Just how 2-month-old Eric Hernandez's femur was broken remains a mystery. Only his 19-year-old mother knows how it happened. But every time she explains herself, her story changes. When Juana Olalde arrived at Children's Medical Center of Dallas on February 27 with her injured son, she told Donna Mendez, a Children's physician, that she had fallen with the child in her arms.

At first, Olalde said the accident took place in her kitchen. Then, she said it happened in the courtyard outside of the apartment in Grand Prairie she shared with Eric's father. Her account of where she was when she fell changed. Even the private investigator hired by her own lawyer admits as much.

Donna Mendez was troubled by other aspects of the story.

The infant's right leg was broken in a spiral fracture, which is caused by a sudden twisting. That type of injury is a red flag for child abuse -- an injury that alone would put the doctor on alert. Then Olalde told her it had been a day since the injury occurred. The day before, the mother explained, she had taken Eric to a curandero in Mansfield, a healer who attempted to drive away the "bad spirits" afflicting the child by massaging his leg with oils and herbs.

"The mother delayed seeking medical attention, which is of concern," Mendez wrote in her report. "The history is not consistent with the injury."

The nature of the injury, the inconsistent story, and the delay convinced Children's Medical Center officials to alert Child Protective Services and report a case of possible abuse, as the law requires. This activated the overworn machinery the state has in place to protect the young and helpless. In 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available, Texas child welfare officials removed 7,723 kids from their homes.

Typically, these children go to a foster home while the courts begin to decide who will raise them and where. The idea is to provide a safe and nurturing temporary haven while the facts are sorted out.

That's just what happened in this case: A district judge ruled Eric should be taken away from his parents, Juana Olalde and Nicolas Hernandez, and placed in a foster home pending the results of a 14-day investigation.

But this time, something else happened. It was the worst thing imaginable.

The state placed Eric with a licensed foster family in Cedar Hill.

A week later, he was dead.

As medical, criminal, private, and internal state investigations into the circumstances of Eric's death have ground on, some of the basic questions have been answered.

The medical examiner ruled that Eric died of accidental suffocation -- or, in more technical terms, "positional asphyxia following immobilization of the right leg due to a leg fracture." He had been placed face-down in his crib on a pillow, and couldn't move to breathe because of a cast on his leg.

On April 19, Child Protective Services reached its own internal findings concerning the care given Eric by the foster parents, Sue and Jerome Claud, a 40-ish couple of modest means.

The agency ruled out any physical abuse, but found "reason to believe" the Clauds had engaged in neglectful supervision of Eric. More disturbing is that the report also found "indications that a child from this [home] has been abused or neglected in the past" and concluded that "the physical condition of the home poses a danger to any child's health or safety."

The finding automatically revoked their foster parents' license.

But nobody will answer the next obvious question -- one that threatens to tear an enormous hole in Texas' child welfare safety net. No one will explain why the state took a child from an environment they suspected was unsafe and put him in a home they knew to be dangerous.

According to an extraordinary internal review of the Claud foster home -- a confidential report provided to the Dallas Observer by a lawyer representing Eric's natural parents -- there seems little doubt the state knew in what kind of place it had put a 49-day-old injured infant.

Cluttered. Filthy. Headed up by a lazy, overweight chain smoker who once told a state worker she was in foster care for the money.

It was just the kind of place where a little baby could suffocate to death while his guardian was parked on the living-room sofa, glued to a Sunday-night rerun of ER.

Child Protective Services' internal investigation into Eric's death and the Claud foster home turned out to be everything one doesn't expect from a bureaucratic self-examination: tough, thorough, and hard enough on the agency to pose potential legal headaches.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec