Mother anguishes over son who died of heat exhaustion in car

WARM SPRINGS, Ore. - Vernice Switzler had hopes of regaining custody of her 4-year-old son on this sun-baked American Indian reservation.

She had joined Alcoholics Anonymous to fight the drinking problems that led authorities to take the child away, and was looking for a lawyer who would make sure the couple who had custody of the boy honored her visitation rights.

But Switzler's dreams of bringing the dark-haired boy back home ended tragically last week.

Her son, Andres Saragos, died after being left alone for several hours in his foster mother's car, parked with the windows rolled up in 90-degree heat outside the office where she worked in purchasing for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

A federal grand jury will convene in Portland next week to consider criminal charges against the foster mother, Tammy Coffee of Warm Springs. No charges have been filed against her. Her husband, Mark Coffee, is a policeman on the reservation.

Tammy Coffee brought the child to the tribal police department after discovering him unconscious in her car last Thursday. He was then taken to the tribal health center, where he was pronounced dead, said tribal spokesman Nat Shaw.

An autopsy indicated the boy died of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Telephone calls to the Coffees were not returned.

Switzler, 28, is left with feelings of anger and sadness.

''There's a lot of 'ifs' 'ands' and 'buts,' what we could have done on our end,'' she said in an interview at her single-wide mobile home in this Oregon high desert town.

''I feel a lot of grief and guilt of my own. If only I was a better parent, nothing like this would have happened.''

The boy was one of five children, who have all been in foster care at one time or another while Switzler battled alcoholism, a problem that tribal officials say is all too common among the 3,500 people on this reservation 85 miles southeast of Portland.

But Switzler, who is unemployed, said she was trying to get her life back together and had regained custody of three of her children from foster care.

She said the Coffees wouldn't allow her to visit the boy since he began living with them two years ago, although she would sometimes drive by his preschool to steal glances at him.

Switzler said she didn't want to contact the boy unless she could have a chance at re-establishing their relationship.

''I kept my distance because if he did recognize me, it would be a lot harder on the child than the parent,'' she said. ''It's like a parent being incarcerated and you're looking at them through a window and they are reaching out to you but you can't touch them.''

Switzler's oldest daughter, 12-year-old Ernestine Ruiz, cried when she remembered how she joined her mother at a doctor's appointment when her mother was pregnant with Andres.

''They put that jelly stuff on her belly and they put that thing on it and you could hear a little 'thump, thump, thump' and then my mommy smiled,'' she said. ''I wanted to know if he was a boy or a girl.''

Shaw said the reservation has enjoyed some economic success in recent years with its Indian Head Casino, lodge and sawmill, but still faces major problems with unemployment and alcoholism.

''Here at Warm Springs, there is a lot of death from diabetes, alcoholism and accidents,'' he said. ''There is a housing shortage and you will find a lot of people unemployed, especially in the winter.''

Many tribal residents who seek treatment for alcoholism do not succeed, he said.

''When someone tries to go into treatment and attack the problem, that scene is still there when they get back,'' he said.

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