Grandchildren of CCN publisher spend holidays in county hands
December 2, 2013
By JOSH FRIEDMAN and DANIEL BLACKBURN
In the midst of a CalCoastNews investigation into alleged abuses of power by a county agency, three grandchildren of the news agency’s co-founder and publisher have been removed from their family and forced to spend Thanksgiving in foster homes.
Karen Velie’s grandchildren, 10-year-old Gwen, 8-year-old Brenden, and 7-year-old Kaleb, were seized July 18 by child protective services. The youngsters have been kept by San Luis Obispo County Child Welfare Services in foster care ever since. All three of the children have suffered varied states of depression since being taken from their family, Child Welfare officials have reported.
Efforts by the family to recover the children have been thus far unsuccessful.
The county’s involvement stems from an incident that started when Velie’s middle child, Cristin Powers, mother of Gwen, Brenden and Kaleb, returned home to find her roommates having an argument. Police were called. Though no report was filed because no crime was committed, Child Welfare removed the three grandchildren because the house was “dirty,” according to Child Welfare.
Powers and Velie hoped to work through the system to regain custody of the children. Initially, Velie’s attorney, Gerald Carrasco, suggested not pointing out inaccuracies in the CWS workers’ report, because resisting, he said, could result in the children being in foster care for months. Velie said the attorney believed the children would be reunited with their family in a few weeks.
At a hearing shortly after the children were taken, a judge said Velie’s was a family in crisis because of the death of another daughter, and ordered CWS to work on reunification.
Since then, CWS Case Worker Heather Zickuhr has arbitrarily cited a series of issues to justify continuing the children’s custody.
Though CWS workers claim they are working on reuniting Powers with her children, they assert it will take time because of a diagnosis made by an outside agency that Powers is “bipolar.” That diagnosis was made without any in-person evaluation by employees of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), a county nonprofit which works closely with Child Welfare.
Because of the “diagnosis,” Powers has been prohibited from seeing her children for more than one hour a week.
A private counselor subsequently concluded that Powers is not bipolar.
Nevertheless, Child Welfare continues to prohibit more visitations, because Powers admitted that she is “depressed” following recent family deaths of her grandmother, uncle and her sister, and the loss of her children.
Child Welfare now has banned Velie, who was acting as a temporary guardian for her grandchildren, from seeing or speaking with the children following a DUI arrest.
At the time Child Welfare took custody of Velie’s grandchildren, CalCoastNews also was investigating alleged misconduct by Child Welfare workers on behalf of CAPSLO.
Former CAPSLO employee Estella Bonds said the agency’s homeless services director, Dee Torres, often contacted Child Welfare to report child abuse, sometimes doing so in a retaliatory manner. Some of those contacts resulted in permanent separations of families and eventual adoptions, Bonds said.
A November 2012 letter signed by “Concerned Employees” of the county’s Department of Social Services to County Administrator Dan Buckshi asked him to investigate the job performances of Assistant Director Tracey Schiro and Department Administrator Natalie Walter. The letter alleged Child Welfare workers were not acting in the best interest of children, instead motivated in its practices by an agency with which it works — CAPSLO.
“Social workers are trained to assess families, be objective and ethical,” the letter reads. “These skills and training are disregarded by the assistant director as she believes her personal assessments or information received by a partner agency [CAPSLO] take precedence to the social worker assessment and opinion.”
Social Services Department Director Lee Collins told CalCoastNews last week he does not condone illegal acts against families “for any reason.”
“We do not do anything illegal to protect CAPSLO,” Collins said.
Earlier this year, CalCoastNews published a series of reports on financial misconduct and alleged theft of donations by CAPSLO Homeless Services Director Dee Torres. Torres is engaged to San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill. Hill has told numerous people that he intends to put CalCoastNews out of business. Hill has also threatened individuals and businesses that advertise on the news site.
Velie’s problems started in July when her 24-year-old daughter suffered a seizure in a bathroom and inhaled water. She was discovered and taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where she lay in a coma.
Velie, Powers and the three children stayed in a hotel near the hospital for nearly a week. On July 18, an organ-donor network dispatched a jet to transport Velie’s youngest daughter to be pronounced brain-dead at a hospital in the Bay Area, and her organs were then donated.
Powers returned home, and that was when Child Welfare took her children.
