Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Entry Into Foster Care Due to Dog Ownership?

Love, Fear of Dog Tear a Family Apart
The San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 2006, Elizabeth Fernandez

Valerie Louie's nightmare started the day her young son accidentally left their front door ajar last year.

Two of her dogs -- pit bull mixes -- ran out, and one bit a small dog on the ear. San Francisco's animal control department deemed the animals "vicious and dangerous,'' and eventually they were banned from Louie's Richmond District home.

But in a bizarre snowballing of events, Louie's son, Andrew, then 6, was removed from his home and placed in foster care where, allegedly, an older child engaged him in sexual behavior.

Andrew eventually was permitted to move in with his aunt, but he has not returned to his home full time in eight months even though the dogs have been gone the whole time.

The boy had never been bitten, harmed or even threatened by the family pets, although Louie admits she could have done more to supervise Andrew around the animals. Child Protective Services officials told Louie that they were taking the boy to a foster home because of the threat that Andrew could be hurt by the dogs.

"My family was torn apart for purely speculative reasons,'' said Louie, 45, a registered nurse. "It is terrifying that city agencies can have so much power against a law-abiding, hardworking family. But the worst part of it all has been the time between my son and me that is forever lost.''

Louie, who has filed a legal claim against the city, goes back to court today to argue that Andrew should be allowed to return home full time.

The case opens a window into the complex choices and sometimes troubling outcomes of social work in San Francisco, particularly after recent fatal accidents involving controversial canine breeds with menacing reputations. San Francisco officials say they intervened because they saw a "disaster waiting to happen," a viewpoint that interviews and documents indicate was colored by the fatal maulings of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish last year and 33-year-old Diane Whipple in 2001.

In Louie's case, a minor dogfight brought into question a mother's judgment and ability to protect her child, involving numerous city employees and tens of thousands of dollars in public resources. In the clash between a strong-willed mother and well-intentioned city agencies, one goal was shared: to safeguard a little boy.

City officials acknowledge that the matter -- depicted as "a hot case politically'' in a confidential report reviewed by The Chronicle -- escalated to a point no one ever sought.

"A rather small incident became a very big incident,'' said San Francisco Police Sgt. William Herndon, who presides over vicious animal cases with the city's Animal Care and Control agency. "It became such a mess. This case gave me such a headache, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. I think it is absolutely tragic that her son is still not home.

"Nobody is perfect -- we aren't, Child Protective Services isn't. But we really tried to do the right thing. Even though there were easy solutions, we did not take them because they were not the right solutions ...The whole crux of this thing was whether a child was in danger.''
Some city officials maintain they did the right thing by taking Andrew from his mother.
"We have tried to be more proactive,'' said Carl Friedman, director of the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control. "The real issue is stopping something before it happens. The problem with that is it is hard to measure the effect of something that doesn't happen. I think the way we acted may have prevented a tragedy.''

Yet Louie's supporters say public agencies overreacted to pit bull hysteria and vilified a single mother who is devoted to her child.

"In my line of work, I see some pretty bad things. I see kids who have been bitten by a dog but still are permitted to stay with their parents,'' said Dr. Leslie Gershoff, a Sacramento emergency room physician and longtime friend of Louie's. "For Andrew to be taken and then to be kept away such a long time is just appalling.''

Louie, who has worked at Highland Hospital in Oakland for 18 years, admits she made mistakes. She acknowledges twice bringing home her dogs, against the wishes of the city's social workers, while Andrew was living there. She also concedes she was sometimes not as vigilant as she should have been in supervising her son with their pets. But she says she loves her son and believes it was wrong for her to lose him, particularly because he was placed in a stranger's home when numerous relatives lived just blocks away.

"Andrew has had to live in a state of anxiety and uncertainty over his life for many months,'' she said. "He is constantly asking can he come home for good soon.''

Buoying her case is a court-appointed dog trainer who said he believes the dogs pose no untoward danger. A court-appointed psychologist has also strongly recommended that Andrew "be returned to his mother's care immediately. There is no threat to him at this point, and keeping these two separated can only be punitive.''

That evaluation was written in March. But not until the past few weeks was Andrew permitted to stay overnight in his home -- and then only on weekends.

"It is almost like water torture,'' Louie said. "He is being flipped back and forth.''

Based on interviews and confidential records provided by Louie, The Chronicle reconstructed the events of the case. It started April 26, 2005, when Cricket and Frances ran away and Cricket -- raised by Louie since he was a pup -- bit another dog. Louie apologized and paid the vet bill.

But that dog's owner complained to the city, and on June 16 -- 13 days after the death of Nicholas Faibish -- Sgt. Herndon ordered the dogs to undergo a "temperament evaluation.'' Later, he declared the dogs "vicious and dangerous.''

Over the span of the next two months, Cricket was assessed by two animal behaviorists. Both times, the experts voiced serious alarm for Andrew's safety because the boy repeatedly provoked the dog, poking it with toys and pulling his tail. One expert recommended that Louie never again leave the two alone.

