Parents and Children Reunited After Drowning Death of Daughter

On Monday, July 25, parents Michael Wartena and Tiffany Stewart were reunited with four of their children after having been separated the previous week. They were separated by Child Protective Services after the drowning death of the couple’s 7-year-old daughter Alexis in Amarillo, Texas and the subsequent police interrogations. Attorney Paul Cambria spoke to the Amarillo Globe-News about the case and whether the tactics used by police were a violation of Wartena and Stewart’s civil rights. For the full story, visit the Lubbock Online website.

Detention and questioning

According to the Globe-News, Wartena and Stewart were driving their family home to Beaumont, California after visiting Wartena’s father in Chicago. They stopped at a hotel in Amarillo, Texas, where they realized Alexis was missing after returning to their room following a swim in the hotel pool. The Globe-News reports that, after Alexis was reported missing, officers from the Special Crimes Unit separated Wartena and his wife for 12 hours of interrogation and asked them if they “knew what it sounds like to be strangled”. During this time, the couple’s four remaining children were taken to the Bridge Children’s Advocacy Center and questioned.

Child Protective Services

The Globe-News reports that CPS then filed an affidavit to remove the children from their parents because of “neglectful supervision of (the children) due to the events surrounding a missing child”, saying that “Amarillo Law enforcement is concerned due to the inconsistent statements of the parents as well as the deceased body of Alexis Wartena being located.” A representative for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services confirmed to the Globe-News that the four children were in foster care and waiting for placement with a relative. Wartena told the Globe-News that “A CPS worker said that she was not allowed to talk to us that night, that they were going off what the police department was reporting to them”, adding that one of his sons had marks and bruises on him after being returned to his parents from CPS custody.

Potential civil rights violation

Mr. Cambria told the Globe-News that it was possible that police mishandled questioning Wartena and Stewart. “I believe the details of the parents’ detention, custody, and even the tactics used in question would be sufficient enough to file a federal civil rights case and get past any pre-trial dismissals to reach a jury,” he said.

“From a federal standpoint, I think they have a case that they were unlawfully detained,” Mr. Cambria continued. “Without a warrant, they really have no right to make them stay there. Whether or not their line of questioning is unlawful, that’s another question. But if they were detained and separated from their children, that probably violates their civil rights. Of course, the police are always going to say, ‘Oh, they were free to go at any time,’ but whether or not a jury is going to believe that is another story.”

About Paul J. Cambria, Jr.

The chair of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria’s Criminal Defense Trials and Appeals Practice Area, Mr. Cambria advises clients on criminal trials, criminal appeals, constitutional and First Amendment law, zoning and land use, antitrust, and professional licensing defense. He divides his time between the firm’s offices in Buffalo and Los Angeles.