwork that never made it to Armstrong County. They allege this occurred long after Pallatto said she sent the dossier in 2002 -- perhaps after Kristen died and before a state Department of Public Welfare investigation of agency conduct began.

Their suspicions revolve around Pallatto's paperwork. The caseworker rarely made progress forms updating Kristen's case. Instead, she copied papers more than six weeks old, whited-out past dates and then redated them in ink. This led to allegations that some creative redating occurred.

When questioning Pallatto during her deposition, for example, attorney Hankle seized on a document dated May 12, 2002, when the caseworker wrote that she closed the case. May 12 fell on a Sunday, when the New Kensington office wasn't open.

"Do you typically work on Sundays?" asked Hankle.

"No," replied Pallatto.

In her deposition, Pallatto said that in spring 2002 she amended the document showing Kristen's risk of child abuse from "low" to "moderate" and obtained signatures from supervisors before sending it to Armstrong County. If that happened, it would show that Armstrong County was informed properly about the seriousness of Kristen's plight.

But Armstrong officials hired North Carolina forensic chemist Albert H. Lyter to test the ink on Pallatto's paperwork. In Lyter's report to the court, he claimed that signatures on Pallatto's forms were added long after dates on the documents would imply, calling into question when they really were finished and sent, if ever, to Armstrong County.

Westmoreland caseworkers, supervisors and their attorneys declined to talk to the Tribune-Review. Children's Bureau Director McSparrin has told county officials that she's ending her 35-year career with the bureau.

A 2003 state investigation concluded her agency should have warned Armstrong County that the risk of abuse to Kristen was "high," not "moderate" or "low." State welfare officials called the failure to update and send the dossier to Armstrong County a "critical deficiency" and determined that lax supervision, institutional ignorance about legally transferring cases and the "infrequency" of caseworker visits to Kristen and her family contributed to the child's death.

In more than a year on Kristen's case, Pallatto visited her home only four times. She delegated most of her duties to Family Youth Advisor Pam Walmsley of Penn State's Cooperative Extension.

The agency is best known for its outreach to farmers and youths, especially its 4-H program. Walmsley did some of that, but increasingly her Greensburg office tasked her with teaching distressed families how to parent vulnerable children. By 2002, she had spent two years involved with Kristen's case.

When state officials began probing Kristen's death in 2003, investigator Mary Lou Warchola told Walmsley and her supervisor Nancy Wallace that she couldn't find documents missing from Westmoreland County's files. She wanted Walmsley to fill in the holes. The two Penn State women even thought the lady from the Welfare Department was trying to peek at Walmsley's voluminous case notes, including five fat notebooks dating to 2000.

Concerned that state investigators would attempt to get Walmsley's writings, Wallace posted a memo ordering Penn State employees to destroy all handwritten notes created for Westmoreland County. Wallace said in her deposition that Penn State supervisors, including Greensburg director Gary Sheppard, approved.

Asked why she told Walmsley to destroy documents that welfare investigators or homicide detectives could use, Wallace said, "Because they could not be reproduced."

After the state investigation, Wallace gave Walmsley her lowest performance review in nearly two decades at Penn State, writing that she "sometimes is too willing to offer information to persons in authority." In her deposition, Wallace admitted that she had been concerned since 2004 that Penn State would be dragged into a lawsuit and informed her supervisors about the case's movement through the federal court system.

On June 30, 2005, Westmoreland County ended its contract with Penn State. That same day, Wallace ordered Walmsley again to make sure she had shredded all evidence. Walmsley tried, but her files jammed the machine. So Wallace ordered Walmsley to burn the papers, an act she believed would be psychologically beneficial.

"And Nancy stated, 'And make sure that you sit down with a glass of wine and a box of Kleenex when you burn Kristen's. And get it out of your system and move on,' " Walmsley said in her deposition.

Walmsley repeatedly said in her deposition that she did it because she was afraid of Wallace and that these fears began to stymie both the hunt for a missing child and later probes into agency wrongdoing.

When Armstrong County caseworker Carla Danovsky was searching for Kristen in 2003, Walmsley didn't always return calls or tell Penn State officials that she had been asked to snoop around Kristen's house in Parks because Wallace had banned her from helping. This continued even after troopers found the child's body stuffed into a picnic cooler and a murder investigation resulted.

"She told me not to call her back, not to go to their house, to 'keep my big mouth shut or we'll lose our contract' and I'll lose my job," said Walmsley. "Those were her exact words."

Walmsley no longer works for Penn State. Wallace has retired and she, her Greensburg and regional supervisors, the state director of Penn State Cooperative Extension and the university's public relations officers, didn't return messages left for them by the Trib.

Although nearly 1 1/2 years separated the moment Westmoreland County's Pallatto called Armstrong County to transfer Kristen's case and tell workers there to get "into the home ASAP to monitor situation," there is no evidence that anyone at the agency saw a child purported to be Kristen until June 19, 2003.

On that day, caseworker Carla Danovsky reported meeting a "fine" girl in "good health."

At the time, however, Kristen's mother Janet Crawford later testified that she and James Tatar had been imprisoning their daughter in an attic dungeon. Her face and bottom were bruised from torturous toilet-training sessions.

The parents roped the bony girl's wrist to a crib, where she succumbed to hunger and thirst. During the Fourth of July weekend of 2003, Kristen died. Her final supper: a few popcorn kernels, likely scrounged from the crannies of the crawl space, according to the autopsy report.

In her deposition, Danovsky admitted adding details elaborating on her interactions with the Tatar family after Kristen's body was discovered Aug. 6, 2003 -- more than a month after her Parks visit and just before the state investigation began -- but said she "can't recall" the name of the supervisor who ordered her to do so.

In a written response to the Trib, Kittanning director Dennis Demangone said that because "the case remains in litigation, it is not appropriate for me to be talking about our experiences surrounding Kristen's case, including any impact on our practice. I am obligated to follow our attorney's advice."

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