Zaveri Deponte’s short life ended nine weeks after it began, the cause of death revealing little about the helpless 12-pound infant’s final hours.
Zaveri died from sudden unexplained infant death with co-sleeping, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner.
A line on the autopsy report noted that Zaveri’s manner of death was “undetermined.” A police detective said he saw no evidence of trauma and concluded that the child was sleeping next to his mom and suffocated on the morning of March 9, 2013, at the family’s home in White Settlement.
But what’s troubling is that the medical examiner’s report also said that little Zaveri, who was at that age when he could stretch his chubby legs and grab a colorful toy and pull it toward his mouth, had methamphetamine in his system.
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Zaveri’s sister, his half-sister and his parents also tested positive for unspecified drugs, according to a Child Protective Services report.
The report stated that there’s “reason to believe” that neglectful supervision and physical abuse caused Zaveri’s death. Although no trauma was indicated in the CPS report, causing a child to have illegal drugs in his system meets the legal definition of child abuse.
Cpl. J. Carter, White Settlement police spokesman, said the Tarrant County district attorney’s office declined to pursue charges, because of the medical examiner’s ruling of how Zaveri died. No case file regarding Zaveri was sent to the district attorney’s office, said Samantha Jordan, spokeswoman for the DA. She said a police investigator could have spoken informally to an assistant district attorney about the case before making that decision.
“None of us like to see anyone lose their life, especially a child. But ultimately it’s up to the district attorney’s office whether they want to pursue charges,” Carter said. “Our hands are tied.”
There is no follow-up once a case is closed unless a new report is received. You can’t stay involved indefinitely.
Marissa Gonzales, a CPS spokeswoman
The family had not been investigated by CPS before, but after Zaveri’s death the state agency removed Zaveri’s sisters from the home and sent them to live with other relatives. CPS also ordered safety services for the family to teach the caregivers how to protect and reduce threats to their children.
Then the case was closed.
“There is no follow-up once a case is closed unless a new report is received,” said Marissa Gonzales, a CPS spokeswoman. “You can’t stay involved indefinitely.”
Gonzales did say that in cases where drug use could be a contributing factor, it is common for CPS to order drug tests. The results of those tests are kept private, she said.
Dr. Jamye Coffman, medical director, The Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment and Care at Cook Children's Medical Center, talks about putting the puzzle together. Joyce Marshalljlmarshall@star-telegram.com
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Meth is a ‘deal-breaker’
Sadly, the circumstances surrounding Zaveri’s case are not unusual, experts say.
“If you look at CPS cases alone, 75 to 80 percent of them involve drugs in some form or fashion,” said Dr. Jayme Coffman, medical director of the Cook Children’s Medical Center CARE Team.
During fiscal year 2015, CPS officials asked for medical assistance for nearly 1,800 children who were born with drugs or alcohol in their systems in Region 3, a 19-county area that encompasses Tarrant and Dallas counties.
And of the 171 child deaths in Texas in 2015 attributed to abuse or neglect, 66 of those cases — or 38 percent — involved a parent or caretaker who used drugs, according to CPS statistics.
Zaveri’s death came as methamphetamine use spiked in Texas, according to Jane Maxwell, a social work researcher with the University of Texas at Austin. Reported seizures of the drug increased 37 percent at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center between 2013 and 2015, according to a 2016 report, “Substance Abuse Trends in Texas.”
Methamphetamine is ranked as the No. 1 drug threat in the DEA Dallas area, eclipsing the opioid epidemic sweeping through much of the rest of the United States, according to reports.
And wherever there is meth, there is literally a residual effect.
“Methamphetamine is the most common positive drug test we have in these kids,” Coffman said.
The drug is spread around the house as it is snorted or smoked, Coffman said. Unsuspecting children are surrounded by the drug’s fallout, invisible particles of peril that seep into carpets and bedspreads, and stick to walls, kitchen tables and TV remote controls.
In 2016, Cook Children’s did hair follicle testing on 191 children age 5 and younger, and about two-thirds of those under 2 tested positive for drugs. One-third of those ages 2 to 5 tested positive, Coffman said.
“Once children are over 2, they are in school more and exposed less,” Coffman said. “The younger children are putting everything in their mouths.”
The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that babies born to women who use meth are more likely to have low birth weights. Prenatal exposure to meth also results in children having anxiety or depression and cognitive problems that could lead to poorer academic outcomes.
Molly Davidson, a training specialist with the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU, previously worked as a CPS investigator at Alliance For Children, a Tarrant County-based child advocacy center. During her six years with CPS, she said, most of the parents she dealt with were drug users.
Davidson said drug use, especially meth, is a major component in child abuse, but said the trauma that causes parents to turn to drugs is often ignored by the child welfare system.
