Saturday, January 21, 2012

Colorado Court Rules Social Workers Potentially Liable in Foster Home Abuse

Written by: James Swift

Earlier this month, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that social workers in Adams County may be held legally responsible for failures to protect children in foster care from abuse.

The ruling stems from a case involving a lawsuit filed by three siblings, who claim that social workers failed to safeguard them from abuse in their mother’s home, and later deceived their adoptive parents about the severity of their abuse history.

Prior to the ruling, the adoptive parents of the children unsuccessfully filed a separate suit against the Adams County Department of Social Services, claiming that social workers did not disclose the full records of abuse prior to their adoption. Last December, a federal judge ruled that Denver’s social workers could be sued, following the case of a 7-year-old who starved to death under the watch of his foster parents.

The ruling allows the siblings to proceed with their lawsuit against the Adams County Department of Social Services, on the grounds that their rights to safety were violated by county social workers.

The appellate court determined that the state’s division director of Child Welfare Angela Lytle, who supervised social workers Joan Forsmark and Cathy O’Donnell, acted “recklessly in conscious disregard” of the plaintiffs’ safety.

“The conduct put the children at substantial risk of serious, immediate, and proximate harm that was known to or suspected by Lytle at the time of the adoption,” the court opinion reads. “And such conduct, when viewed in total, is conscience shocking.”

Plaintiff attorney Jordan Factor said that the ruling could pave the way for major changes to the state’s foster home system.

“Each circumstance is a little different, and this adds to the mix of circumstances in which the courts consistently say that children in the custody of the state of Colorado have a right to be kept safe from harm,” Factor said. “It is a case that has an opportunity to do real justice.”


Docs more likely to suspect abuse in poor kids

By Amy Norton - Reuters

(Reuters Health) - When a toddler has a broken bone, pediatricians may be more likely to suspect abuse if the family is lower-income, a new study finds.

Researchers found that pediatricians who read a fictional case report of a toddler with a leg fracture were more likely to suspect abuse if the child was described as coming from a lower-income family.

The hypothetical child's race, on the other hand, did not appear to influence doctors' opinions.

The second finding is somewhat surprising, according to the researchers. Studies looking at real-world cases have found that minority children are more likely to be evaluated for abuse than white children are.

And it's well known that the child welfare system in the U.S. has a disproportionate number of minority kids.

"There's very strong evidence of a racial difference in how patients are handled," said lead researcher Dr. Antoinette L. Laskey, a pediatrician at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

But, she told Reuters Health, the reasons for that have not been clear -- including whether doctors may act based on unconscious racial stereotypes.

The current results suggest "there's more than race involved," Laskey said.

She was also quick to say, however, that the study doesn't mean pediatricians are consciously "classist" or otherwise biased when evaluating children's injuries.

The study, reported in the Journal of Pediatrics, included 2,100 U.S. pediatricians who responded to a survey that described one of four hypothetical cases.

All cases included an 18-month-old with an "ambiguous" leg fracture -- a type that can be caused by abuse or an accident.

But the cases varied by the child's race (black or white) and the family's economic situation; parents were described as having either professional jobs (accountant and bank manager) or working-class jobs (grocery clerk and factory worker).

Race had little effect on the doctors' responses. The study found that when the child was black, 45 percent of doctors believed there had "possibly" or "almost certainly" been abuse; another 32 percent were "unsure." If the child was white, 46 percent of pediatricians suspected abuse, with 28 percent saying they were unsure.

In contrast, there was evidence that parents' job descriptions swayed doctors' opinions.

When the child's family was lower-income, 48 percent of pediatricians thought there'd been abuse, versus 43 percent when the family was higher-income.

It's hard to know whether doctors' responses to a fictional case would be the same in real life.

And it's not clear, according to Laskey, whether attitudes about socioeconomic status might explain some of the racial differences in child abuse reporting seen in earlier studies.

She also stressed that she does not think pediatricians are consciously basing their diagnoses on parents' job titles. But in general, unconscious stereotypes can influence anyone's thinking.

"People tend to think that child abuse, or domestic violence, doesn't happen in upper-middle-class families, but of course it does," Laskey said.

It's important, she said, for doctors to be aware that unconscious generalizations could get in the way of diagnosing child abuse -- either missing it in kids from affluent families, or over-diagnosing it in children from poorer or minority families.

"My big take-home message for doctors is that we need to rely on the objective data," Laskey said.

It is true that studies have found children in poorer families to be at greater risk of abuse. But the poverty, itself, is not a "causative factor," Laskey said.

