House passes Sirita’s Law; local woman joins cause

Bill now moves to Senate;
supporters look to public for help

BY JENNIFER MADISON DAVISJOURNAL MANAGING EDITOR

Crystal Conner of Lake Stevens spent her entire childhood in foster care, as the state tried repeatedly to “reunite” her with her drug-addicted mother and later with a man who said he was her father.

Now Crystal, 32, is speaking out about her experiences in the hope that it will bring about change in a system that is supposed to help, not hurt, children.

A change to state law to limit the number of times a child can be returned to abusive or neglectful parents passed unanimously in the state House of Representatives last week. Supporters like Crystal are hoping the state Senate will move quickly on the issue.

Sirita’s Law is named for four-year-old Sirita Sotelo, who was found beaten to death in the Lake Stevens home of her biological father in January.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s office is investigating her death as a homicide.

Sirita was taken from her mother, a drug addict, at birth and was in and out of foster care before being placed with her biological father months before her death. The law was proposed by Sirita’s foster father, who had hoped to adopt Sirita.

Crystal testified in Olympia last month in support of Sirita’s law. “You can’t just shuffle kids around like this for years. It’s madness and it’s got to stop,” she said.

The law would give parents 15 months and three chances to remedy the unsafe conditions that prompted a child’s removal from the home.

After that the state would begin the process to terminate parental custody and find a permanent home for the child.

“You’ve got to set a limit and if someone can’t clean up their act in that amount of time, the kid is better off somewhere else,” Crystal said.

Crystal was in the state of California’s foster care system from the age of three weeks until her 18th birthday. She was repeatedly removed from her mother’s custody and bounced around between temporary placement with grandmothers, emergency shelters and a series of foster homes.

In an interview with the Journal, Crystal recounted her experiences as a child: fear, uncertainty, embarrassment, neglect, hunger, feeling like she didn’t belong anywhere.

“The whole system is set up for reunification with the biological parents. That’s not always in the best interest of the child,” said Crystal.

When Crystal was eight, her mother over-dosed and almost died. Crystal told a judge she didn’t want to go back to her mother - the state ordered her to undergo psychological evaluations.

“I did love my mom, like any little girl. But I didn’t want to live like that anymore,” she said. “And they made it sound like there was something wrong with me.”

Later a man came forward claiming to be Crystal’s father. “I didn’t even know this man yet the state nearly gave me to him,” she said.

“The system is all about sending kids back to their parents, even if it’s not necessarily a family that’s going to work,” she said.

Crystal said many of her foster parents were warm, wonderful people. She’s still in contact with her social worker. She’s reconciled with her mother. She is happily married and the mother of two. “All I ever wanted was some normalcy and I’ve got that now,” she said.

But she believes too much of her childhood was spent in courtrooms and unfamiliar places, and peeking under the bathroom door to see if her mother had overdosed again.

Crystal hopes other adults who were in the foster system as children will come forward in support of Sirita’s Law.

“We’ve got to speak for those kids who can’t speak for themselves. We have to speak out so what happened to Sirita doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Crystal contacted Sirita’s foster father after reading about Sirita’s Law in the Journal. “I survived this and now I’m going to put my knowledge to work to make it better for other foster kids,” she said.

A companion bill was proposed in the state Senate by Sen. Val Stevens and Sen. Bill Finkbeiner but died without getting a hearing in the Senate’s Human Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Jim Hargrove.

“What we really need is for people to call their senators, to let them know they support Sirita’s Law and want it to pass,” said Sirita’s foster dad.

Sen. Dave Schmidt, whose district includes Lake Stevens, on Friday told the Journal he supports the bill and will do what he can to get it to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

“I think it is a reasonable thing to do. There has to be a point where enough is enough,” he said.

For more information on Sirita’s Law, visit www.siritalaw.com.

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