"My problem, candidly, was that I did not believe the dog was a threat to her child under normal circumstances,'' Herndon said in an interview. "If I had just taken the dog, everyone would have gone on their merry way. But it wasn't something I could do because it wasn't the dog that was the problem, it was the way the child interacted with the dog, and the mother didn't do anything about it.''

Animal Care and Control sent a referral to Child Protective Services on Aug. 12, 2005. Then Louie made the first of two serious mistakes: She brought Cricket back into her home in early September because she feared for his health. A week later, city workers removed Cricket while a sobbing Andrew watched.
Angered and convinced that Louie could not be trusted, social workers sought to make Andrew a dependent of the court. According to case records, "There is a need for court intervention. ... The mother has minimized the safety issues that are involved in this case.''

Commissioner William R. Gargano of the juvenile division of San Francisco Superior Court granted the petition but permitted Andrew to stay home.

In mid-December, Louie made her second mistake: She temporarily brought Frances home, believing the dog was to be euthanized.

"I thought I could find a home for her,'' she explained. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with bringing her back with us. The city had not mentioned anything about Frances being an issue.''

When a caseworker visited Andrew at school Dec. 14, the boy mentioned that Frances had come home.

The next day, while Andrew was decorating a Christmas tree with his mother, city workers came to remove him from the home. It was an ugly scene -- Louie was distraught and crying.

A few days later, Andrew told his therapist that a 12-year-old boy at the foster home subjected him to inappropriate sexual contact. The therapist notified CPS, and Andrew was moved to another foster home. Louie said the agency failed to notify her about the incident; she also said social workers claimed not to know about Louie's nearby relatives.

Two days later, the court ordered Andrew to be placed with his aunt and uncle.
Coincidentally, just weeks later, an audit by the city controller found that the Department of Human Services failed to comply with required standards, including requirements that they visit at least 90 percent of all foster children once a month or more. Executive Director Trent Rhorer attributed those problems to heavy caseloads and budget cuts.

In an interview, Rhorer said his agency, which has 2,100 children in foster care, strives to keep children with their biological parents "whenever it is safe to do so. It is only in cases of extreme risk or evidence of past abuse or neglect when children are removed.''

When that happens, 53 percent are placed with a relative, Rhorer said. Incidents of abuse while in foster care are "very small,'' he said, amounting to less than 1 percent of cases in San Francisco.

Rhorer said he could not specifically discuss the Louie case.

But in a curious letter to a friend of Louie's who had written expressing concern, Human Services -- while citing confidentiality requirements -- discussed Andrew's alleged sexual mistreatment: "Two child protective service workers investigated the allegation that Ms. Louie's son was sexually abused in a foster care placement, and they were not able to substantiate the allegation.''

For months after her son was taken from home, Louie visited him nightly at her sister's house, helping him with his homework, reading him a story. But she could not walk him to school without supervision.

In March, she underwent an extensive psychological evaluation.

According to the confidential report Louie shared with The Chronicle, she "made some errors ... in her mind, she was not putting her son in peril. She knows dogs, and she knows the dogs in her home very well. ... However, Ms. Louie made it clear to this examiner that she has now learned her lesson. ... She will not again take the chance of having her son taken away from her.''

The report pointed out that Louie had fully complied with court orders, and it noted that Louie's case occurred shortly after Nicholas Faibish's death: "That tragedy made everyone in the area fearful and reinforced concern about pit bulls. Understandably, the people involved in this case were extremely cautious and wanted to make certain that they did not let a similar incident occur on their watch.''

The report urged that mother and son be reunified immediately and that Cricket also be returned home.

That did not happen. Instead, child welfare workers contacted dog trainers to assess the dogs still living with Louie.

Trainer John Van Olden flatly refused. "Nobody can say definitely one way or another because it involves an animal, and animals by nature are unpredictable,'' he said.

Veteran dog trainer Mike Wombacher was ultimately paid $675 for five sessions with Andrew, Louie and their three dogs.

"I wasn't there at the front end" when the case started, he said. "But I didn't see anything in the behavior of the dogs that would warrant the kid being taken away. There is nothing in that house that presents any more of a threat to Andrew than exists in any other home with dogs in the Bay Area.''

On June 15, Louie filed a claim against the city, demanding damages for inflicting stress, anxiety and humiliation.
Last month, Commissioner Gargano ruled that Andrew could spend weekend nights at home. It could be decided today whether Andrew -- and possibly Cricket -- will be returned to the home. Another family adopted Frances in February.

While she waits for her son to come home full time, Louie reflected ruefully about the parenting education course she recently completed. Her classmates, she said, included a mother whose boyfriend beat her daughter to death and a father who left his 3-year-old son with a known drug addict and returned to find that the toddler had ingested a near-lethal amount of methamphetamines.

"It was quite an education for me to listen to these people whose lives were so different than mine,'' said Louie. "In each of these cases, the child had suffered a great deal of physical and emotional harm. Yet my own son did not suffer any physical or emotional harm until Child Protective Services came into our lives. What irony is that?''

E-mail Elizabeth Fernandez at efernandez@sfchronicle.com.