A 2014 Department of Human Services investigation into allegations of child abuse against a Bella Vista couple failed to uncover an extensive record of maltreatment. A year later, their son was dead.
Just before midnight on March 30, medics from the Bella Vista Fire Department arrived at the home of Mauricio and Cathy Torres in response to a 911 call that stated that their 6-year-old son, Isaiah, was not breathing. The parents said they'd just returned from a weekend camping trip in Missouri with the boy and his two young sisters and that they "didn't know what was wrong with Isaiah," who was lying on his back on the living room floor when the first responders arrived. Later, Cathy told police that he'd complained of a stomachache earlier that afternoon, but the parents "gave him Pepto-Bismol and thought he was better."
The medics saw plenty wrong. As they transferred the unresponsive child to an ambulance, they noticed "heavy bruising and ... puncture wounds all about his body," according to a later police affidavit, and immediately contacted the Bella Vista Police Department. A doctor at the local hospital who inspected the child found worse markers of chronic abuse, including chemical burns on Isaiah's back, "signs of blunt trauma to his head, trunk and extremities" and blood in his rectum. Isaiah Torres was pronounced dead at 12:23 a.m., his death ruled a homicide.
The next day, upon searching the Torres home, police found "what appeared to be blood spatter on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the master bedroom," more blood on a nearby pair of 15-pound dumbbells, and vomit and a stethoscope on the bed. Cathy, who at first denied any knowledge of the abuse, gradually
admitted to told police over the course of the next several days that she'd seen Mauricio hurt Isaiah in the past. Both parents now face charges of capital murder, rape and first-degree battery in connection with their son's death.
Shocking as the details of the Torres case may be, it is perhaps almost as troubling to contemplate another set of facts that emerged in the following weeks: In 2014, someone at the Bentonville school attended by Isaiah Torres made multiple calls to the child abuse hotline maintained by the State Police in an attempt to report suspected physical abuse, according to the child fatality record maintained by the Department of Human Services. In January of that year, there was an allegation of "inadequate supervision"; in March, there were allegations of abuse, an entry simply labeled "cuts, bruises, welts" in the DHS system. Yet DHS found both sets of allegations to be "unsubstantiated" in 2014 and at the conclusion of the school year, the boy was removed from Ambassadors for Christ Academy to be homeschooled by his parents, away from prying eyes.
Cathy and Mauricio Torres in fact had a long record of interactions with the child welfare system, culminating in the termination of custody for multiple children in 2004 or 2005. The question is whether DHS investigators in 2014 were aware of that fact. According to several sources familiar with the family, a Northeast Arkansas judge removed five children from the care of Cathy and Mauricio Torres back in 2004 or 2005, apparently due to evidence of physical and sexual abuse. (A sixth child may have been given up voluntarily for adoption, according to one source.)
A DHS briefing summary shows that the Torres family had a child or children placed in foster care in 2002 and again in 2004 — long before Isaiah or his two sisters in Bella Vista would have been born — and that the latter case was concluded by "court action." Little other official information is forthcoming from DHS because of the strict privacy requirements surrounding foster care and child maltreatment investigations. DHS spokesperson Amy Webb said the agency could not provide further details about what court action was taken, for example. However, other sources contacted by the Times have provided a partial picture of events.
'There's so much that could have been done, it's unreal'
Cathy Torres lived in Jonesboro all her life "until she disappeared ... about 10 years ago," said Thurman Thompson, who is married to Cathy's sister. The Thompsons live in Jonesboro today, along with their 16-year-old son and two grown daughters.
Cathy met Mauricio a few years before leaving the Jonesboro area, Thompson said, around 2002. By that point, she already had four young children — three boys from a previous marriage and a girl fathered by another man. She and Mauricio then had two more kids, he said, before a judge intervened.
"Basically, they had their parental rights taken away," Thompson said. He said he was unclear about what exactly landed the Torreses in court in the first place, and DHS records related to the case are closed to the public. However, two incident reports from the Jonesboro Police Department show that Mauricio (who then went by the name "Maurice") was investigated in 2004 on allegations of rape of a 4-year-old girl, allegations that arose during a custody dispute. The girl was Mauricio's stepdaughter — that is, one of Cathy's children by another man. The prosecuting attorney in Jonesboro declined to file criminal charges at the time, citing a lack of evidence.
Mike Walden, who is the chief prosecutor in the Jonesboro office today, says he doesn't recall the case from a decade ago. He did review the file, though, and said he wasn't surprised charges weren't filed. "It's one of those difficult cases — 4-year-old child, no forensics, in the midst of a custody battle. It's kind of all the red flags that a prosecutor thinks is an 'easy to file, difficult to win' situation," Walden said.
The children — all six of them — were adopted by other families in the Jonesboro area following the termination of the couple's parental rights, said Thompson. Afterward, Cathy and Mauricio disappeared. "We knew where the children [in Jonesboro] were, so we knew that they were cared for, but we had no idea where Cathy and [Mauricio] went. And we had not been contacted by them, nor had we tried to contact them, for over 10 years."
Then, a few weeks ago, came news of Isaiah's death. The authorities called Cathy's mother and she in turn contacted the Thompsons, who took responsibility for collecting Isaiah's remains. Before that, Thompson stated, "We didn't know any [other] kids existed." He and his wife are now trying to gain custody of Isaiah's two young sisters, who were presumably placed in foster care in Northwest Arkansas after their parents' arrest.
