A Madison woman charged with killing her baby this summer plans to sue Dane County for failing to protect her child.
Ee Lee, 23, has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, recklessly endangering safety and two counts of child abuse for killing six-week-old Anastasia Vang on July 11. Lee told police she slammed the baby's head against a table and stuffed a blanket in her mouth. She also admitted having tortured the infant for weeks, by pinching her, biting her and hitting her with the metal end of a flyswatter.
In a notice of claim (a precursor to a lawsuit) filed with the county in October, Lee seeks damages in excess of $20 million, though state law caps awards at $50,000.
"This isn't a case where a mother sitting in jail said, 'I'm gonna make some money,'" says Richard Auerbach, Lee's attorney. "The mother has no interest in the money. She wants it to go to her other child."
Lee has a 2-year-old son. Police said she admitted killing Anastasia because she "can only love one child."
Auerbach defends Lee's claim, given the circumstances of Anastasia's death. "I don't view this as any attempt on her part to say she's blameless," he says. "She doesn't even know exactly what she did."
Lee, found incompetent to stand trial, is currently in a mental-health institute near Oshkosh. Auerbach was contacted about the case by Lee's defense attorneys.
The county, Auerbach says, is partly responsible for Anastasia's death. Two weeks earlier, Lee's family took the infant to the hospital with unexplained bruises. Doctors determined the baby was likely being abused, but a Dane County social worker sent the child back home.
The county's "safety plan" for the child required that two adults be present with her at all times. But Auerbach's claim says the social worker did not interview all of the adults in the home, nor ascertain that the baby's father worked 10 hours a day. He also didn't learn that Lee's mother-in-law believed Anastasia was hurting herself "as a way of complaining that her parents argued too much."
Had the social worker done his job, the claim states, he would have known Lee was in a "postpartum psychotic state." He waited a week after the hospital stay to make a home visit, but no one answered the door. When he called later, Lee's mother-in-law did not know where Lee and the baby were. Auerbach says the county should have realized its "safety plan" was not being followed and removed the child.
The county did not contact the family again. Anastasia died a week later.
Lynn Green, head of Dane County's Human Services, says the social worker followed all state guidelines, which allow 60 days to complete an investigation: "Certainly, the worker was well within the timeframe."
The worker has been temporarily reassigned. "For the comfort of the social worker and our consumers, we felt it would be better to have him do phone intakes rather than be in the field," says Green.
The state Department of Health and Family Services is drafting a report on the county's handling of the case.
State law caps damages at $50,000, but Auerbach says there's an exception for violations of civil rights. He questions whether Dane County gave the family too much leeway, trying to respect the Hmong culture, while another child might have been removed immediately.
"It's great we have a department that's culturally sensitive," he says. But "if it's life-threatening, the government [should step] in."
Green denies that ethnicity played a role. "Safety is non-negotiable," she says. "We try to be respectful, but we have a set of standards we use across the board."
Auerbach sees the potential lawsuit as a wake-up call for the county. "There might be a child out there who needs protection," he says. "And the department will be a little more responsive than they were for this case."
Section 8 gets more random
The city of Madison finally reopened its Section 8 waiting list last month, for people who need federal assistance to pay for housing. The list has been closed for more than four years.
This time, the city decided to allow people to sign up online. "We wanted to avoid the horror stories from other cities where there were fights in line," says Tom Conrad, the city's Section 8 manager. "We didn't want it to be like people trying to get concert tickets - camping out on Martin Luther King Boulevard."
When the city of Milwaukee reopened its list a few years ago, it got more than 10,000 calls in 36 hours and had to shut down its automated hotline.
Reopening Madison's list, says Conrad, "We were worried we'd be swamped." The city heard from 2,146 applicants.
Since only about 300 housing vouchers will be available in the next two years, the city used a lottery system to pick 1,000 people to send formal applications. It will rank these based on how quickly they are returned and on a set of priorities (such as single parents with minor children). In two years, the city will purge the waiting list and start the process all over again.
"This creates a reasonable system of expectations," says Conrad, who notes the old list had a five-year wait. "We knew we couldn't get to all of them, so we added some randomness." And by starting over in two years, "People don't have to give up hope. They'll have another chance."
Finding a secure place
The holidays can be stressful times for low-income parents.
"People are affected by the frenzy of materialism," says Sharon Kilfoy of the Respite Center. "They feel like they're not adequate parents because they're not out buying and buying. That can be really hard."
The Respite Center works with about 400 families a year, caring for kids whose parents need some time off. And in winter, the number of families needing help increases.
"By January and February, people are just going stir crazy," says Kilfoy. "The kids are not able to go outside, and the parents are still dealing with having a shitty car and no place to live."
The nonprofit group has an art show of drawings by children at Hilldale mall. "We use art to help children recover from stress," explains Kilfoy. "Art can help children calm down, relax and find that secure place within themselves that says, 'I am home.'"
The show runs through Jan. 8.
Buzz Davis is not giving up. His group, the Wisconsin Impeachment Coalition, failed to get an impeachment referendum on the February primary ballot for Dane County or the city of Madison. But group members will begin pressuring their representatives on the Dane County Board and the Madison Common Council to put the referendum on the April ballot.
"They're going to demand that they do it," says Davis, who believes President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be impeached for having flouted the Constitution. "This is the biggest crisis we have faced in our form of government."
And if Dane County supervisors in particular fail to support a referendum, warns Davis, "Elections are this April for the County Board."