Sunday, March 10, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An 8-Year-Old Girl Tortured Despite City Agency's Vow -- Tara's Horror: Sexually Abused Child Placed In Foster Care And Hurt Again


PHILADELPHIA - At age 8, the little girl has no real name, no home, no parents and no defense against more of the sexual abuse that left her scarred and screaming in a hospital.

And that, the city says, is the best it has to offer.

The foster child was beaten, scalded and sexually abused last week by her most recent guardians in a sadistic attempt to discipline her, police said.

As the brutal details emerged, child advocates were jolted to learn that the victim was "Tara M.," the pseudonym used in court papers for a girl given different names by her biological mother and foster parents.

Two years ago, the city Department of Human Services promised to give exceptional care to Tara M. and 16 other children as a result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit charging the agency with gross neglect.

"If a child like Tara can't be protected under this system, what child can?" asked Stefan Presser, the ACLU legal director in Philadelphia.

But the broader lesson from Tara's plight, say child-care experts, is that a city must ensure special care for sexually abused children.

"A molested child can tax parents in a way that no other child can," said Dr. Alberto Serrano, psychiatry chief at Children's Hospital. "They may mimic their abuse by fondling themselves, or an adult. That can be quite a jolt to a foster parent.

"Foster parents who accept these children into their homes need to be prepared for extraordinary behavior - so they must receive very special training."

But no amount of sexual acting-out can explain what happened to Tara, said Nancy Kanter, the child's legal advocate.

"There were red flags up all over the place - for both the little girl and the prospective parents. How come nobody saw them?" asked Kanter.

Elman and Anna Gradiz were chosen as pre-adoptive parents in November by Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha Inc. of Philadelphia (APM), a private agency that provides foster care.

"And they wanted to adopt her!" said Kanter. "She came that close - that close! - to disappearing from any supervision whatsoever."

DHS spokeswoman Patricia Bathurst said the department followed procedure, placing Tara last November with APM, a state-registered agency with an unblemished record. A DHS caseworker accompanied an APM counselor on an investigation of the Gradiz home and signed an approval form, said Bathurst.

On Tuesday, Tara appeared in a New Jersey emergency room with her foster parents. Doctors found she had been scalded over half her body, had two black eyes, puncture wounds in her back and inflamed genitals.

The emergency room staff called the police, who arrested Elman Gradiz, 36, and his wife Anna, 42, on charges including aggravated, indecent assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. The assault charge is a felony that carries a seven-year minimum prison term.

They are being held on $250,000 bail each and will have their first chance to enter pleas in court this week.

According to police, the foster parents found Tara fondling herself on Monday. To punish the girl, they stripped her, forced her into the bathtub and doused her with buckets of scalding water. Then, police said, Anna Gradiz burned the child's genitals with a homemade concoction that included chili pepper.

Tara described her four months in the Gradiz home in a police interview read in court Wednesday at her foster parents' bail hearing.

"I kept on bleeding. It wouldn't stop. It hurt a lot," Assistant District Attorney Mimi Rose read from the transcript.

On other occasions, Tara told police, her foster mother disciplined her by stuffing a sock in her mouth or a pillow over her face. Sometimes the couple beat her with a belt, raising welts and injuring her so badly she had to stay home from school.

After they were arrested, Anna Gradiz revealed she had been institutionalized for psychological problems and takes antidepressants.

The placement agency also didn't know that Elman Gradiz is a Nicaraguan citizen, suggesting it didn't thoroughly check out his background and search for a criminal record.

APM program director Myriam Matos said the agency had followed every state requirement, including receiving a medical clearance that said Anna Gradiz had no disabilities.

Matos, choking back tears, said a counselor had spent four hours with Tara outside the house just two days before she was hospitalized. Neither the girl, who was impeccably groomed and dressed, nor the Gradizes, whom the agency had thought were "miracle parents," gave any clue of potential abuse.

Born in April 1987 to a mentally retarded 15-year-old who was herself a foster child, Tara already had been shuffled among at least eight foster homes - and was sexually and physically abused in some of them - by the time she was 6.

In 1994, Human Services Commissioner Joan Reeves guaranteed Tara and others would receive special educational and psychiatric care.

DHS has been the subject of several child-abuse scandals. One child was killed and dismembered by his foster mother in 1992, and in November a 5-year-old boy disappeared after DHS returned him home to his drug-addicted mother.

Tara, once her wounds heal, is scheduled to return to the same foster-care system, said Bathurst.

Before that happens, child-care advocates want the state to set up a sex-abuse task force and require all foster parents to sign a waiver allowing their psychological and medical histories to be searched.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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