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Foster mom charged in child’s heat death

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WARM SPRINGS, Ore. (AP) — Vernice Switzler was getting her life back together: She was fighting an addiction to alcohol and three of her five children had been returned to her from foster care.

She even was planning to contact a lawyer to fight for visitation rights with her 4-year-old son when she learned she was too late — she had lost him forever.

Andres Saragos died from heat exhaustion July 13 on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation after the boy's foster mother allegedly left him in a closed car parked in the sun.

"There's a lot of 'ifs,' 'ands' and 'buts' (about) what we could have done on our end," Switzler said. "I feel a lot of grief, guilt of my own. If only I was a better parent, none of this would have happened."

The foster mother, Tamera Coffee, has been charged with second-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty Wednesday in federal court in Portland. If convicted, she could face life in prison.

The boy's death has shaken those who live on the reservation 84 miles southeast of Portland, said Nat Shaw, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. About 3,500 people live on the reservation.

"Everyone knows everyone," Shaw said. "I think it's had a significant impact. It's been very subdued and quiet in here."

Police say Coffee, 33, left the boy in the car while she was working in the tribe's purchasing department. Temperatures on the reservation topped 90 degrees that day.

The boy was dead when Coffee brought him to the tribal police after she got off work, authorities say. Coffee's husband, Mark Coffee, is an officer with the tribal police.

Coffee was released to her mother's custody on condition that she have a mental health evaluation and not have contact with minors. Trial was scheduled Oct. 2.

Charles R. Calica, the tribes' chief operations officer, has said tribal officials want to take a close look at the child-welfare system following the boy's death.