Documents: Counties changed, destroyed records in starvation case
Caseworkers from two neighboring counties and a state agency doctored or destroyed records pertaining to a 4-year-old girl whose starved body was found stuffed into a picnic cooler, according to a newspaper’s review of court documents.
One caseworker testified in a pretrial deposition that her supervisor ordered her to burn records pertaining to the girl, Kristen Tatar.
“And make sure that you sit down with a glass of wine and a box of Kleenex when you burn Kristen’s” records, Penn State Cooperative Extension worker Pam Walmsley testified in a deposition detailing her supervisor’s instructions. “And get it out of your system and move on.”
Tatar’s 11 1/2-pound body was found stuffed into the cooler that had been set on a curb for trash pickup behind her Armstrong County home in August 2003. Her parents, James Tatar and Janet Crawford, are serving life sentences for starving her to death.
Criminal investigators determined the couple grossly underfed the girl, who was often tied to a chair with a pacifier in her mouth and rarely bathed or nurtured.
The horrific details of Tatar’s life and death are scheduled to receive a second, more detailed airing in April when a federal judge in Pittsburgh hears a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the girl’s aunt, Cathy Fondrk. Fondrk, of Hyde Park, has adopted Kristen’s surviving brother and sued her parents and various child welfare agencies on behalf of the boy.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Wednesday reported that documents filed in the case reveal that Armstrong County officials admitted that they added details to Kristen’s case file after police found her body.
But Armstrong County officials are convinced that Westmoreland County officials also doctored records. Armstrong County has hired a chemist who will testify that dates and signatures on various forms don’t match, based on his analysis of the ink used.
A key issue in the case is whether Westmoreland officials should have warned Armstrong County that the girl was at “high” risk for abuse, not “moderate” or “low” as various Westmoreland records reflected.
Fondrk sued caseworkers and officials in Armstrong County, where the girl died; the Westmoreland Children’s Bureau and some of its caseworkers who supervised Kristen case before her parents moved to Armstrong County in 2001; and the Penn State Cooperative Extension, whose employees helped Westmoreland County supervise the Tatar case.
Westmoreland County officials got a judge to declare the girl dependent and in county custody due to neglect, and twice placed her in foster care in 1999 and 2000.
Generally, the Armstrong County defendants contend Westmoreland County never relinquished jurisdiction in the case, even after Kristen’s parents moved with her to Armstrong County. Westmoreland defendants have argued in court papers that they did the best they could to supervise the girl, but were not ultimately responsible for her death in another county because Armstrong County caseworkers had begun supervising the case by then.
The state Department of Welfare in 2003 found that Westmoreland caseworkers failed to monitor whether Kristen was getting adequate medical attention and that “lax supervision” and “infrequency” of caseworker visits led to the girl’s death.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com