"Race and socioeconomic status shouldn't be things used in a diagnosis of abuse," she said.

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, online January 5, 2012.


Friday, January 20, 2012

State Settles With Johnson & Johnson Over Risperdal: $158 Million - Texas

By Craig Malisow

A drug company accused of fraudulently promoting the antipsychotic Risperdal for use in Texas's Medicaid system has settled a state Attorney General's lawsuit for $158 million.

The AG's office, one of several across the country to sue Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) for fraudulent marketing, had sought $1 billion. Although the suit was filed in 2006, the trial only began January 9th.

As we reported in December, the marketing leading to Risperdal's inclusion in the Texas Medication Algorith Project was fraught with conflicts of interest among state officials and academic researchers, some of whom were involved in the carving out the latest prescription medication parameters for children in the state foster care system. Although TMAP was officially jettisoned in 2010, the state still pays for foster kids as young as two to take psychotropic drugs, sometimes without a diagnosis.

According to a statement by Janssen, the settlement covers "alleged Medicaid overpayment" from 1994-2004, and will "circumvent potentially lengthy and costly appellate activities....Janssen is committed to ethical business practices and has policies in place to ensure its products are only promoted for their FDA-approved indications."

We're not disagreeing with that last statement. They probably do have policies in place. It just doesn't look like they were followed....


Young mom refuses to give up on children - Washington DC

by Valencia Mohammed

This holiday season was the greatest celebration ever when Jewel Stroman, 23, finally got her daughter back from DC Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA). It has been 15 long months since the mother and child have spent time together as a family.

“This was long overdue. It feels good to be able to raise my own child once again. It’s a joy I can’t express in simple terms,” said Stroman. Her struggles of trying to keep her family intact date back years ago when Stroman was a teen mom.

In 2005, Stroman approached the AFRO about the struggles she faced trying to get her son out of foster care. Her father, Bruce Smith, suffering from kidney failure, placed his daughter and three-month old grandson in the Montgomery County Child and Family Services.

“I was advised to do so by social services because they thought I was going to die,” said Smith. His chances for survival were very slim at the time with no apparent kidney donor. He was on the transplant list for four years.

“I thought it was the right decision at that time. I had no idea that it would haunt me for the rest of my life and prove detrimental for me as a grandparent,” Smith said.

Stroman was released by the system on her 18th birthday, but her son remained. She filed a lawsuit, went to trial and won. But the scrutiny of the system of the teen mom did not stop there.

Hoping that a change of venue would make a difference, in 2006, Stroman moved to southeast Washington, got her own apartment and a job.

In 2007, Stroman became pregnant with a second son. In that year, she and the baby’s father were involved in a domestic quarrel. Both Stroman and the child’s father were locked up overnight. Instead of the police contacting her father or next of kin, child protective services was called and her eldest son was taken away. She felt the system was punishing her for outsmarting it years ago. Her eldest child is up for adoption. Although Stroman’s father was capable to raise the child after he received a kidney transplant, both systems denied him the right because he placed him in foster care years ago.

“I’m good enough to have my grandson for weekends and summertime visits but not good enough to raise him as his blood relative,” said Smith.

Stroman felt hopeless. “It’s like the system can get away with whatever it wants and as a young mother, you have no rights. No reunification was ever offered,” said Stroman.

While Stroman fought vigorously, other events affected her life. Her son’s placement didn’t stop her from loving him. She filed a complaint against CFSA when her son broke his femur under the watch of a foster care parent.

“If I didn’t bring it up, CFSA wouldn’t have done anything about it. No one punished the system for allowing this to happen,” said Stroman.

After the second child was born Stroman worked in Virginia and asked her second son’s aunt to take care of the child during the week. One Friday, when she came to get her son, the aunt refused to give him up. The aunt filed for custody with CFSA testifying on the aunt’s behalf using the Montgomery County case and removal of the first child as reasons for kinship custody. The baby’s father signed over his rights to his aunt. However, neither the court nor CFSA contacted the mother about the hearing until it was over.

“If I knew that overnight care with a family member would result in complete loss of my child, I would have placed him in kiddycare that had night hours. People have no idea how the system can work against a young mother,” said Stroman. The court order gave supervised visitation to Stroman but it has not been enforced. “I haven’t seen him in four years. Whenever I bring it up to the judge, nothing is done. It’s like he was legally stolen from me,” Stroman said.

Court officials said it provides attorneys for all parents to ensure that their rights are protected. “Federal and DC law and court rules require that reasonable efforts be made to keep the family intact.” said Leah Gurowitz, public information officer for the DC Superior Court.

