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Memory Tree Honors Katelynn

Foster Mother Files Lawsuit

There is a flag that flies alongside the Alexandria city flag at the Public Safety Center in memory of victims of child abuse and there is a tree at Watergate at Landmark that is a living memorial to Katelynn Frazier.

The residents at Watergate at Landmark purchased and planted the fringe tree to stand as a living memorial to the child who was murdered by her mother’s boyfriend, just three short months after being removed from foster care. It stands within sight of the playground and is surrounded by natural stones and flowers. Katelynn’s foster mother, Lesley Dodson, lived in the complex until last week.

“It’s a wonderful memorial to Katelynn,” Dodson said, at the April 27, dedication. “She would have loved it.”

The flag at police headquarters is reminiscent of the buttons worn in memory of Kevin Shifflett, shortly after his murder. “Child abuse happens far too often and is still under reported,” said Amy Bertsch, a spokesperson for the Alexandria Police Department. “It is a crime and we are very serious about investigating reports. In the past year and a half, two children have died as a result of child abuse in Alexandria. The flag is for them.”

KATELYNN DIED in December of 2000. Another child, Dale Corey Smith, Jr, died in Alexandria in June 2001. Dale was beaten to death by his father, Dale Corey Smith, Sr. Both Dale’s father and Asher Levin, the man who was convicted of murdering Katelynn, are serving time in jail for their crimes.

Those who spoke at the dedication of Katelynn’s “memory tree” were Commonwealth Attorney, S. Randolph Sengel, State Senators Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer and Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington County, and Dodson. “The people who tried to prevent Katelynn’s death,” Dodson said.

Ticer and Whipple sponsored legislation in the Virginia State Senate that will allow social services departments to obtain criminal history information on any adult living in the home of a biological parent who is seeking the return of a child from foster care and the other law will bring Virginia’s reunification statute into compliance with the federal law.

“We certainly understand that new laws are not the only answer,” Ticer said. “In Katelynn’s case, there was clearly human error. It is still difficult for me to understand how anyone could have missed or misinterpreted the bruises on that little girl. We wanted to do something in the Senate last year but we wanted to make sure that we were doing the right thing. These laws seem to be a first step.”

WHIPPLE AGREED. “Our hearts were broken when Katelynn died,” she said. “These laws are one step and adequate funding for social service agencies is another. Any child’s death is a tragedy but it is compounded when you believe that that death was preventable.”

Sengel, who successfully prosecuted Levin and Katelynn’s biological mother, Pennee Frazier, spoke about what Katelynn had taught him.

“I found that at times when faced with what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties in this case, in looking at a photograph of Katelynn which I still keep in my office today, I was reminded why it was important to continue to work as hard as we did on this case,” he said.

“I repeat this sentiment here today because it has to do with persevering in the face of difficulty, and it is certainly true that the path that brings us here today has been difficult. It is a path that was walked by many who cared deeply for Katelynn but unfortunately it was also a trail blazed by incompetence, by indifference and at times obscured by denial.

"Katelynn’s death was not caused by the failure of a system anymore than another case like this can be prevented by passing new laws or hiring more staff or writing more reports. Katelynn died because people charged with her care did not do their jobs and until that is truly understood and honestly acknowledged, her death remains a scar on the heart and spirit of this community.”

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein attended as an individual. Sengel was the only city official, elected or appointed, who was invited. “I went as an individual,” Eberwein said. “ It was a personal gesture to express my feelings for Katelynn and for her foster family and the community that had supported them. It was quite moving."

DODSON IS MOVING ON with her life without Katelynn, the child she had hoped to adopt. Katelynn came to live with Dodson in November, 1998 when she was just 11 months old. “She was my very first foster child,” Dodson remembered. “I finished my training on Saturday and got Katelynn the following Friday.”

Dodson said that the social worker who was assigned to her case then told her that Katelynn’s mother was not going to get the child back and that Katelynn would soon be free for adoption. “She asked me if I was interested in adopting Katelynn,” Dodson said. “I told her that I would have to think about that because I hadn’t even gotten used to being a foster parent. It only took until the next day for me to call Social Services and leave the worker a message that I wanted Katelynn.”

Dodson and Social Service staff got on well, according to Dodson, until April, 1999. It was then that the goal of adoption was changed to one of reunification with the mother. “I went along with that, too, even though I didn’t agree and even though the worker was still telling me that Pennee Frazier would never succeed in getting Katelynn back,” Dodson said.

There were visits between Katelynn and her mother throughout that spring and summer, with the goal being to return Katelynn to Pennee Frazier by August. “Things kept changing, though,” Dodson said. “First, she didn’t have housing so the goal was changed to return by November and then by Christmas and finally by Valentine’s Day. And things weren’t getting any better. Kate would come home from visits hungry and dirty and there were allegations of sexual abuse.”

ON VALENTINE'S DAY, 2000, Marilyn Mills, the social worker who was then assigned to Katelynn’s case, took the little girl from Dodson and returned her to Pennee Frazier who was living in Maryland with her parents. “They did this even though Montgomery County said that Pennee shouldn’t have Kate or her sister,” Dodson said.

The Virginia attorney general intervened and Katelynn and her older sister were returned to foster care in Virginia on Feb. 21, just one week after they had been taken to Pennee Frazier in Maryland. “Kate’s older sister went back to her original foster mother but they took Kate to a new home,” Dodson said. “They told me I was too attached and not following the plan of reunification, even though I took Kate to most of the visits and was doing everything that I had been asked to do. I didn’t understand.”

It was then that Dodson hired an attorney and began to fight for custody of Katelynn, a battle that she finally lost in Alexandria Circuit Court in late October, 2000. “The original social worker who first supervised Katelynn in my home testified in my custody case, on my behalf,” Dodson said. “But I haven’t really had any contact with anybody from Social Services since Katelynn’s death.”

THE STAFF DID NOT call her to tell her that Katelynn had died. “I found out from a member of the media,” Dodson said. “They wouldn’t even let me see her before she died.”

After life supports were removed, and Katelynn had died, however, Dodson was allowed to say good-by. “Only after I threatened two social services’ supervisors that I would call the media,” Dodson said. “They didn’t even want to give me the time to say good-by to her.”

Today, she has gone on with her life. She is divorced and has a new man in her life. They are building a house together and plan to marry. “I hope that we will have children of our own one day, too,” Dodson said.

She also speaks on behalf of the rights of victims and of foster parents. “I will never be a foster parent again because I just don’t trust the system,” Dodson said. “I will advocate for foster parents to have more rights, though – more standing, more ability to speak in court and more input into case plans.”

Dodson has notified the city that she intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit and has given the City of Alexandria until June 1, to respond to a demand letter. “It’s not that we want to benefit from the money,” she said. “My grandfather and I have spent about $55,000 since February of 2000. While I would like for my grandfather to recover some of that money, I am more concerned about setting up a fund for Katelynn’s siblings to be able to use to go to college. That is the real goal in the lawsuit.”

Dodson said that Katelynn taught her many things during the 15 months they spent together. “There was a reason that she was given to me and that she was taken from me,” Dodson said. “I can only be grateful for the time I had with her.”