Parents accused in kid’s shooting death investigated in 2014

Wendy Lavarnia told police that her 2-year-old son found a gun left on a bed and accidentally shot his older brother

This undated booking photo provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff shows Wendy Lavarnia. Phoenix police say Lavarnia and her husband have been arrested following the shooting of their 9-year-old son, who police say remains on life support. Lavarnia told police she placed a loaded gun on a bed within reach of two of her young children while she turned to get a holster and that a 2-year-old shot the 9-year-old. She was arrested on suspicion of four counts of child abuse for allegedly endangering her children. (Maricopa County Sheriff via AP)
This undated booking photo provided by the Maricopa County Sheriff shows Wendy Lavarnia. Phoenix police say Lavarnia and her husband have been arrested following the shooting of their 9-year-old son, who police say remains on life support. Lavarnia told police she placed a loaded gun on a bed within reach of two of her young children while she turned to get a holster and that a 2-year-old shot the 9-year-old. She was arrested on suspicion of four counts of child abuse for allegedly endangering her children. (Maricopa County Sheriff via AP)

PHOENIX (AP) — Child-welfare officials investigated an Arizona couple accused of murder in their 9-year-old son’s shooting death after she gave birth to a child who had been exposed to methadone and heroin.

The couple’s children were eventually put in foster care for a year, but the family was reunited after the parents worked on their struggles with substance abuse and underwent parental training, according to the state Department of Child Safety, which conducted the investigation that began in 2014.

Wendy and Kansas Lavarnia were booked on suspicion of first-degree murder in a shooting at their Phoenix home this week that led to the death of their son Landen. The mother told police that her 2-year-old son found a gun left on a bed and accidentally shot his older brother in the head. They have not been charged yet.

Police began to become suspicious of the mother’s story when they found inconsistencies in her account and when the boy’s father showed up at the home with a crudely bandaged gunshot wound on his upper arm. The wound looked to have been punctured multiple times, possibly with a screwdriver, to camouflage the injury.

Investigators declined Thursday to say who they believe is responsible for shooting the boy and his father.

Authorities said the parents delayed calling 911 for medical care for their son so they could clean up evidence in the house. Police declined to say whether they believe the boy would be alive had authorities been alerted sooner.

Investigators said the lack of visible blood and the extent of blood residue implied that a significant amount of time passed before the mother called 911. Police say they found evidence of blood in the trunk of the vehicle that Kansas Lavarnia drove to the house.

It’s unclear whether the couple is represented by lawyers who can speak on their behalf.

Both parents struggled with drugs over the years. Kansas Lavarnia, 30, blamed his three 2009 convictions for theft and possession of burglary tools on his longstanding addiction to pain medications, saying he started taking the drugs after he broke his back in an ATV accident when he was 15, according to court records.

The child-welfare agency started investigating in 2014 after authorities were told that Wendy Lavarnia had given birth to a child who had been exposed to methadone and heroin. The child in question was a younger sibling of the 9-year-old boy, Landen. The couple had four children.

The children remained in the home while the parents worked with child-welfare officials to address their parenting skills and substance abuse struggles. But the children were put into foster care after the mother tested positive again for drugs and failed to provide adequate housing, the Department of Child Safety said.

The parents then worked toward addressing their substance abuse problems and domestic violence issues and successfully completed their parental training, the agency said.

The children reunited with their parents in November 2015, and 10 days later, Wendy Lavarnia gave birth to a child who was exposed to methadone. But she had been prescribed the drug by a doctor as part of her treatment plan, the agency said.

Greg McKay, director of Arizona Department of Child Safety, told Phoenix radio station KTAR-FM that agency employees are devastated by the boy’s death.

“An organization is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. In this particular situation, they went above and beyond to make these children safe,” McKay said.

His department was created in 2014 after years of scandal in the former child-welfare agency that culminated with the discovery of thousands of child-abuse hotline calls that had not been investigated.

It has since worked to increase transparency, resolve a huge backlog of abuse and neglect cases, and cut the number of children in state protective care.

Neighbors of the Lavarnias said the children could sometimes be seen outside wearing only a diaper.

Maria Mosley, who lives next door, said the surviving children, now in the care of the agency, were walking around barefoot when the parents were arrested.

“They were walking on the hot sidewalk, and you know that has to hurt their feet,” Mosley said.

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Associated Press writers Clarice Silber and Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud .

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This story has been corrected to show that the child-welfare agency investigated the couple once, not twice.