Young beating victim recovering; adoption possible
By dan weist
The Salt Lake Tribune
Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Eight-year-old Karen Meza Reyna listens to her DCFS caseworker, Abbie Ogaard, as she reads her a book in her room at the South Davis Community Hospital in Bountiful Monday, December 6, 2010. Reza awaits a foster/adoptive family after being beaten by her mother and left in vegetative state. She may be in a wheelchair for life.
Her mischievous smile slips from her face, her head lolls forward involuntarily, and the big dark eyes of the princess of South Davis Community Hospital are no longer on her state caseworker.
Yet for a child viciously beaten by her mother in 2009, Karen Meza Reyna hasn’t lost her spirit.
It’s typical for Karen, a pigtailed 8-year-old robbed of everyday living — including the ability to walk and talk — to drift in and out of a direct connection with the world around her.
But don’t write her out of the picture just yet. Caseworkers said Karen’s smile won’t let them.
“She wasn’t supposed to survive,” said Chris Chytraus, her state-sponsored medical care supervisor. “The doctors thought she might permanently be in a vegetative state.”
Survive she has — enough that the young girl was put up for adoption this fall and perhaps will start over with a new family, leaving the hospital room that has been her home for more than a year.
“She has stolen the hearts of everyone here,” said caseworker Abbie Ogaard, still holding the limp hand of the girl sitting quietly in a wheelchair.
Should she be adopted, Karen would leave behind a former life with her mother in West Valley City that was a nightmare.
It started in 2008, when Emperatriz Meza Reyna, 23, first lost her child to the state.
Meza Reyna eventually admitted in court she had choked her child multiple times, beat her with a belt and cable cord, and wrote on the girl’s face with a black marker.
Then the child’s life got worse.
The younger Meza Reyna was taken to Pioneer Valley Hospital last summer with bruises, bites and injuries all over her body.
During a CT scan, the girl went into cardiac arrest and was flown to Primary Children’s Medical Center. There, she underwent brain surgery and fell into a coma.
Her mother, an undocumented immigrant, initially told police her daughter fell down the stairs.
But doctors said her injuries — including bruises under her right eye, an ear, buttocks, left leg and ankle, as well as a broken clavicle and bite marks on her torso — were not consistent with a fall.
A doctor reported some of the injuries appeared to have been caused by being hit with a hard object, such as a baseball bat or board, or being slammed into a hard surface, according to court documents.
Doctors had to remove a portion of the girl’s skull to save her life. With brain damage, the long-term prognosis was not good.
But flash forward to a wintry day in December — after a year and half of rehabilitation and other medical care — and view a girl with a penchant for pink and princesses that has more than survived brain damage.
Caseworkers believe she’s improved enough since the beating that she can leave the hospital for outside schooling.
She has also progressed from a vegetative stare to shyly teasing the people around her —not using words, but simply by shaking her head or waving her one working arm.
This from a girl with a temporarily toothless grin who may not ever fully walk and talk again. Never have a fully functioning brain, never regain the half of her body that has gone partially limp.
Sitting next to her caseworkers, Karen lets out a sigh, the only way she is able to verbalize, for now.
“She’s made a lot more progress, more than anybody thought,” Chytraus said. “But we don’t know how much progress she’ll make.”
For the second beating, Karen’s mom was sentenced in January 2010 to spend 20 years in prison.
The Meza Reyna case was “frustrating and heartbreaking” for workers at the Utah Division of Child and Family Services because the mother was a repeat offender, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Sollis.
By federal and state statute, Sollis said her agency cannot further comment on the case or detail why the decision was made to initially return the child to her mother.
In the first case, Meza Reyna, admitted to the abuse of her daughter.
According to court documents, the mother told police she was glad she was arrested because she was afraid she might kill her daughter.
The girl, then 5, was taken into DCFS custody in January 2008.
Meza Reyna pleaded guilty to two charges of third-degree felony child abuse, served 17 days in jail and was placed on 36 months probation.
After the woman completed parenting classes, her daughter was returned home.
But just three months after regaining custody of her daughter, doctors determined Meza Reyna beat the girl with force that inflicted critical brain injuries.
Sollis explained that DCFS works closely with all parties in any case — parents, courts, doctors, schools and others — to try to reunify children with their parents if appropriate. A judge ultimately signs the order to send a child back home.
Sollis said parental rights had to be terminated for Karen to be put up for adoption, so the father, for reasons not disclosed, is out of the picture, too.
Chytraus points out there are other children with special needs waiting for adoption, but that Karen is the most severe case when it comes to combined physical and emotional needs.
For example, she has an IV tube constantly delivering medicine to her body, and brain injuries that will likely be a lifelong problem requiring occupational and speech therapy.
She also has trouble keeping her head up straight.
Caseworkers say adopting her would be no easy matter, for any family.
Yet three adoption inquiries were sent in once Karen was featured in an adoption program in the fall.
One couple, potential new parents, have visited, but the process may take until spring — if it all works out, Ogaard said.
“I want to take her home with me,” a nurse said quietly as she walked out of Karen’s room.
Ask just about any nurse or doctor at the Bountiful hospital, and they will confirm that Karen is the darling of the third floor, and holds the princess title, if she wants it, until the day she leaves.
“Our staff will be heartbroken,“ said Nancy Murphy, a pediatrician who treats the girl. “I think her future is good.”
Anyone interested in adopting a child in foster care can contact the Utah Adoption Exchange, http://www.utdcfsadopt.org/.
© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune