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Santa Barbara Family Granted Permanent Guardianship of Toddler Whose Mother Died in Horrific Crash

Troubled teen mom Daniella Hearn had connected with couple for help with year-old son prior to deadly wreck on Santa Barbara’s Mesa

Robin Unander-La Berge and her husband, Dan La Berge, of Santa Barbara have been granted permanent guardianship of Lukas Hunt, seen here playing with their daughter. Click to view larger
Robin Unander-La Berge and her husband, Dan La Berge, of Santa Barbara have been granted permanent guardianship of Lukas Hunt, seen here playing with their daughter. (Unander-La Berge family photo)

A Santa Barbara couple has been granted permanent guardianship of a toddler whose 19-year-old mother died in a violent high-speed car crash on the Mesa in August.

Robin Unander-La Berge and her husband, Dan La Berge, and their two biological children, ages 7 and 4, welcomed Lukas Hunt into their family on Sept. 22.

Lukas is the year-old son of Daniella Diane Hearn, one of three people killed the night of Aug. 9 when the driver of a Lexus sedan lost control of the car, which slammed into a curb, a utility pole, a fire hydrant and a tree on Cliff Drive near La Marina Drive. Investigators estimated the vehicle was traveling at 94 mph when it crashed.

Hearn, who was sitting in the backseat; the driver, Angel Luis Flores, 24; and another rear-seat passenger, Benjamin Samuel Rubio, 28, were all pronounced dead at the scene.

The front-seat passenger, Michael James Mendoza, 29, survived the crash, but was critically injured.

According to the Santa Barbara police investigation, Flores was highly intoxicated and speeding.

Mother’s Helpers, a nonprofit organization that assists moms who need baby items to care for their children, introduced Unander-La Berge to Hearn, a single mom battling drug abuse.

The Santa Barbara City College student had reached out to Mother’s Helpers through social media, asking for baby clothes, formula and toys.

Hearn never picked up the items.

“She loved him, but was overwhelmed and unable to enjoy him,” Unander-La Berge said of Lukas. “She was trying to survive.”

Unander-La Berge, the founder and executive director of Mother’s Helpers, replied to another social media request from Hearn in May. She was looking for help watching Lukas while she worked a shift at the 99 Cents Only Store in downtown Santa Barbara.

Daniella Hearn, playing with son Lukas in an undated photo, had reached out to Robin Unander-La Berge for help with the toddler’s care. The Unander-La Berges had been granted temporary guardianship of Lukas just five days before Hearn was killed in a car crash. Click to view larger
Daniella Hearn, playing with son Lukas in an undated photo, had reached out to Robin Unander-La Berge for help with the toddler’s care. The Unander-La Berges had been granted temporary guardianship of Lukas just five days before Hearn was killed in a car crash. (Unander-La Berge family photo)

It was the first time the two women had met, but Unander-La Berge volunteered her services.

“She was caring for him, but had logistical challenges of being a working single parent,” Unander-La Berge told Noozhawk. “She asked how much I charged. I told her I wasn’t charging anything, just doing it to help her.

“As she left my house, she turned and asked what’s my name again.”

Hearn didn’t offer any instructions when she handed off Lukas.

Unander-La Berge said she asked basic questions about his general care, which Hearn answered knowingly.

Throughout the day when she watched Lukas, she would send Hearn updates and photos.

“Lukas did well, given that he had never met me, my family or been to my house before that day,” Unander-La Berge recalled. “He handled it like a pro.”

Lukas continued to stay with the family as Hearn’s life began to slip.

“She didn’t have much support in place,” Unander-La Berge explained.

Hearn was trying to get into a drug recovery program in Santa Barbara, and Unander-La Berge agreed to watch Lukas for the 90-day duration of the program. Under the terms, mother and son would be reunited in a second phase of the program.

With Lukas living with them, the Unander-La Berges agreed to become the child’s temporary legal guardians in July when Hearn’s life grew more difficult with drug use.

The agreement was finalized with the courts on Aug. 4, just five days before Hearn died.

Lukas Hunt, climbing over one of the Unander-La Berge children, is adapting well to his new family. “He feels like our child to us and has adjusted with little issue,” Robin Unander-La Berge says. “I see a strong and determined personality, and that’s his mom.” Click to view larger
Lukas Hunt, climbing over one of the Unander-La Berge children, is adapting well to his new family. “He feels like our child to us and has adjusted with little issue,” Robin Unander-La Berge says. “I see a strong and determined personality, and that’s his mom.” (Unander-La Berge family photo)

The night of the crash, the young mother had stopped by to visit her son.

According to Unander-La Berge, Hearn’s mother had helped with Lukas, but when he got older it became harder for her due to her own health issues.

Frank Hunt, Lukas’ father, lives in Idaho and could not be reached at the time.

“His phone wasn’t in service, last I heard,” Unander-La Berge said.

Unander-La Berge updates Hunt when necessary and said he checks in “every few weeks.”

Hunt can petition to terminate the guardianship to gain custody, but the courts will need to decide if that’s in Lukas’ best interest, Unander-La Berge said.

She said she and her family had to accept the possibility that the guardianship would be long term — and possibly forever after Hearn’s death.

“He feels like our child to us and has adjusted with little issue,” Unander-La Berge said. “I see a strong and determined personality, and that’s his mom.”

She vows to keep the commitment she made, mother to mother.

“I made a promise to his mom to take care of him, and Daniella picked us to help care for him while she couldn’t,” Unander-La Berge said. “We are honoring that choice.”

Unander-La Berge urges mothers seeking help to visit the Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services and apply for CalWORKs or other available aid programs.

For a single or low-income parent, those first steps can be hard without a support system, she said.

“It can be daunting if they’re facing addiction issues, lack of support from friends or family, or have never had to try and figure this out before,” Unander-La Berge said.

“If people have a support system in place, such as family, then it makes all the difference in the world. If they don’t have the support system in place, then trying to do this while on a reduced income is almost a recipe for failure.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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