KEARNS — Police are investigating what they call "a pattern of abuse" and how it may have led to the death of a 4-year-old girl.

Clinton Hart, 21, has been arrested for investigation of child abuse while his girlfriend, Marina Navarro, also 21, is facing possible child abuse homicide charges in connection with the death of Hart's daughter Vanessa Hart.

Vanessa died Sunday night at Primary Children's Medical Center after Hart returned home from work and found Vanessa unconscious. The child was rushed to the hospital but died of her injuries.

Navarro was baby-sitting Vanessa while Hart was at work and initially claimed Vanessa fell down a flight of stairs.

Police said based on the injuries that explanation was "highly unlikely" and arrested Navarro about an hour after Vanessa's death. Now police are investigating whether a "pattern of abuse" led to Vanessa's death, said Unified Police Lt. Don Hutson.

"While the father wasn't at home at the time (Vanessa) became unconscious, we are still looking at whether this pattern of abuse by the couple may have eventually led to her death," Hutson said.

Medical examiners have not officially determined the cause of death. Because of the ongoing investigation, specific charges are not likely to be filed soon, Hutson said. "What we find in the course of our investigation will determine who gets charged with what."

Although deeply mourning the loss of Vanessa, family members expressed doubts Tuesday as to whether Clinton Hart abused his young daughter.

"We really don't have proof of that," said Jennifer Lopez, the girl's great-aunt and godmother. "I would like to believe that he didn't. I'm not aware that he's ever hurt Vanessa."

Lopez said her niece, Stephanie Alfaro, Vanessa's mother, was very angry and heartbroken with what happened and "would love to have a face to face" with Navarro.

"We can't see how she could hurt Vanessa," Lopez said. "We don't understand how anyone could hurt Vanessa."

Hutson called Vanessa's death "eerily similar" to the death of 4-year-old Ethan Stacy; his mother and her husband stand accused in his death and desecration.

Unified police investigators are talking to officials involved in the Ethan Stacy investigation in order to "learn the lessons" of that case, Hutson said.

"There is always a lot of attention on death cases, but you have to wonder how many more children are being abused but haven't died yet," the lieutenant said. "I think sometimes people are hesitant to watch for signs of abuse because it's such an awkward situation, but we all need to start asking questions."

Funeral plans are still being arranged, but two memorial funds have been organized under Vanessa's name at America First Credit Union and Wells Fargo Credit Union. The family is asking for any donations to help with funeral costs.

Besides burying her only daughter, Alfaro is trying to gain custody of her 2-year-old son, who is staying with his father's family for now. Alfaro has a court order, but the Department of Child Services has yet to give over the toddler, Lopez said.

"We're clueless to the whole thing. Police are only now finally starting to talk to us," she said. "We just know there's a little girl we have to bury, and we're not happy about it. She was a very special girl. She was loved very much."

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com; lgroves@desnews.com