Much of Thompson's account was corroborated by Maurice Torres, a son of Mauricio Torres from a prior marriage. Now 19, he also lives in Jonesboro.
Maurice said that he and his father moved to Arkansas from California when he was "maybe 6" — around 2002 — along with his sister and their mother (Mauricio's first wife). They soon split up, and Mauricio then married Cathy. Maurice and his sister were left with their mother, but before their father's departure from the household, he said that they also suffered physical abuse at the hands of Mauricio Torres.
"They never looked into it while we were living in the house," Maurice said. "But when he first showed up in court about Cathy's little girl, things started coming to light about me and my sister. ... Yeah. There's so much that could have been done, it's unreal. ... But as far as I can tell, he was able to talk his way out of everything."
Maurice said he thought authorities were more inclined to believe his father's denials because he was an occupational therapist who worked with children.
"They see a man who went to school to help kids — why would he try to hurt kids?" Maurice said. As of this week, Mauricio Torres' occupational therapist license was still listed as "active" at his home address in Bella Vista.
Maurice blames DHS for not doing more to prevent Isaiah's death. "If they actually did their job and followed up like they should, this could have been prevented. I mean, they had their parental rights taken away before Isaiah was even born, you know? Why was he able to get him?"
An incomplete picture
Webb, the DHS spokesperson, said a past termination of parental rights "is definitely something that raises flags" but added that "just because there's a prior history doesn't always mean we should take those kids into care."
"There's no automatics," said Cecile Blucker, director of DHS' Division of Children and Family Services. She gave the example of a hypothetical 19-year-old girl who has her parental rights terminated. "She's young, she's at a difficult stage in her life ... then, 10 years later, she has another baby, but her lifestyle is totally different. ... We wouldn't want to automatically go in and remove [the baby]. People do change, and that's why our goal with all children is reunification. It is only very rarely that we do fast-track, automatic termination of parental rights, and those are the most egregious of cases.
"And there needs to be a court record that shows what all you've done to try to help this family get it together before a judge is going to terminate rights," Blucker continued, "because every parent has a right to have that decision appealed. So, you want the record to be strong enough that if they do appeal that the finding of the judge is upheld and not overturned."
A child death triggers an internal review within DHS, Blucker said, if the agency was involved with the family in the last 12 months. (That period will soon expand to 24 months later this year when new legislation kicks in.) The internal review entails "bringing in everybody ... to discuss the entire thing," Blucker said. DHS will look at the training and the experience of the caseworkers in question, as well as their caseloads, which are always far too large. "We have about 98 full-time [caseworkers] that do investigations, and another 37 that have a combination of investigations and other duties ... to do 3,000 investigations each month." The DCFS director said there's also a newly revived external review process in place to examine child fatalities.
DHS officials wouldn't comment on the specifics of their internal review findings from the Torres case. However, they at least seemed to acknowledge that something was missing from the 2014 maltreatment investigation.
"In this particular case, we did not have a complete picture of pertinent previous investigations at the time of the allegation in 2014," Webb said.
Blucker added that "over a span of time, people could have divorced, remarried, so you've got different names, you've got different spellings of names ... there's all kinds of different things that could complicate putting all the big picture together."
Bill Sadler, a spokesperson for the Arkansas State Police, elaborated somewhat. "In the Torres case, the initial call to the hotline to report allegations in Benton County was from an anonymous caller. There was an incomplete name with one of the parents who was the subject of the caller." Evidently, the hotline operator checked a box indicating there was previous history with the parent, but the incomplete name meant the system did not link the new record with the old.
However, Sadler said, "it is incumbent upon ... [any] investigator ... to always look for additional history in CHRIS [DHS' Children's Reporting and Information System] once they can identify who the guardian is." CHRIS users can also query the system using a date of birth or Social Security number.
Webb said DHS is looking at several policy changes as a result of its review of the Torres case, including additional staff training on performing searches within CHRIS, changes to the system itself and requiring local offices to keep unsubstantiated reports for a longer period of time. Currently, Blucker said, hard copies of documents pertaining to unsubstantiated reports of maltreatment are kept for only 30 days, after which they are shredded.
But others in the Arkansas child welfare system see the Torres case as highlighting problems within the agency that are bigger and more systemic than a simple communication breakdown.
"It's apathy. It's resources. It's pressure from superiors to unsubstantiate cases, to keep the workload down," said a source familiar with DHS, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This whole rehoming thing with [Rep.] Justin Harris — everyone was outraged, but it's nothing new." The source said the impenetrable confidentiality requirements of DHS are often used to shield the agency from accountability: "Basically, what you've got here is that DHS has over the years put up so many walls, they're almost untouchable."
Outside of DHS, "there needs to be some rules and statutes in place that prohibits people with true findings of abuse from homeschooling their kids, because they're basically making them prisoners and isolating them. ... I know from many cases that homeschooling can be both good and bad ... but it's not monitored that closely."
Thompson, the brother-in-law of Cathy Torres, said DHS "should have known. If they'd done their job, in the least little bit, they would have known," he said.
"We thought that DHS, if they did have any more children, would take them. We want people in Northwest Arkansas to know that Cathy was not representing our family. ... We were not just sitting back and letting this take place. We had no idea."