Osman Irias began life like he later would die - too early. Born two months premature, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur that rendered him fragile and slow to develop. Still, he was a happy baby, adored by his 2-year-old sister. For his young parents, Osman was a joy, their only child together.
Throughout multiple moves and separations, they would clutch on to the hospital bracelet Mariza Salguero wore when she gave birth in 2009. The reams of paperwork advising parents how to care for premature babies are still filed in a green plastic folder labeled for Osman, along with photographs, ultrasound images, his doctor's notes, prescriptions.
Six months into his short life, the parents made what would turn out to be a grave mistake, leaving their sleeping babies alone while they ran out on a sudden errand.
It would set in motion a string of events that culminated almost two years later to the day on April 28, with the 2-year-old baby dead, having suffered more than 86 bruises, fractured ribs and contusions - one of the worst child abuse cases in recent memory in Houston.
The father is charged in the incident, the mother has been deported, the sister, Melani, is back in foster care, and a host of attorneys and child advocates are wringing their hands. The case shows how complicated child custody cases can be, especially when they intersect with criminal and immigration law.
In April 2010, Salguero was a stay-at-home mom, Irias a painter for a commercial furniture company, and their roommate had forgotten to close the register after her night shift at Burger King. In their haste to accompany her, Salguero, then 21, left a pot cooking on the stove. Soon, smoke was setting off the fire alarm at the northwest Houston apartment. When they returned about 45 minutes later, firefighters and police had arrived, and the adults were charged with endangering their children.
Within three days, Salguero and Osman Irias, the 20-year-old father, pled guilty, receiving 180 days in jail. Immigration officials began deportation proceedings for Salguero, illegally here from Guatemala. But somehow Irias, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, flew under the radar, and was transferred to Bowie County Correctional Center.
From jail, the two wrote each other desperate, impassioned letters, which Irias kept, still safeguarded in a plastic sleeve:
"I'm going to return for the kids, and for you. We need to be strong because they need us a lot and we also need them," Salguero wrote. "We're going to be together, in this life and the next, because our love is too great."
"You are for me just like I am for you," Irias replied. "With our kids we will have a united family, and no one, no one, can separate us."
Irias also wrote other letters, seeking translators to help him understand his criminal case and inquiring about his children:
"What chances do I have to get them back? I know I've made a mistake, which I'm paying for with the separation of my kids. I'm going to fight until the impossible."
'Hi, I'm back'
As soon as he was released in July 2010, Irias called his attorney in the custody case, Terry Elizondo, and said, "Hi, I'm back. Now how do I get my kids?" He got another job. He completed mandated parenting classes and regular drug tests.
"He tried so hard," Elizondo said. "Every time he'd get good news about his kids, he'd get tears in his eyes."
Still, advocates worried about his young age and that he was a single father, as Salguero was deported in August 2010. But as months passed, and his supervised visits with the children increased, they noted his efforts.
"He had to jump through so many hoops," said Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services. A psychological evaluation determined, "significant parenting concerns not found," recommending the children be returned.
Meanwhile, Osman and Melani shuttled between three foster families. For two months in 2010, they stayed with Patti Datray in Carrizo Springs near Laredo.
Datray, 53, has fostered seven children but these siblings "just attached themselves to our hearts."
Melani was a girlie-girl who loved to dance and wear pink. Osman had an impish smile. But he was weak, and at 8 months, couldn't crawl or grasp toys, struggled sitting up, and had a tendency to bruise, Datray said.
By last summer, Irias was seeing the children often. By September, they were living with him. On Facebook he wrote, "today is the happiest day of my life. I'm getting back my two little angels." He posted pictures: Melani in a pink Disney nightdress; Osman in a windbreaker and tennis shoes.
In January - 18 months after Irias began the process - CPS closed the case. But soon, family friends who helped care for the kids began noticing that Osman had many bruises - on his arms, back, legs, even his face. Irias shrugged it off, saying he was sickly, so bruised easily.
But they worried. In February, one called CPS. A caseworker "didn't notice any visible signs of abuse," Olguin said.
A doctor examined the kids. An investigation was opened.
Living with uncle
In April, Irias moved in with his uncle after struggling to make rent. Sometimes, the uncle heard bangs while Irias was bathing the toddlers, a pounding to the tub. By now the children appeared afraid; the father would often yell.
On April 27, Osman was running around, playing. The next day, Irias called 911, saying he found Osman convulsing on the floor. The toddler later died at the hospital.
His exact cause of death hasn't been determined, but his injuries are "consistent with child abuse," an autopsy found, "in different stages of healing." Police charged Irias with injury to a child causing serious bodily injury, a first-degree felony.
Elizondo, who represented Irias in the custody case, was "blown away," she said. "It's beyond everyone's imagination who was involved" in those proceedings, she said.
Reached in Guatemala City, Salguero said she is devastated, and wants Melani, now 4, to stay with her mother in Houston until she can be returned to her in Guatemala. CPS has reunited children with parents in other countries, but it's complicated. Because of her previous charge, Salguero would have to prove she can now provide proper care, a difficult inter-country collaboration.
Meanwhile, Melani waits, her fate once more in the hands of strangers.