But Stroman said the court ignored her requests through the attorney. So she kept filing complaints and her own lawsuits.

But the drama didn’t stop there. In 2008, Stroman was sentenced to 90 days in jail for articulating a threat to the 31-year old mother of her third boyfriend who refused to return Stroman’s car so she could get to work. She lost her apartment. Although the charges were dropped after Stroman successfully completed the terms of her probation, the conviction has been used against her numerous times in court proceedings.

In 2009, Stroman was pregnant with her third child. In February, 2010, the father of her second child was killed. The father of the third child was convicted of carjacking and is currently serving long term prison sentence.

Stroman joined a transitional housing program. One of the caseworkers was caught using the personal identifiable information of the clients to obtain credit cards, loans and cashed the money orders paid for rent. When Stroman reported the caseworker to authorities and confronted the culprit, she was given a two-hour notice to vacate.

Police illegally evicted Stroman with her daughter in the rain. The next day Stroman filed a complaint in court and the judge ordered her return to the premises. Stroman’s daughter caught pneumonia from the incident and was hospitalized. It was this incident that led to CFSA removing her daughter from the home claiming that the mother was negligent for not taking the child to a pediatric developmental evaluation.

“CFSA removes children when they can't be safe at home. In the vast majority of cases, the initial goal is reunification. To achieve that, parents must fulfill requirements of a case plan designed to reduce risk and increase safety. After a removal, parents have to meet requirements to get their children back,” said Mindy Good, public information officer for CFSA.

Stroman continued her quest to be a mother. At Stroman’s behest, the daughter was removed from two foster care families for extreme negligence. She filed four lawsuits and numerous complaints to the chief judge about illegal behavior of the family court judge who denied her legal rights for opportunities to reunify with her children.

To get custody of her daughter, Stroman was required to complete mental health evaluation, psychotherapy and anger management sessions, parenting classes, supervised visits, weekly urines, court proceedings, job placement program, maintain housing and attend bi-monthly meetings with caseworkers for reunification. The process was completed in February 2011 yet the daughter remained in the system until Dec. 16 of the same year.

Stroman’s complaints fell on deaf ears until recently. Stroman has received notification from the DC Superior Court family court monitor and CFSA citizens’ review board that they will examine her complaints.

“There’s no telling how many more mothers have been victimized by this system,” Stroman said.

Currently, there are over 4,000 children involved in court supervision and CFSA monitoring in the District. Stroman said, “It’s like this is a business of baby snatchers.”


NEW: DaSilva Reintroduces Bill to Keep Children Under DCYF Care In-State

Rep. Roberto DaSilva (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, Pawtucket) has reintroduced a bill this week that would keep more children in the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) care in Rhode Island.

The bill (2012-H 7135) would require Rhode Island Family Court and DCYF to allow state service providers the opportunity to develop an individual treatment plan for any child in need of service. No child would be sent to out-of-state residences, facilities or treatment centers without first allowing a Rhode Island provider the opportunity to develop a treatment plan to help that child.

“This legislation will protect children and adolescents in the care of the state while improving economic growth here at home,” Representative DaSilva said. “Rhode Island has an abundance of service providers who are willing to develop individualized plans to meet the needs of our children. Instead of outsourcing our children to out-of-state corporations where it is more difficult to monitor their care and progress, we will keep them close to home.”

Each year, he said, millions of tax dollars are spent on service providers outside Rhode Island’s borders.

“In these tough economic times, we need to make sure our tax dollars are being wisely spent,” he said. “We need to keep our children, our money and jobs right here in Rhode Island.”

In the 2011 legislative session, Representative DaSilva introduced the measure after meeting Nicholas Alahverdian, a former DCYF client who suffered abuse and neglect after landing in two out-of-state residential facilities. Alahverdian eventually became the director of policy and research for NexusGovernment and lobbies for legislation protecting children in DCYF custody.

“The passage of this legislation will ensure that no child will ever have to suffer through what I did ever again,” Alahverdian said.

Co-sponsoring the bill are Reps. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly), Scott J. Guthrie (D-Dist. 28, Coventry), Michael J. Marcello (D-Dist. 41, Cranston, Scituate) and Michael W. Chippendale (R-Dist. 40, Coventry, Foster, Glocester).


Former DHS employee faces sex charge against 15-year-old foster child - Oklahoma


Correction: A Wednesday Tulsa World story about a criminal charge filed against former Oklahoma Department of Human Services worker Ronald Jay Green II contained incorrect information. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation received the referral from the Stillwater Police Department to handle the investigation on Sept. 26. This story has been corrected.
A former employee of the state Department of Human Services has been charged with committing a sex crime against a teenage girl in foster care while he was on staff with DHS.

