Could Human Services Workers Have Prevented Death of Baby Angel Place?

In late 2015, as we've reported, Grand Junction's Sydney White was sentenced to thirty years behind bars related to the death of Angel Place, an eleven-month-old in her care.

Prosecutors said Angel died after White kicked her in the head. “I did a horrible thing that I am not proud of,” she said at her sentencing. “I hate myself for it.”

But hers won't be the final words on this tragedy. A civil-rights lawsuit has been filed in the case on behalf of Angel's estate, as represented by her grandfather, Shane Place. The complaint, on view below, maintains that four Mesa County Department of Human Services employees — Joyce Anderson, Jacque Berry, Joni Bedell and Crystal Stewart — deprived Angel of her rights under the U.S. Constitution, the Federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act by placing her in White's custody when it should have been clear that by doing so, they were endangering a defenseless child.

"We are not trying to harm the four individuals that we've named," notes attorney Keith Killian, who represents Angel's estate along with colleague Joe Azbell. "But what we are saying is that in the way they performed their job and the procedures they followed, those procedures, or lack of procedures, resulted in the unfortunate situation we have with Angel Place."

As documented in the complaint, Angel lived with her biological parents, Theodore Place and Tierra Bond, until November 2013, at which point she was removed from the home by MCDHS staffers, reportedly because of the couple's fighting and the husband's admission that he used marijuana.

She was subsequently placed in foster care under the supervision of Misty Blackwell and is said to have been happy and thriving there. Indeed, Blackwell wanted to adopt the child, but MCDHS preferred that Angel be placed into the "household of one of the biological parents' relatives," the complaint states.

Early in 2014, Randy Bond, Tierra's 21-year-old brother, and White, age nineteen, formally applied to become Angel's foster parents. The couple, who considered themselves to be married under common law, already had two kids — a two-year-old and a six-month-old.

Defendant Anderson conducted an investigation of the couple during February and March of 2014, and the suit argues that the information unearthed should have alerted her that "White was not suitable to be a foster parent...and that by placing Angel in White's house, Angel was in an obvious and substantial risk of serious and immediate physical and psychological harm."

According to the suit, White's parents divorced when she was nine, and before their union was dissolved, her father was emotionally abusive; he would spit in her face at times. After the split, White's mother, with whom she was living, was diagnosed with depression.

The suit maintains that her mom physically abused her and was neglectful in the aftermath of the divorce. Without supervision, White became sexually active at age eleven and got involved in an intimate relationship with Randy Bond when she was sixteen.

"White admitted to Anderson that she needed therapy to help her deal with her troubled childhood and help her to avoid the parenting mistakes of her mother," the lawsuit states. White's other "risk factors for shaken baby syndrome and child abuse" allegedly included her young age, her low level of education and the stress of adding another infant to a family that already included a toddler and an infant.

Nonetheless, Angel began dividing her time between Blackwell's home and that of Bond and White, all under county supervision. And even though the suit says that Blackwell reported signs of abuse and neglect (a mark below the child's eye, a skin rash that White refused to treat) to senior case manager Berry, the infant became a permanent resident of the Bond-White household in July

The following month, during a home visit, Stewart wrote that Angel "was throwing fits for attention, liked to be held a lot and had 'mad mood swings.'" The complaint allows that "these are well-recognized risk factors for abusive head trauma, which were ignored by Stewart and Berry."

On September 12, the suit continues, White claimed to have accidentally dropped Angel on the floor — and three days after that, she was shaking the girl out of frustration when her own child saw what was happening and said, "Mommy, stop it." That night, Angel was taken to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, where X-rays and CT scans revealed that she'd suffered multiple skull fractures. She was transferred to Children's Hospital in Aurora via Flight for Life but succumbed to her injuries on September 17.

Rather than directly addressing the facts of the case, Killian speaks in general terms about the direction chosen by the legal team.

"When you're alleging a civil-rights violation," he says, "the real question is, 'Does the action shock the conscience? Is it something that is so far out of the ordinary that it's not just a matter of neglect or negligence — it's a failure to protect someone you have responsibility for that is genuinely shocking.' But we also decided to bring this under the Civil Rights Act because there was no available remedy under state law. There's a very high hurdle to overcome governmental immunity, so that's why we went the civil-rights-action route."

Killian sees the case as being of great consequence, both specifically and in broader terms.

"I think this is a very significant matter," he emphasizes. "I'm not going to take the position that this is the first case of this nature that has been brought; we're not the first ones to plow this field. But I think it's certainly an important matter for our society to consider when you remove a child from a home and what process occurs to make sure the child is going to be placed in a safe atmosphere. The last thing you want to do is remove a child from a home because that home is dangerous and then they're moved to a home where they're treated worse than they were in the first place, or even killed. There has to be a process to vet the foster parents or the adoptive parents — a process that has stringent guidelines that must be followed."

This last factor is key, Killian believes. "Lawsuits are supposed to be beneficial to society when you're bringing a civil-rights action. Our prayer for relief requests appropriate relief in law and equity...and we hope this will set a precedent that will be beneficial not only in Mesa County, but in other Colorado counties, and counties in other states."

Continue to see the complaint on behalf of Angel Place's estate and the original arrest affidavit.

Angel Place Complaint

Sydney White Arrest Warrant

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts