The death of her 2-month-old continues a mother's free-fall of addiction, parenting struggles

PORT RICHEY — The tragic death of 2-month-old Diella Ludwig has generated intense scrutiny of the child welfare workers who were supposed to protect her and the father who is accused of killing her.

But what about her mother?

Nicholle West gave birth to Diella and her twin sister Shyloh in October behind the cold, gray prison walls of Lowell Correctional Facility near Ocala. She was inmate R53373, sentenced to serve a year for theft.

West couldn't keep the twins, of course. She had lost three other children already as she battled drug addiction.

A review of court records shows West:

• Tested positive for cocaine last July, when she was nearly seven months pregnant with the twins.

• Had a history of abusing methamphetamine and failed a drug test just two months after completing a court-ordered substance abuse program.

• Lost custody of a different child, a 2-year-old daughter, a month after that drug test.

• No longer has custody of her sons, ages 10 and 6.

Despite her crippling addiction and struggles as a parent, Christopher West, 32, the father of the boys, says there is good in Nicholle. When they moved to Florida as newlyweds, he says, they both quickly fell into drugs, setting off a cascade of problems still gripping Nicholle, now 30.

Christopher West, who is in the process of divorcing Nicholle, says he has moved back home to Illinois and been drug-free for three years. He wants the same for Nicholle.

"When you're that strung out on drugs and that far from center, you really need more support," he said. "I care for her as a person and I feel like she really got left behind."

• • •

Nicholle West had already lost her sons before her first drug arrest in January 2006. Authorities received a drug complaint about her house near Zephyrhills. In her bedroom, a report says, a deputy found baggies and pens and tinfoil containing methamphetamine residue.

Later that year, a deputy pulled West over on a traffic stop in Dade City. He found more such paraphernalia and a bag of meth crystals, reports say.

She was separated from her husband by the time she gave birth to a daughter in March 2007. She petitioned him for child support at a time she was receiving Medicaid and earning $7.35 an hour at McDonald's, court records show.

But he fought it, and a paternity test ultimately ruled him out as the girl's father.

It is unclear how Nicholle West connected with Thomas Ludwig, the man who would father her twins, but he came with his own baggage.

Ludwig came from a large family with devout Christian parents who adopted him and his two siblings, along with 13 other children. In 2002, when Thomas was 18 and still living at home, one of his sisters made an allegation against him. That complaint, and a related one in 2004, were investigated by the Department of Children and Families and cleared as unfounded.

DCF officials say they cannot reveal anything about the allegation. Steven Ludwig, Thomas' father, says he can't remember what the accusation was, but that it arose from so many kids living in a crowded house.

Although no charges were filed, investigators recommended Thomas Ludwig not be allowed around children unsupervised.

• • •

West arrived at Lowell Correctional on Oct. 14 to start her yearlong sentence for a grand theft charge from Hillsborough County. The twins were born the next day.

DCF caseworkers were already working on a plan for the babies' care. What they settled on was West's idea: send Diella and Shyloh home to Port Richey with their dad, Thomas Ludwig. West said they would all be together as a family once her prison stint was over.

The case managers agreed to the plan, even though Ludwig, 24, had his own history of petty crimes and drug problems. He also had no steady job and no stable home for his daughters. Case managers who visited Ludwig over the next 38 days found him living at three different addresses.

On Dec. 20, Pasco authorities say, Diella was fussy and Ludwig lost his cool. He called her a "little bitch" and grabbed her out of a stroller so forcefully her head flopped backward, his arrest report says. Through the walls of his bedroom on Richwood Lane, his roommates heard a loud bang, and the crying stopped.

Diella died at a hospital the next day. Her twin sister was taken into state custody.

This week, authorities charged Ludwig with first-degree murder.

DCF has scrambled to explain its handling of the twins' case, releasing a report that identified numerous points when caseworkers should have recognized the babies weren't safe in the hands of their father.

DCF officials have said no one along the way, from Marion County to Pasco County, acted with enough urgency, and that many of the agency's own protocols weren't followed.

• • •

Christopher West says his sons went to live with Nicholle's parents in Land O'Lakes after he and Nicholle lost custody because of their drug use.

"They've had a 100 percent loving home. They've done great in school," he said. "I can't say enough good things about (Nicholle's) parents."

They declined to comment for this story.

Christopher West is now working to get his sons back, with the grandparents' support, he said.

DCF officials say confidentiality laws prevent them from disclosing anything about those children.

But there is still an open case on the little girl taken from West last summer. She turns 3 in March, according to civil court records.

DCF places a premium on rehabilitating parents and keeping families united. Which explains why, after everything that's happened, West still has another chance.

"The current goal through the case plan approved by the court," said Lisa Mayrose, DCF's regional family safety program administrator, "is to work toward reunification."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

The death of her 2-month-old continues a mother's free-fall of addiction, parenting struggles 01/30/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 1, 2009 6:58pm]

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