Ronald Jay Green II, 23, was charged Thursday in Tulsa County District Court with one count of forcible oral sodomy, and Special Judge David Youll issued a warrant for his arrest.

Green worked in the Stillwater DHS office from May through October 2010 as a temporary social worker aide and was paid $8.80 an hour, according to DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell.

On Sept. 13, 2010, Green was transporting a 15-year-old foster child from Stillwater to a Tulsa placement when he allegedly engaged in the sex act, said Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

The victim came forward last year with the allegations, and the OSBI was called by Stillwater police Sept. 26 to oversee the investigation, Brown said.

The alleged abuse occurred in Tulsa County, Brown said.

Green has no disciplinary actions on file with DHS because the allegations were made after he resigned, Powell stated in an email.

"The accusations against Mr. Green are disgusting and extremely disturbing," Powell wrote. "The safety of the children entrusted into our care is our top priority. Although the disclosure of this incident came out almost a year after Mr. Green resigned from (DHS), our staff immediately reported it to the proper authorities for investigation."

The commission overseeing the DHS this month agreed to a settlement agreement of a federal class-action lawsuit that had alleged abuses in the state's foster-care system. Part of the allegations involved staffing, training and reasonable workloads to ensure the safety of children while they are in DHS care.

The settlement agreement has to be approved by a federal judge.

The suit was filed by Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gov.: No useful data in NPR report on Indian children

By: Tom Lawrence

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he didn’t gain any useful information from a controversial 2011 public radio series on American Indian foster children in South Dakota.

“I can’t identify any legitimate criticisms that identified an area where we could take action,” Daugaard said. “It raised my level of knowledge, but I think that’s a poor way to cause me to raise my level of knowledge, through a sensational story that was unfounded.”

Laura Sullivan, a National Public Radio investigative correspondent, produced a three-part series titled “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families” that was heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” in October.

The series said South Dakota was one of 32 states that did not comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and other laws. It said state social workers had entered Indian reservations with which the state has no agreement and removed tribal children from their homes.

Daugaard, who has said little publicly about the issue since the reports aired, said Monday the series was based on “unfounded” information.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that NPR decided that they were going to create a very sensationalistic story,” he said. “And it’s also unfortunate because it’s such a complex area.”

Daugaard made his comments during a discussion with The Daily Republic’s editorial board Monday morning at the newspaper’s office in Mitchell, following a public appearance the governor made earlier Monday morning in the city.

Sullivan had her mind made up when she arrived in South Dakota, the governor said, and didn’t want to hear anything that differed from what she believed. He said numerous state employees who spoke with her felt that way.

“It’s really a lot of misinformation and poorly researched information,” Daugaard said. “I think we did our best to refute much of it.”

According to a discussion of the series on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” the series raised valid points.

“An average of 700 Native American children in South Dakota are removed from their homes and placed in foster care each year, often in violation of federal law, an NPR investigation found,” the “Talk of the Nation” report states. “Native American children make up less than 15 percent of the state’s child population, but represent more than half of the kids in foster care.”

“Some Native Americans believe the problem is that Native children who are placed in foster care with non-Native families, as most are in South Dakota, lose connection to their culture, traditions and tribes,” the NPR report stated.

The series also spotlighted Daugaard’s role as CEO of the Children’s Home Society, which deals with many foster children and received several contracts with the state that totaled more than $50 million. He was the state’s part-time lieutenant governor for eight years while also leading CHS.

Daugaard “pre-responded” to the NPR stories before they aired, sending e-mails to South Dakota media outlets that claimed Sullivan, whom he declined to speak with, was biased and unwilling to listen to all sides of the story.

He repeated those assertions Monday.

Daugaard pointed out that the South Dakota Department of Social Services had contracts with the Children’s Home Society since 1978, long before he worked for it.

Daugaard and his director of policy and communications and chief spokesman, Tony Venhuizen, said they have been in contact with NPR’s ombudsman for six weeks and have expressed their unhappiness with the series.

An ombudsman is an intermediary between parties with a differing point of view. Many large media organizations have employed ombudsmen since the 1970s.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is NPR’s ombudsman.

He is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and a former reporter, editor and columnist for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

In his final online post of 2011, Schumacher-Matos said he would look into the story.

“Coming soon is a look back at an investigation of Native American foster care in South Dakota,” Schumacher-Matos wrote on Dec. 23.

He did not respond to an e-mail Monday from The Daily Republic asking for additional comment.

