ON THE COVER North Coast Journal banner

Did a Boy in a Cage slip throught the cracks?

by   SUSAN WOOD

Photos by Brandi Easter (of television screen showing TV show Extra )

HERE DO THE BOUNDARIES OF child protection, responsibility and independence fall with parents, counselors, child advocates, government agencies or the community?

The legal system is due to tackle this serious debate during a Humboldt County Superior Court trial set for March 8 involving the case of "Tony V.," a local boy who spent two years of his life at home in a "cage" of sorts.

The civil suit asking for $5 million in damages on behalf of the boy was filed by Singleton and Associates of Escondido in June 1997. It charges that the county Social Services Department provided inadequate protection for the child, now age 8.

While in the custody of his biological parents, Tony lived in a 5-by-5-foot enclosure made of thick netting and sealed with a padlock. There, Tony apparently slept and ate sometimes being fed through the webbing before being placed in a halfway house in January 1996.

At issue is that the placement came eight months after the department's Child Welfare Service became aware of the home environment, the legal complaint contends. Then two months later, a social worker visited the home, it adds.

During this time, Tony at age 4, was "not toilet trained, wore a diaper, still nursed from a bottle and had severe speech difficulties," court records indicate. He was evaluated by an analyst as having the cognitive development of an 18-month-old child at that time, the records add.

"The (county department) failed in (its) duty to protect the minor from profound developmental injuries and physical harm for eight months after learning he was exposed to habitual and severe abuse," the complaint reads.

The treatment, or lack thereof, has led to Tony receiving "more (emotional and psychological) damage than anyone can ever know," local plaintiff attorney Bradford Floyd said. Tony's placement in a home for "severely" developmentally disabled children hindered his growth further, he added.

"The interest of the child is the focus here, and it is our opinion (the county) disregarded that," Floyd said.PHoto of boy

Moreover, Floyd accused CWS which operates under the umbrella of county social services of having a history of the "same complaints."

CWS social worker Supervisor Randy Mayers has declined to comment. She's one of many involved in the case who have stayed sensitive to confidentiality issues, prompting some children's advocates to re-examine whether the social work covenant always works in the best interests of the child.

"It shouldn't be that hard to protect a child," said Valerie Bish, executive director of CASA of Humboldt. CASA is the court-appointed special advocacy group.

It was Bish, who at the urging of county special education teacher Donna Daniel, finally went to a judge who then ordered CWS to award guardianship to the state in January 1997.

This was after Daniel, desperate, said she and other special ed staffers had for months begged and pressured CWS to get Tony out of the enclosure and eventually out of his parents custody.

With pressure, CWS eventually agreed to tell the parents that if they didn't grant a voluntary approval to have him placed outside the home, the agency might take legal action against them.

"I wouldn't shut up," Daniel said. "I couldn't believe any human being would find these living conditions appropriate."

The teacher burst into tears, recalling special education's first visits to the home in the fall of 1995. She calls the case the worst she's ever seen.

By November, Daniel referred Tony to a school for developmentally disabled children. Soon after, he went to live in a home for developmentally delayed boys with severe behavioral problems. However, she learned early on that Tony didn't belong there. Once the boy was out of the enclosure, his rapid intellectual growth made him ineligible to stay in the home, she noted.

That realization served as a double-edged sword to Daniel.

"(The CWS workers) weren't willing to act to the situation, and they were the only ones who had the authority to do something about it," Daniel said. She claims it's not the first time CWS failed to respond to protect a child.

Like Daniel, Bish takes issue with the notion that a family should be preserved at all costs. What's her test as to whether Tony should have stayed in the cage one day longer once CWS knew?

"Ask seven grandmothers on the street (whether it's right), and see what they say," she said. She describes Tony's earlier existence as "living through a war," a tragedy for such a "bright, inquisitive child."

"What happens in our childhood affects us all our lives," she said.

Floyd agrees, equating Tony's trauma to a Holocaust survivor's.

Tony w/ new family & dogsThe boy now lives, by all appearances, a happy life with his trampoline, dog and newly adoptive parents, Mimi and Warren Black, since last May. In the interests of their son's privacy, the couple vehemently refused to grant an interview with this publication. They did recently go on camera with a reporter of the tabloid TV show Extra.

Tony's biological parents, Robert Hand and Arlene Valdez, also made an appearance from their small Eureka apartment. In a taped interview, Hand characterized the enclosure as a "playpen" meant to "keep (Tony) safe."

In some respects, Valdez who the complaint claims herself is developmentally disabled with an IQ of 70 may have validated the comment.

"His dad would get really mad at Tony for doing child's things, and he would beat him," Floyd said Valdez told him in an interview. "The cage was meant to keep them apart."

No broken bones were reported, but Tony received bruises at the hands of his father, Floyd said, making a case argument. Hand was diagnosed with post-hallucinogen- perception disorder, the court records point out. This disorder is brought on by LSD use and can be treated with medication, the records add. A form of it may be self-induced or triggered by entry into a dark environment, various drugs, anxiety or fatigue, or other stressors, a diagnostic mental health manual states.

Both Hand and Valdez have had other children in previous relationships removed from their care, and CWS was aware of this history, Floyd contends.

Social Services Director John Frank declined to comment on the case, and the county's attorney assigned to the case offered limited explanation in the interest of

confidentiality.

"I can tell you we believe, obviously, county employees acted appropriately," defense attorney Nancy Delaney said, denying each allegation.

In answering the complaint, the county emphasized the staffers "acted in good faith" in following their department guidelines. Further, the county's defense counters that the suit is aimed at the wrong party, as "the negligence falls elsewhere."

As for the county's take on the role of the biological parents, the case is "undisputed the parents did not use the enclosure to punish or abuse the minor."

On the contrary, Hand and Valdez told the Extra reporter Tony was "a troubled, self-destructive child who often lashed out in violent fits." If anything, the parents put Tony in the enclosure to keep him from running in the street. It also was intended to give the parents a break, Hand added on camera.

It's unfortunate all the facts in this case cannot be shared and some that have are "patently untrue," Delaney said. The lawsuit itself she considers a "tragedy" to Tony, who has since turned his world around.

Last August, Tony stood next to the Blacks during their wedding, the Extra broadcast showed.

Still, there are times Tony is "confused about lots of different situations and how to react," the boy's new father said on the show.

"They did bad stuff," Tony told the Extra reporter, calling his biological parents "dumb" for what they did.

New mom Mimi Black, a counselor who met Tony at the halfway house for boys, was "horrified" when she learned of Tony's life in the cage, according to the Extra show. She toilet trained him, taught him how to eat and get dressed, the interview added.

It remains to be seen whether Tony turned out to be one of the lucky ones, with last-decade statistics like the following in Humboldt County.

Bish echoed the statistic that 23 percent, nearly one in four children here, live in poverty a long-held symptom of child abuse.

A 1991 report compiled by Children Now, a statewide nonprofit child advocacy group, rated this county as having the highest infant death rate of the 38 largest counties in the state. In addition, the county was rated 32 out of 46 counties as having a high rate of children placed in foster homes.

The criticism of how well the county's children are cared for has also spread through the years to a 1994 county Grand Jury report and a 1995 review of emergency response by the Child Welfare League, a national advocacy group for abused and neglected children.

Both reports cite a lack of resources as a major contributing factor in abused or neglected children falling between the cracks. And the league's review suggests the lack of training as another.

Things may be looking up.

Since the league's 1995 review, Humboldt County CWS has added two additional supervisors and 10 social workers to work emergency response cases, CWS Program Manager Joanne Wightman noted.

"We've made so many changes, it's not the same department," Wightman said.

And since last January, the county has been selected as one in seven in the state participating in a pilot program for emergency response cases. Wightman calls the program one of the biggest advancements for the department in her 18 years with the agency.

A team of at least a dozen staff social workers and child advocates is assigned to essentially add another level of scrutiny to these serious cases.

"That's where we make the most impact," said Wightman, who whole heartedly believes the cooperative intervention program will reduce the number of abuse incidents.

The risk assessment workgroup also evaluates the consistency of the case responses.

Granted, there is "no pat answer" to how quickly or diligently a department should react to a case like Tony V.'s, the league's Director of Child Protection Linda Spears said.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there's a whole lot more to this case than meets the eye," she said.

Spears has found that most child-welfare workers, while meeting demanding responsibilities, genuinely care about the work and the people they serve. The difficult questions they have to assess are basic yet complex, Spears said: "Is the child safe" or "can the parents receive services that will make the child safer?" If the answer is no to both, the case should go before a judge for immediate removal, she said.

In this case, it's somewhat unclear if intervention services were offered to the biological parents, and if so, whether they accepted the services.

Humboldt County CWS staff service analyst Sue Oringer stressed the primary concern remains the safety of the child. Still, the agency will usually remove a child as a "last resort," she added.

"In a perfect world, we would respond to every referral," she said.

On the average, the county's 45 caseworkers juggle between 20 to 30 cases, depending on the program the case falls in. The state sets the standards for funding, asking counties to handle up to 50 cases per worker. Sometimes this county's CWS workers approach that mark, but "we don't agree with (the standard)," Oringer said.

"What (the state doesn't) take into account is how spread out we are (geographically)," she said.

As for professional standards among staff, most social workers hold a master's degree in social welfare. In smaller counties, the standard may be waived to attract more applicants to the pool.

These people must evaluate whether a child-abuse report from a peripheral party warrants an investigation or not, Oringer said, adding "we give more weight to mandatory reporters" like teachers.

Then again, she believes much of the responsibility rests with the community. If anything, that's why the department tries to work within the framework of the family, instead of passing judgment on what makes an ideal family.

"We can't dictate lifestyle," Oringer said.

And it takes changes in attitude and, in turn, laws and structure of the agencies with authority to make a dent in alleged child abuse and neglect cases, said county Family Court Commissioner Joyce Hinrichs.

Hinrichs suggests a process for all child welfare agencies in which case reviewers "screen in" needy families by offering more service intervention options not "screen out" those that do not meet the legal requirement.

It's difficult to know if CWS had involved the courts sooner, would the outcome in this particular case be different, Hinrichs said.

"If everybody does their job, what's best for the child and the family will come out in court," she said. The ideal situation, borrowing from the "it takes a village" scenario outlined by one prominent child advocate, involves the community in deeming "what is acceptable or unacceptable."

Ditto, says John Gai, a Humboldt State University social work department chair whose focus group will examine the issue of child abuse on Channel 12 in coming months. Gai points to society as a whole as the responsible party for changes in child welfare.

"Everybody wants a child to be safe, but nobody wants (an) intrusive social services (department) telling them how to raise a child," he said, citing a current culture's value conflict.

In Gai's 36 years in social work, he's found that social workers care deeply for the well-being of the children whose cases cross their desks. However, he couldn't speak for the individual nature of this case.

Meanwhile, local child-advocacy groups like CASA are in constant threat of losing funding and in need of volunteers. The next CASA volunteer training session is set for Feb. 17. For information call 443-3197.


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com


North Coast Journal banner