CERES -- Two days after the drowning of her young son, Florcita Valdez spent Tuesday making funeral arrangements and answering questions about a tragedy that could have been avoided.
The Ceres mother of four, at times in tears and at others resolute during a 45-minute interview in her home, described 2-year-old Aureliano Joel Valdez on Tuesday as playful and fun-loving.
On Sunday night, Aureliano drowned in the family's algae-filled pool. He was discovered by rescue workers minutes after his mother reported him missing. He apparently walked to the pool through an open gate.
Valdez said the boy she affectionately called "Zungie" loved his cars, his shoes ("like his mom"), his dog Buster, and playing in the kiddie pool she converted from a old sand box because he was "petrified" to be near the main pool.
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The kiddie pool sat on the other side of the fence that guarded the main pool, where his body was discovered in the deep end.
On Tuesday, the 8-foot-deep pool was drained. Nearby, neighbors set up a memorial with flowers and candles in remembrance of the child.
Valdez confirmed reports that Ceres police officers and members of Stanislaus County Child Protective Services paid numerous visits to the home.
Detective Sgt. James Robbins of the Ceres Police Department would not say why or how many visits officers made to the home over the couple of years she has lived there. Valdez acknowledged multiple visits, and said they concerned three of her four children who live in the three-bedroom, one-story home at Larsen Lane.
She said police were called a few times when her 8-year-old son, Cesar, ran off, and another time when Aureliano got out and "nobody realized it."
Valdez's 14-year-old daughter, Lidia, also lives in the home. Her 15-year-old son, Eddie, lives with Valdez's father, who lives in Ceres and rents the Larsen Lane home to Valdez.
"They came out because somebody made a report, and they would come out to investigate it and say there's no proof and just shut it," she said.
She said Child Protective Services officers would "come out a lot," and find little proof of anything.
Kids yelled at, but not hit
Valdez acknowledged having a "habit" of yelling at her children, but denied hitting them, as she said one neighbor had suggested to authorities.
Christine Applegate, director of the Stanislaus Community Services Agencies, which helps govern Child Protective Services, said she could neither confirm nor deny any involvement in the Valdez home.
She spoke in general terms, and not to a specific case, about criticism levied upon CPS.
"One of the problems is we can't share with anyone what we do," she said. "It doesn't mean the calls go unresponded to. But we can't come back to the public, so unfortunately people don't know what has been done."
Valdez, who is unemployed, admitted the house was in bad shape, filled with cockroaches, household items and other material that led Ceres police to put in a request with the city to condemn the home, according to officer Allen McKay.
But, Valdez said, "There was food in the refrigerator and the house was not so much a disaster. But it was livable. The rent was paid. The kids were clothed."
On Monday, friends and family came over and helped clean it. Large piles of household wares and other items sat in the front yard and gutter. By Tuesday, some of it had been hauled away.
Valdez said she's been working on the cockroach problem for a few months. She described herself as a "hoarder" who has trouble parting with things she collects.
"I think I spread myself between the three kids," she said. "I did the best I could.
"It's impossible to watch three kids 24 hours a day ... and still maintain the house and still maintain the dinner and still run errands."
The Police Department is investigating Aureliano's death, which could lead to charges of negligence.
Valdez said she's not concerned. "It was an accident," she said.
Valdez said she had a methamphetamine addiction about eight years ago, but added, "There were no drugs in my system, no drugs in my house, no alcohol in my house. I'm not worried about (potential criminal charges)."
Her concerns Tuesday rested on staying busy, next week's memorial service and keeping her mind off the haunting picture she sees of Aureliano falling helplessly into the pool.
Lidia and Cesar, the two children who live with her, are with Valdez's sister in Oakland. She talks to them two to three times a day and said they're having a difficult time.
She said Aureliano's father, Joel Valdez, has been in the Modesto area for three months and on Tuesday helped pick out flowers and a headstone for his son.
He could not be reached for comment.
On the night of the accident, she said she was in the house baking a cake and that Aureliano was playing in the kitchen and dining room.
She was about to serve the cake, she said, when she called out to her boyfriend, who was in the front room, asking where Aureliano was.
He thought the boy was with her.
Within 30 minutes, and after a search by a growing number of neighbors, she called police.
Officers immediately turned their attention to the pool, which Valdez discounted because "Zungie had his own pool. He was petrified of the pool."
Within hours of the boy's death, Valdez found herself in a hospital bed clutching the lifeless body of her son.
"They say I rocked my baby for about an hour," she said. "They said I fell asleep with him in bed. I don't even remember.
"I kept telling him, 'C'mon, Zungie. Stop playing around. Wake up."
Bee Online News Editor Brian Clark can be reached at 578-2362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.