Daugaard said he’s glad NPR has someone who is “portrayed as being independent” taking a look at how Sullivan dealt with the story.


Family Reunification Act of 2011

State Police: Marion County Man Makes False Child Abuse Claims - West Virginia

By Lisa Robbins

The state police have arrested a Marion County man accused of falsely reporting multiple child abuse incidents.

Fred Spadafore, 52, is charged with three counts of falsely reporting an emergency incident and two counts of false information to a trooper.

Spadafore made multiple child abuse reports through a child abuse hotline, according to authorities.

Spadafore said there was a 14-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by her adoptive parents in Rivesville, according to investigators.

Sergeant Adam Scott said authorities and Child Protective Services went to Rivesville to find the family in question.

Scott said they learned that the child abuse claims were false. He said Spadafore admitted to calling the hotline so he could so he could sexually pleasure himself.

Spadafore is in the North Central Regional Jail awaiting arraignment.

Kaylee Rice died despite 18 state investigations - Florida


Editor’s note: This story is based on interviews with friends and family of Kaylee Rice, people involved in the juvenile dependency system, and hundreds of pages of records from the Department of Children and Families, Big Bend Community Based Care, criminal and civil court files, and law enforcement.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Even as her life descended into a spiral of abuse and addiction, Courtney Coughlin was determined to keep her daughter, Kaylee Ann Rice.

Coughlin gave up two other kids for adoption, an older girl and a younger boy, and Kaylee was removed from her care by the state on more than one occasion. Still, Coughlin fought to keep Kaylee.

Once she succeeded, said one woman who knew Kaylee, the child never stood a chance.

Kaylee was airlifted to Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in the hours after a July 11, 2011, car accident in Lynn Haven. She and mother Courtney Coughlin, a drug addict and ex-convict with a long criminal history, were not wearing seat belts. Coughlin’s facial muscles were pulled from her crushed skull, and she had missing teeth and limited vision in one eye.

Kaylee fared worse.

Twelve hours after the crash, an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) filed a preliminary report of the findings of an investigation. The investigator interviewed only doctors; Kaylee was unconscious, father Ray Rice was in prison and her mother was in the hospital on her way to jail, where she would remain until she was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The investigator was there to assess the risk to Kaylee.

“The overall safety assessment at this time is low as it pertains to the parent/caregiver not having access for further abuse/neglect to the child. However, risk is increased due to the injuries Kaylee has sustained and her current condition may potentially be fatal.”

The report documented the 18th and final time DCF had investigated allegations Kaylee had been abused or neglected.

Coughlin and Rice met in the late ’90s when they were kicking around the beach, hanging out in clubs, partying and getting into drugs. Back then it was pot and valium; later it was meth and painkillers. They had dated about a month when Coughlin showed up with a small child, Rice remembered during an interview with The News Herald.

Both were more interested in partying than parenthood, and Coughlin decided to give her daughter up for adoption. The adoption was a strain on the relationship. Rice said he started thinking, “This chick might be crazy.”

She knew how to push his buttons, and “sometimes I would try to control her,” said Rice, who was arrested several times for domestic violence. “I’m not an angel by any means.”

Coughlin was pregnant again in December 1998 when she applied for a restraining order the day after one incident. She withdrew the request a week later.

“I lost one child, kind of, you know — that’s how I felt about it — and I was giving her something better,” Coughlin said in an interview. “… I wanted Kaylee to have both of her parents there, you know, just a normal upbringing. I wanted to give her everything I didn’t have.”

Six months later, on July 10, 1999, Kaylee Rice was born in a Bay County hospital to 21-year-old Rice and 23-year-old Coughlin. It was only a matter of months before the complaints to the police and the DCF began pouring in.

Both Rice and Coughlin were involved in a major meth manufacturing case in 2004 after Rice’s mother, Yurdanur “Sunny” Rice, took a trunk with a meth lab and more than 1,000 grams of meth oil to the dump at her son’s request. The meth had belonged to one of Ray Rice’s roommates. He had allowed the roommate to cook meth at his place, but he said he never cooked meth himself and court records support him.

He ended up in a federal prison. Coughlin, who was jittery and had fresh needle marks on her arms when police came, was not charged, but DCF again took custody of Kaylee, who began the least documented period of her short life.

Coughlin was arrested in December 2004 for aggravated assault for a road rage incident in which she allegedly pointed a gun at another driver. She entered a court-ordered rehab program, but quickly failed and ended up in prison.

Kaylee moved in with Charlene Hodge for the first time. The Hodges are a large Bonifay family made larger by the many children they have fostered over the years, but not too large to take Kaylee in 2004.