“Yes, I agree the house was dirty,” Powers said. “We had been out of town. But my children need to be returned. They need their family. They need love.”
Velie was named as the appropriate person to care for the children after they were removed from their home. But Child Welfare officials decided that a DUI arrest would preclude Velie from caring for, or having any contact with, her grandchildren.
Over the last four and a half months, Child Welfare and foster parents have denied Velie’s grandchildren proper health care and daily necessities, according to Child Welfare workers, the foster parents, and the children themselves.
More than a year ago, Kaleb was discovered to have brain pressure because bone plates in his head fused too early. He underwent skull reconstruction surgery prior to entering foster care and frequently suffers from headaches. For 10 days upon entering foster care, Child Welfare refused to allow Kaleb access to his headache medicine. Kaleb suffered intense headaches.
Child Welfare workers did not provide Kaleb his medication until he was taken to his physician and had the prescription refilled, said Child Welfare’s Zickuhr.
Brenden is lactose intolerant, but his foster parents regularly serve him cow’s milk, Brenden said. Photos and videos show Brenden has developed dark circles under his eyes and blotches on his face since entry into foster care.
Brenden cried during his last visit with his mother. That day, the children had not eaten between early morning and 5:30 p.m. The children told their mother that the foster parents took them to the dentist during the lunch hour and did not provide them food.
Videos and photos of the children taken over the past month show the children with matted dirty hair and filthy, poorly-fitting clothes. Powers said the children are bullied at school because they are unkempt.
Gwen wears shoes so small she walks on the heels tucked down. Other children tease her with a new version of “cooties” they call “Gwen’s touch.”
Shortly after the children entered foster care, it was agreed they would be placed with Velie until reunited with their mother. In early August, Child Welfare released Gwen to Velie’s custody, with plans to place the other two children with Velie within days.
The following night, Velie taught a bridge class and Gwen stayed with a babysitter. Velie left the bridge class and en route home was arrested by a San Luis Obispo police officer despite the fact that her blood alcohol was under .08.
The next morning, and even before the police department posted a report of the arrest, Child Welfare’s Zickuhr demanded that Velie bring Gwen back to social services, suggesting Velie would lose her driver’s license. That has not happened. California law does not restrict driving privileges unless blood alcohol levels are over .08.
Nevertheless, Child Welfare reclaimed custody of Gwen, and maintained custody of Brenden and Kaleb.
Gwen cried when forced to re-enter foster care, Velie said. “She begged me to run with her.”
Since Velie’s arrest, both Zickuhr and Case Worker Denise Waters have prohibited her from visiting the children. They have cited the DUI arrest, her occupation as a journalist, and her “personality” as reasons for barring her from visiting her grandchildren. Zickhur and Waters also said that Velie could not see her grandchildren because she told one of them that she was “getting an attorney” to bring the three home, according to reporters who listened into phone calls with CWS employees.
The case workers have also prohibited Powers from explaining to her children why they cannot see their grandmother. The children have come to believe that their grandmother does not want to see them, and they question why their family does not want them anymore, Powers said.
The Child Welfare employee also chastised Velie for telling the children she had moved into a three-bedroom house where she wanted them to live along with their mother. The supervisor said Velie should have told the children she did not have a place to live, and that the Child Welfare workers were “doing what is best for them.”
Child Welfare policy requires children to be reunited with family if they are not in danger, and the agency is required to allow phone calls. The children are usually only permitted one monthly call and, even then, the brief calls are monitored.
Shortly after they entered foster care, Child Welfare workers noted that Velie’s grandchildren “behaved unusually well” for foster kids. Now, after more than four months in foster care, one of the boys has reverted to infant behavior after begging to be reunited with his family, Waters said in a phone message to Powers.
Waters blamed the children’s deteriorating mental health on the one-hour-a-week visit with their mother, and said that was a reason to extend their time in foster care.
At one hearing, Powers’ attorney Mary Ann Foster told the court that Child Welfare workers were not letting Powers visit with the children more than one hour a week. The judge asked Zickuhr why this was occurring. She said the foster parents were too busy to drive.
The judge said that Velie could pick the children up to increase visitation while they work to reunify the children with their family.
The following day, Waters said the judge did not enter the change in writing in his ruling and she was not going to comply.