Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Three young lives cut short

Foster Care Reform
These deaths drew news coverage.
But we need to know what happened whenever a foster youth dies
San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 3, 2006, pg. E5.

Conrad Morales
When Conrad Morales' relatives sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in the mountainside town of Randle, Wash., they thought they were providing him with a better life.

After spending his first 11 years in Los Angeles motels with his mother or relatives' homes in La Puente, the idea was that the boy might benefit from forests, meadows, fresh air, animals -- from the concept of an innocent childhood that his parents, both of whom had spent time in jail on drug and assault charges, hadn't been able to provide for him.

Two years later, the police pulled Conrad's body out of a trash can.

The suspects in his murder case are the very same aunt and uncle who were supposed to shelter and protect him.
The boy -- a high- spirited, popular student and avid birdwatcher -- told his best friend weeks before his death during the summer of 2005 that he was being sexually abused and beaten. Now that best friend -- and the entire town of Randle -- is still wondering how they could have failed to miss the warning signs: the filthy house, the erratic school attendance, Conrad's requests for make-up to cover the bruises on his face and neck.

Months before his death, Conrad began making desperate calls to his older sister, Vanessa Gallardo, in the Los Angeles area. Gallardo, who had already fought unsuccessfully for custody with Los Angeles County Child Protective Services, was perhaps the only one who called social workers and asked that someone check on the boy. She never found out about that check, but the police estimate he was killed weeks before they received a missing person's report.

Kayla Lorrain Wood
The life of Kayla Lorrain Wood has a made-for-after-school-TV- special quality to it: She was sexually abused, schizophrenic and depressed. She bounced around in Child Protective Services while her mother racked up drug charges. She was suspected of prostitution. And she died a terrible death -- this September, the Moreno Valley police discovered her stabbed and abandoned body after firefighters came to put out a fire in a building where transients gathered.

But beneath this tale of woe lies a 16-year-old girl who loved art, music and animals. Tall and thin, she dreamed of becoming a model -- an appropriate choice, perhaps, for a young woman who her mother describes as girly, pretty and frilly. In her foster-care placements, she ran away frequently -- to find her family.

Eventually, the police found her body instead.


Could anyone have saved her? In 2005, after an evaluation showed that Kayla was suffering from a mental disorder, Child Protective Services recommended that she be committed to a secure psychiatric facility. She ran away from her group home four days later. Though she later returned, no one followed up on the recommendation.

Although Kayla went missing at least 10 times during her two years in the foster-care system, social services admitted to losing contact with her parents. They didn't know she was missing until she was already dead.

Jerry Hulsey
The life and death of Jerry Hulsey shows how difficult it is for social workers to make the right calls when it comes to protecting children -- and how important it is that they do.

Jerry's biological mother and father were habitual drug users. His first brush with the Department of Social Services came at the age of nine months, when his biological mother passed out from a heroin overdose with him in the car. She was charged with child endangerment and ordered into drug treatment, where she met Vicki Lynn Hulsey, Jerry's future foster mother.

Though his biological mother couldn't stay out of trouble -- she didn't complete her treatment program and left her son in the care of anyone who would take him -- she did notice that Hulsey treated the boy well. So when she went to prison in 1996, she asked that he be left in Hulsey's care in Monterey.

Hulsey acted quickly to be certified as Jerry's foster parent, and by the accounts of friends and neighbors, treated him with love. When she petitioned for adoption, social workers weighed that more heavily than Hulsey's other problems -- namely, her background as a child-abuse survivor, her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and her bipolar disorder.

In the end, Hulsey's past caught up with her -- she beat 10-year-old Jerry to death this year. An autopsy showed that he had cocaine in his system and that, at 4 feet 9 inches, he weighed 60 pounds.

Hulsey's deterioration and Jerry's tragic death shows how difficult it is to predict what will happen in an adoption. But it also shows how important it is for the public to understand social workers' choices.