With the exception of a few months spent with another relative in Michigan, Kaylee spent the next year-and-a half with the Hodges.

“My family just considered her a part of our family,” Hodge said. “She just felt at home at our house.”

When she left the Hodges’ home, Kaylee moved in with Sunny Rice, who was appointed Kaylee’s caretaker in February 2007, about six months before Coughlin’s release from prison.

In December 2008, DCF received the first report regarding Kaylee in more than four years. Rice, then 71 years old, had fallen and broken her hip. She had been hospitalized and wouldn’t be capable of caring for herself, let alone a 9-year-old girl, for at least six months. Kaylee had been staying with various friends, mainly Sean and Melinda Hall.

The Halls didn’t mind looking after Kaylee, and Judge Elijah Smiley ordered Kaylee be placed with the family. Coughlin was allowed supervised visitation.

Coughlin was released from prison in August 2007. She was off drugs and determined to resume her life with the only child she had left.

She completed parenting courses, a mental health assessment, domestic violence awareness courses and substance abuse treatment. She paid child support. Her visits required supervision.

In May 2009, DCF developed a case plan with the stated goal of reuniting Coughlin and Kaylee. The law says that a child removed by the state cannot be returned until “the circumstances which caused the creation of the case plan have been significantly remedied to the extent that the well-being and safety of the child will not be endangered upon the child’s remaining with or being returned to the child’s parent.”

Big Bend Community Based Care, a private company that contracts with the state to monitor cases like Kaylee’s, cited federal and state laws when it refused to provide documents of Coughlin’s drug tests, but logs of in-home visits show Coughlin passed at least nine random drug tests before and after the reunion.

During an in-home visit at Sunny Rice’s by the case worker in July 2009, just before the reunion, the case worker noted in her report that Kaylee was “chippery and happy.” Kaylee said she wanted to live with her mother.

On Aug. 13, 2009, Judge James Fensom held a hearing to get an update on Coughlin’s progress. All drug tests were clean, and DCF recommended Kaylee’s reunification with her mother. Fensom called a brief recess and went into the hall to speak privately with Kaylee. When he returned, he ordered the reunification.

Rosemary Ring was Kaylee’s Sunday school teacher and a friend of Sunny Rice, who had hired a lawyer and tried to fight the reunification. She said she went to court with Sunny that day, and she was disappointed Fensom chose to put Kaylee with Coughlin instead of Sunny, who had taken the child to church, dance lessons and tennis lessons.

“Sunny was a good and moral person and she would have seen to K.K.’s care,” Ring said. “Courts don’t look at the moral aspect of it.”

Kaylee had been more or less born into the system. By her first birthday, Kaylee had been removed from home by child protection teams and returned. DCF had investigated allegations that Kaylee had been exposed to drugs or family violence five times before her second birthday, and investigators often found at least some indication the allegations were true.

Of course, just as often there was no evidence to support the allegations, the DCF is required to conduct investigations in any case, said Courtney Peel, operations manager for DCF in Bay County.

DCF has goals that at times seem to be in conflict. One is to protect children, and the other is to keep families together.

“It is, and I guess it should be, difficult to terminate a parent’s rights,” Fensom said.

A child must be in immediate danger for the DCF to take steps toward taking the child from the parents. Even then, DCF doesn’t have the authority to remove them; that decision must be made by a judge in a shelter hearing.

“Some judges are hesitant to work as a dependency judge because of the reality: some cases go bad,” said Fensom, who said Kaylee’s case isn’t the only one where a child has died as a result of abuse or neglect. It’s not even the most egregious — just the most public.

The work of a dependency court judge is difficult and emotional, Fensom said, because “everyone’s doing their best, then the case goes bad.”

After she won her daughter back, Coughlin remained under supervision of Big Bend Community Based Care. Case agents performed in-home visits for six months after the reunification to see Kaylee and ensure Coughlin was seeing to her needs. They also administered drug tests.

“She was doing extremely well, I thought,” Ray Rice said. “I was actually proud of her.”

Coughlin remembers exactly the day she relapsed. After seven years drug-free, four of which she spent in prison, she started taking painkillers May 14, 2010. It had been about three months since she had passed her final drug test and her case was closed. DCF no longer had the authority to compel a drug test.

She was despondent. Her girlfriend kicked her out of their apartment and Coughlin, who was almost immediately shooting up powerful narcotic painkillers, stole her checkbook on her way out the door. Within a month, she had attempted suicide and been committed.

“That’s what I want, for the suffering to stop,” Coughlin wrote in a suicide note to her ex-girlfriend. “I know that everyone will be better off with me out of their lives. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. … I will never forgive myself for it coming to this.”

