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'The report ... speaks for itself'

Weeks after Aiden Salcido vanished from Medford and weeks before a parent shot him to death in Montana, Oregon child welfare workers concluded they had no reason to believe the 2-year-old was in harm’s way.

A case worker knew his father had fired a gun inside a tent where he was caring for Aiden, according to a new state report. The case worker also knew the man threatened to kill Aiden’s mother. She told the case worker the man’s anger made him unpredictable.

Still, in late June, a Department of Human Services supervisor signed off on closing a long-overdue investigation into Aiden’s well-being as “unfounded” for any threat of harm. It had been at least 48 days since anyone at DHS saw Aiden or talked to his mother.

For the last 14 of those days, police and relatives had been searching for Aiden and his parents, a development that child welfare workers didn’t learn.

Montana police attempted to stop the couple July 24. The pair drove off, triggering a brief pursuit that ended when the car came to a stop.

Officers found Daniel Salcido and Hannah Janiak dead from gunshot wounds. Authorities said it was a murder-suicide, and Salcido’s wound was self-inflicted.

At the time, the boy was nowhere to be found, and there were no signs he’d been in the vehicle. Three days later, search crews found his body near a rural Montana campsite.

In a report published in November, the state’s child welfare agency acknowledged its workers didn’t adequately consider the potential that the father would harm the boy before they concluded Aiden was safe. “Child safety decisions were made based on incomplete information,” the report said.

The report on Aiden’s death and child welfare officials’ previous involvement in his life is one of the first published under a new law that changed disclosure requirements in such cases. DHS must inform the public whenever a child dies by abuse or neglect after recent intervention or inaction by the state.

The new rules require DHS to review and disclose details about every interaction with a child’s family and outline systemic concerns and recommended fixes. The reviews must be finished within 100 days. The reforms were prompted by reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive that showed the agency routinely ignored existing requirements, leaving the public in the dark about what may have gone wrong before vulnerable children died and what steps the agency could take to prevent future deaths.

The reports do not identify children by name. However, the information in the report about Aiden’s death mirrors information law enforcement gave the public about his and his parents’ deaths.

The eight-page report says case workers knew his father had threatened gun violence and that people frequently worried about his mother’s capacity to care for Aiden.

Jake Sunderland, a spokesperson for DHS, said agency officials had no comments about the case beyond what was written in the report.

“The report details everything, and, in this case, speaks for itself,” he said.

A paternal relative of Aiden declined to comment. Two other close relatives did not return messages regarding this story.

The recent state report says Oregon’s welfare system first received concerns about Aiden’s safety before he was born. In February 2016, a person called to say they were worried about Janiak’s unborn child because of the state of her mental health and her refusal to obtain prenatal care. The DHS call-taker sent a “high risk pregnancy” alert to hospitals.

That November, case workers learned about Aiden’s birth and confirmed his mother had support from her family to care for him.

Concerns about his welfare resurfaced months later, this time in Washington. Case workers there were investigating a report that his parents left Aiden in the care of housemates without set plans.

Oregon DHS learned about that investigation in September 2017 after someone called to share their concerns about the “poor parenting choices” Aiden’s parents sometimes made. The caller said the family planned to move back to Oregon. Oregon case workers were not sent out to check on the family, though, because “the concerns had been addressed in Washington.”

More than a year passed before DHS heard again about Aiden.

On Jan. 22, a caller reported a rash of concerns centered on his exposure to violence. The reporter alleged Salcido had made death threats against Janiak and Aiden, pointed a gun at Janiak, fired a gun near Aiden and brandished a knife during an attempted home break-in. The caller told DHS they worried about Janiak’s “lack of understanding of the threat” Salcido posed.

A case worker talked to Janiak the same day to investigate the concerns of neglect and severe risk of harm. Janiak confirmed the gun incidents. She said she didn’t believe Salcido would shoot her but acknowledged his unpredictability. The worker noted concerns about Janiak’s ability to comprehend the “dangerous nature” of Salcido’s behavior.