“A lot of the parents are parenting out of their own crisis and chaos,” Davidson said. “They learn how to cope by using narcotics. The drug use is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Often these parents have experienced trauma of their own that was not treated properly.”
Getting meth users — often called “tweakers” — to stop using can be a difficult, long-term endeavor, Coffman said. Typically, people relapse before they ultimately stop using, which results in children repeatedly being separated from their parents while the adults are in recovery.
“Methamphetamine addiction is not going to be fixed with six months of rehabilitation,” Coffman said. “If CPS can only keep those services up for six months, that’s not enough. We pay for child abuse, not only in the immediate but through our health, civil and criminal justice systems. Even if we have to spend a little bit more now, it will save in the long run.”
If you can’t stop using meth, I would say that’s a deal-breaker to regaining your children long term.
Don Binnicker, CEO of Court Appointed Special Advocates, Tarrant County
Generally speaking, a parent who uses meth has a much more serious drug problem than a parent who uses marijuana or alcohol, said Don Binnicker, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates, Tarrant County.
Some parents who use marijuana or alcohol every day manage to get their children fed, dressed and off to school, along with everything else needed to maintain a healthy child, Binnicker said.
But meth users are led down a dark path of addiction that often results in criminal behavior — from theft to prostitution — to feed their habit. As the drug takes hold, meth — not children — becomes their No. 1 priority, said Binnicker, a CPS worker for 19 years.
“If you can’t stop using meth, I would say that’s a deal-breaker to regaining your children long term,” Binnicker said.
‘My child was not safe’
Some child maltreatment experts say it’s not safe to leave children with parents who use any drugs, arguing that it exposes children to unnecessary risks and that drugs dull parenting skills.
Tammy Johnson, a former meth user, said she should know.
“My child was not safe in my home,” said Johnson, now a 46-year-old substance abuse specialist at Recovery Resource Council. “Anybody who had dope was welcome to come inside. I didn’t care about your criminal history. I didn’t care if you sexually abused kids. If you had dope, you were my friend.”
Johnson said she never thought drug use would make her a bad parent. Then one day in June 2006, a worker with Child Protective Services knocked on her door.
“They showed up on a Monday and had me test on a Thursday,” Johnson said. “I admitted the marijuana use because I knew it would show up in my system. I thought the methamphetamine would be gone by then, but it wasn’t.”
When the CPS worker returned, she was accompanied by two police officers, Johnson said.
“They took my son and put him with his dad,” Johnson said. “I think that is part of why I got clean, because I did not want to let anyone come and take my son away from me again.”
Johnson was reunited with her children in 2006, 60 days after testing confirmed that she cleared her system of methamphetamine.
More than a decade later, Johnson said she is still dealing with the aftermath of drug use, which became part of the family’s legacy.
“You can be a functioning addict and you don’t know how it’s affecting your kids,” Johnson said. “My oldest son, he went through cocaine, he went through methamphetamine and he’s still battling marijuana. My youngest one, we had a little scare with marijuana but we’ve cleared all of that up. He’s good now. My youngest son, he had more of a chance because he’s seen my life clean.”
Tammy Johnson now counsels drug users after dealing with her own addiction problems since 2001. Max Faulknermfaulkner@star-telegram.com
‘He was gone’
Zaveri Deponte never had a chance.
When police arrived at Zaveri’s house March 9, 2013, his mother, Heather Brooks, then 26, was sitting in the doorway of the house crying while his father, Jason Deponte, 25, was crying next to the bed, according to a police report.
Police officers and firefighters administered CPR for a few minutes and then pronounced the infant dead shortly before 9 a.m., the report said. Brooks, who declined to comment for this story, told an officer that she went to bed with the infant about 12:30 a.m. and then woke up and fed him three hours later.
Deponte pulled back the covers after he woke up later that morning and saw that the baby was not breathing, the report said. The father said he called 911 immediately.
Neither parent has much of a criminal history. Deponte was arrested in an aggravated assault case in 2005, but a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict him. Brooks was arrested in 2005 on a drug possession charge, but it’s not clear what the outcome was in that case.
“Since the baby died, I think Heather’s been on the straight-and-narrow,” said Carl Livingston, Zaveri’s 81-year-old great-grandfather. “Heather has three other children and they stay with her mother. Heather’s a sweet person and she does a good job looking after them. She’s not involved with the father anymore.”
Zaveri would be 4 years old today, but instead is buried at Holly Hills Memorial Park Cemetery in Granbury.
Livingston visits the grave site regularly, rekindling the memories of the great-grandson he loved so much.
“When Zaveri died, that about got the best of me,” Livingston said. “He was there one day and the next day, he was gone.”