The day before she had allegedly stolen some painkillers from Sunny, and six months later the criminal charges were starting to stack up. She was arrested in February for grand theft and uttering a forged instrument for allegedly writing bad checks from her ex’s checkbook.

In March, Coughlin was arrested after she sold four oxycodone pills to a confidential police informant. Bob and Jacqui Coughlin, the grandparents who had raised Coughlin since childhood while her mother drank herself to death, let her sit in jail for two weeks, hoping she might sober up again.

During this period, Bob Coughlin and Charlene Hodge had several discussions about moving Kaylee back in with the Hodges. They both agreed it was best for Kaylee, and it was best to do it over the summer so she wouldn’t have to change schools mid-year, but Courtney Coughlin wouldn’t go for it.

“I had talked to Courtney several times in recent months about giving K.K. up, but she refused to consider it,” Bob Coughlin said. “We still knew we had to do something with her before too long.”

Hodge remembers a long conversation with the Coughlins just before Kaylee finished sixth grade. She didn’t go into details but she said she felt very strongly that Kaylee needed to come live with her again.

“Let’s just say that I kept talking to Kaylee and she was not a happy little girl. Her life was upside down,” Hodge said. “If they needed us, we would be there for them. A child’s security means everything.”

Everyone around Coughlin could tell she was falling apart. From his prison cell, Rice would call Kaylee and ask her if Coughlin was using. Kaylee said she wasn’t, but he felt she was either covering for her mother or didn’t know. He considered reporting Coughlin to DCF, but he didn’t.

“I knew Courtney was messing up. I knew she was on drugs,” he said. “I didn’t want Kaylee to be mad at me for taking her away.”

On July 11, Coughlin was trying to cash a check that wasn’t hers. Police came to the Lynn Haven bank and pinned her in, but she stomped the accelerator and took off. She made it less than a mile.

From the wreckage of the car, investigators recovered purses and checkbooks that belonged to other women. They also found needles and a blackened spoon that tested positive for narcotics.

Two days later at Sacred Heart, staff busied themselves making arrangements with Coughlin and Rice for permission to allow their daughter’s organs to be donated. Knowing Kaylee’s heart still beats in the chest of another child is a comfort to Rice.

“I know Kaylee would’ve wanted that because she was such a sweet girl,” he said.

He’s torn up that he wasn’t there for his little girl. He used to apologize to her over the phone from the prison until she’d forgive him.

“ ‘Daddy stop already; stop that. I forgive you,’ ” he remembered her as saying. “That meant a lot, especially now; I’m so glad that she said that.”

Momma Hodge, as Kaylee referred to her, went in to be with Kaylee while the rest of her family waited in the lobby.

“I just wanted to get to her and hold her hand and let her know that I was there,” Hodge said. “I was the only one with her.”

Doctors and nurses watched with tears in their eyes. For hours after the machines that had kept Kaylee alive were turned off, Hodge was there.


State officials investigating several cases of abuse of adopted children

By Barbara LaBoe

An alleged child starvation case near Longview is one of more than a dozen cases — including one death — that have state officials reviewing how adopted children are placed and treated.

The number of abuse cases is small compared to all adoptions. But a string of high-profile child starvation cases last year — including one from May accusing Jeffrey and Rebecca Trebilcock of starving their five adopted children at their Bunker Hill-area home — has state officials alarmed.

"Starting in the beginning of 2011 we started seeing a cluster effect of these types of cases," said Mary Meinig, director of the state's Family and Children's Ombudsman office, who included a section about adoption abuse in her annual report, released last week.

Many of the cases include starvation. "We have so many great adoptive homes in the state, but then we also have these. ... I think it's apparent that it needs to be looked at."

"We want to jump start this as quickly as possible," said Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services. "There's a sense of urgency here. Not crisis, but urgency, because these are very serious issues."

One adopted child, 13-year-old Hana Williams of Sedro Wooley, died in May from hypothermia and starvation after being left outside as punishment. The Trebilcock's adopted son, then 13, landed in emergency room in March so severely malnourished that he weighed just 49 pounds, according to court documents.

Officials are concerned at the severity of these cases, the apparent spike in them and that so many seem to involve adopted children. The adoption cases are particularly concerning because screening by the state or private adoption agencies should catch unfit parents before children are placed.

Dr. Frances Chalmers, a Mount Vernon pediatrician who consults with DSHS, began to get a "nagging feeling" that something was up and started tracking starvation cases herself. Meinig started doing the same, finding 15 adoption or guardianship cases since 2009 that involved starvation or severe abuse. Eleven of those cases were in 2011.