DHS workers never talked with Salcido that day or any other. They did see Aiden on Jan. 22 and wrote that he looked healthy. They also spoke with a relative who confirmed the incidents reported in the initial call to DHS had happened.

State rules require child abuse investigations to be finished in 60 days, or 90 days if a supervisor grants a one-time extension. Those rules changed in 2018. Before that, case workers had 30 days to finish investigations.

The investigation into Aiden’s well-being stayed open but largely inactive for 154 days.

DHS offices across Oregon struggle to finish investigations on time. The problem is particularly acute in Jackson County.

State records show workers in Jackson County finalized just one of every five reports on time between April 2018 and June 2019. It’s the lowest rate of on-time investigations among the 28 Oregon counties with populations above 12,000. Statewide, 34% of cases were completed on time during that period. In Deschutes County, by contrast, two of every three of investigations were finished on time.

The report does not directly say why Aiden’s investigation remained open for so long. It does say the investigator had both a “significantly high” case load and a change in managers.

As the checks on Aiden languished, a Jackson County grand jury in March indicted Janiak and Salcido on nine felony charges tied to thefts that occurred in March 2018. Janiak was also charged with misdemeanor unlawful possession of a firearm. Court documents say the pair was accused of stealing a Smith and Wesson .380-caliber handgun and a Marlin .22-caliber rifle, among other items.

Janiak agreed to stay away from Salcido as part of her April 11 release agreement, court records say.

DHS case workers would not learn about the parents’ felony charges for another month.

Exactly 90 days after the DHS investigation began -- the latest-possible date the assessment should have been completed -- the case worker “made contact” again with Aiden’s family, the report says. The report does not say who exactly the worker spoke with that day, April 22.

The case worker learned about the pending criminal charges May 8. Janiak’s attorney filed court papers that day to say she planned to plead guilty at least some of the charges.

Janiak told the DHS case worker about the court’s order to stay away from Salcido and said she hadn’t seen him since April 10. She said she was working to arrange care for Aiden if she was sent to prison. The conversation was the last one the case worker noted having with Janiak.

The case worker attempted to contact Salcido on May 28 but did not reach him.

It was the final step any DHS worker took before closing the investigation into Aiden’s well-being on June 25. The sign-off cleared the case from the office’s overdue queue.

“The disposition was determined to be unfounded and the child was identified as safe in the care of his mother,” the report says.

By definition, the decision meant case workers found no evidence Aiden was neglected or at substantial risk of being harmed.

DHS guidelines for cases that involve domestic violence say workers need to consider whether the parent’s behavior could result in severe harm to the child, whether the child was in direct proximity to the violence, and the types of behavior the child has been exposed to, such as the use of weapons.

“Understanding how the impending danger safety threats are occurring within the family is a critical component when analyzing safety-related information and establishing an initial safety plan or ongoing safety plan,” the guidelines say.

Child welfare workers remained unaware that Janiak failed to appear at her June 11 court hearing and that a multi-state search for the family was underway.

“The department was not aware the family had gone missing,” the report says.

The report does not specify when DHS officials learned Aiden was missing. His parents’ deaths on July 24 set off a frantic search for him. Medford Police and the FBI asked for the public’s help. A search and rescue team found him three days later near the campsite where officials believe the family was staying.

“Despite information reported about the father’s lethality, the department did not fully assess the violence occurring in the family, and child safety decisions were made based on incomplete information,” the report says.

The review team concluded several factors likely contributed to the “inaccurate depiction of the severity of the circumstances,” including that DHS received relatively few calls about the family and neither parent had an extensive criminal history.

The review team recommended DHS continue to expand training on how to address cases that involve domestic violence.

It also cites the “high volume” of cases assigned to the case worker, who is not identified, and the change in supervisors.

“Workload and supervision are significant factors in a child welfare professional’s ability to prioritize efforts and exercise diligence where it is most needed,” the report said.

Aiden Salcido, 2, was found dead near a Montana waterway days after his parents were found in an apparent murder-suicide. (The Associated Press)