The Justice Files:’I failed my son’

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Shelby Call warned social workers her son was in danger.

Two-year-old Lucas Call was living at a foster home. The foster parent, Lisa Jo Vanderlinden was planning to adopt him in the near future.

But Lucas’ mother still had visitation rights and when she visited him, she became alarmed.  

During each visit, she noticed physical injuries to Lucas’ head, abdomen, pelvis, and a broken arm.  She said she reported it to a social worker with the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in Vernal.

“No no one believed me,” Call said. “They said I was a paranoid mom.”

Months later, her son was dead.  

Vanderlinden was charged with murder and accepted a plea bargain reducing the charge to child homicide.  

But at her sentencing last week Judge Sam Chiara said Vanderlinden only admitted to being “reckless” and “negligent” which caused Lucas’ death.  

Vanderlinden acknowledged her behavior caused Lucas’ death but never admitted to actually killing Lucas. Under state law, it met the legal criteria of child abuse homicide.

Shelby Lucas spoke at Vanderlinden’s sentencing. She asked the judge to sentence her to the maximum in prison. Instead, Judge Chiara sentenced her to a year in jail.

“I was angry and furious,” said Call. “She has murdered my son and murderers deserve to go to prison.”

Vanderlinden will spend the next year in the Duchesne County jail. Call’s step-grandmother says Vanderlinden was a nurse and should have known better. 

“She knew my grandson was in trouble and she chose not to get him help,” said Peggy Thompson.  “So for them to say this was not premeditated, is a lie.” 

Shelby Call lost her children because, according to her, she’s disabled.

“I have a learning disability,” Call said. I have a low IQ.”

She said someone called DCFS and claimed she was an unfit mother.

“That made me feel awful,” Call said.

Call is now suing DCFS for failing to take action that could have prevented Lucas’ death.

In the federal lawsuit, a DCFS foster care worker “was also concerned about Lucas” but “her superiors chose to do nothing.”

She continued reporting the abuse to the Vernal office and was told “if Shelby continued reporting her concerns of abuse, they would take away her visitation rights with Lucas and his sister.”

The lawsuit said Call continued to complain this time with the state’s DCFS in Salt Lake.  The agency conducted an investigation and concluded the allegations against Vanderlinden were “unsubstantiated.”

Five months later, Lucas lost his life to the injuries suffered at the Vanderlinden home.

A spokesperson for DCFS emailed this response to the lawsuit: “Child safety is the reason we exist, and any child fatality is a true heartbreak. We acknowledge the tragedy of this event and its effects on the child’s family, their community, and our workers. Due to the pending litigation, as well as state law regarding client confidentiality, we, unfortunately, are unable to discuss any further details of this case. We trust in the legal process and will work with the Attorney General’s office throughout this litigation.

In a twist of irony, it was the Attorney General’s (AG) office that prosecuted Vanderlinden. Last week AG Sean Reyes issued this statement following the sentencing:  

“A young child is the most vulnerable victim imaginable. The Court’s decision is beyond disappointing. It’s a travesty and undermines the confidence of the public in our justice system’s ability to protect kids from abuse and homicide. As prosecutors, we achieved in the plea deal just what we would have at trial, a first-degree felony minus the cost of trial and without having to traumatize other children as witnesses. The plea deal in no way limited the Court’s power to sentence in a way that would serve justice. The Court absolutely could have sentenced Ms. Vanderlinden to serve five years to life, consistent with what we sought and what the pre-sentencing report recommended. Probation for a first-degree felony is almost unheard of. We are at a loss as to why the Court ruled the way it did. We understand that it’s in the sole discretion of the Court to decide the sentence. While we respect the legal process, we don’t have to agree with the outcome.”

A spokesman for the AG said they are considering an appeal.

The sentencing has created an uproar in Duchesne County. There is currently an online petition to have Judge Chiara removed from the bench.

But under state law, a judge can only be removed when his/her term is up and the public votes yes or no to retain the judge. The state’s Judicial Council Commission also investigates and sends its recommendation to the Supreme Court for a vote. The legislature can also decide if a judge should be impeached.

Shelby Call said she will let the litigation decide who is responsible for Lucas’ death. She said she’s trying to move on but it’s hard.

“It hurts,” she said. “I have nightmares.”

She attempted to raise the children on her own. The children’s dad is in prison. Despite the hardship, she said she briefly experienced the joys of motherhood.

“(Lucas) was very sweet,” Call said. “He was a very good boy. He was really perfect in every way.”

But it was short-lived. After Lucas died, her daughter, Caroline was removed from the Vanderlinden home and was adopted by a different family.

“I didn’t feel like I got justice,” Call said. “I feel like I failed my son by not getting justice.”

Marcos Ortiz
Emmy award winning journalist and producer, reporter of the Justice Files seen nightly on ABC4, begining his career in Blythe California with stops in Green River and Cheyenne Wyoming. He was hired to be KGGM’S political reporter in Santa Fe, New Mexico before arriving in Salt Lake City in 1992 as a general assignments reporter before moving into the crime beat.
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