Not all the cases listed in Meinig's report became public because, unlike the Trebilcocks, not all the parents were criminally charged. All are horrific, though, including cases where children were beaten with wooden boards embedded with nails, sexually abused and severely malnourished.

While Hana Williams' death is the most serious and disturbing case, "even the kids who don't die are significantly traumatized," Chalmers, said.

Adoptions, concerns increasing

Officials aren't sure if the surge of cases in 2011 is the start of a disturbing new trend — but they're working to find out. A work group of child experts - ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire — will look at adoptions, including foreign adoptions, as well as abuse by withholding food.

Among other topics, they'll investigate:

• Are neglect and abuse — including withholding food — on the rise and are they more prevalent in adoptive homes?

The state hasn't tracked withholding food cases before. Anecdotally, though, the number of cases seems to be rising. Of the five criminal withholding food cases statewide in 2011, four involved adoptions.

It's also possible that increased social worker training — and publicity about the most horrific cases — may have led to more cases being reported last year, said DSHS Spokeswoman Sherry Hill.

• Did a rapid increase in adoptions let some unfit parents slip through the cracks?

In recent years, state and federal law encouraged quicker adoptions to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes. Meinig said they need to examine if it's also lead to unfit parents being approved for adoption.

In 2002, there were 1,074 adoptions of Washington children in foster care or other child welfare programs. By 2009 that number nearly doubled to 2,091. The increase from 2008 to 2009 alone was 66 percent. Nationally, the increase from 2002 to 2009 was only 12 percent.

• Does the adoption process itself need to be reworked?

Child welfare officials screen parents adopting through the state foster care system and license private adoption agencies, but state workers do not screen private adoptions or adoptions in other states or countries. Some of the cases highlighted by Meinig included non-Washington adoptions or families who had no prior contact with state Child Protective Services. The state group will investigate if more oversight is needed.

• Does age, race or gender play a role in abuse of adopted children?

Some of the cases highlighted by Meinig involved foreign and/or cross-race adoptions. Officials don't know if that played a role in these cases, but want to examine it further. Three of the Trebilcock's five adopted were from Haiti.

There isn't one simple answer, though, because abuse itself is so complex.

"Nobody's going to say during screening that ‘If I don't like them, I'm not going to feed them,' " Meinig said. "And I don't think anyone actually envisions that they're going to do this. I think it's a progression thing that happens."

Local case, common threads

The Trebilcocks deny they starved their children and are fighting the charges in both the criminal and child dependency courts. (See related story.)

But Meinig said the allegations in the case bear several of the hallmarks common in all the cases she reviewed.

The five adopted Trebilcock children, ages 8 to 14, told investigators they were denied food. Kitchen cabinets had alarms on them and the children were punished for "stealing food," they said. Other family members, though, appeared well-fed, according to investigators.

"There was plenty of food" in all the cases, Meinig said. "These were really purposeful withholding and punishment and control. ... Food is kind of the ultimate control."

The Trebilcock children also told investigators they were beaten and made to stand outside, isolated from the rest of the family - another commonality Meinig found in many of the cases. The Trebilcocks also were home-schooled, which some officials say can be a way hiding the signs of starvation.

"Food withholding as a form of abuse has been around forever, from its mildest form of a misbehaving child being sent to bed without dinner to really severe cases of withholding that lead to medical problems," said Dr. Chalmers, who helps train social workers to look for signs of abuse. "So I've been trying to think about ways we could identify these kids before they die or end up in the hospital for malnutrition."

Reluctance to call

State officials hope the group of child experts can meet by early February and complete its work by May.

Any recommendations will be forwarded to DSHS, which will brief the governor's office as well as the Legislature, Revels Robinson said.

The state's budget crunch doesn't leave much extra money for new programs or enforcement, but Revels Robinson said she believes many of the recommendations could be relatively inexpensive. Some of the changes could be a change of emphasis in screenings, for example. Additional or substitute training also could provided to social workers at little cost, she said.

Officials also stress one of the best defenses against child abuse is for people to speak up when they suspect it. Too often people are afraid to "cause trouble" and then live to regret it, they said. And while there may not be immediate action from one report or call, that doesn't mean the calls are ignored, they said.

"We really do rely on the eyes and ears of the community to alert us," Revels Robinson said.

Hana Williams — the 13-year-old who died in May — "had a number of friends and family who now say ‘I wish I'd called earlier,'" Chalmers said. "We really need to encourage people to be less reluctant to make those calls."