As was the case two years ago, the intense media scrutiny of a case of fatal child abuse on the west side of the San Bernardino County/Los Angeles County line has brought the policy of the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department into sharper focus.
The issue involves deep and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions as to when it is best to separate children from their natural or adoptive parents, and whether there is a general policy in that regard that can be applicable across the board in all matter of specific cases. Ultimately, it seems, there is no one-size-fits-all principle that can be applied in these circumstances, all of which involve lesser or greater degrees of anguish for those involved.
Within the last fortnight the case of Anthony Avalos, who was found unresponsive after his family members reported he had suffered a fall on June 20 and died the following day, has played widely in the Southern California media. What became clear to doctors while he was yet alive and which has now been documented in a coroner’s report is that the ten-year-old showed signs of having sustained a severe head injury and had bruises covering much of his body. The director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services released a statement acknowledging that young Avalos had evidence of “being a victim of physical abuse, including signs of being severely beaten, as well as malnourishment.”
Over a period of at least four of the last six years Los Angeles County law enforcement and child protection officials had received multiple calls and/or referrals relating to abuse Anthony had been suffering, apparently at the hands of family members or those within his household. Between February 2013 and April 2016, twelve reports relating to his having been physically, sexually or emotionally abused came into child protective services, including one made when the boy was four that he had been sexually abused by a grandparent. That report was determined by case workers to be “substantiated,” but he was released back into the custody of his mother, after being provided with medical treatment. It was recommended that the child receive counseling services.
Anthony’s mother, Heather Maxine Barron, 28, and her live-in boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, who was also referred to in some dispatches as Anthony’s “stepfather” have been arrested and charged in the case, Barron with one count of murder, one count of torture and another of child abuse and Leiva with one count of murder, one of torture and one count of assault on a child causing death.
One of Anthony’s aunts recalled that she recognized some time ago that the boy was being physically abused and starved, and had reported her concerns to authorities, including Child and Family Services. She said case workers ignored her entreaties to look into her concerns.
Living in the Palmdale apartment Anthony shared with his mother and Leiva were eight other children, ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old. Despite the complaints lodged with Child and Family Services, no efforts were made to separate them from Barron and Leiva, and they were not removed from the home and put into alternate custody until after Anthony’s death, and only upon the arrest of Barron.
Anthony’s case has multiple parallels with the case of Gabriel Fernandez, who also lived, and ultimately died, in the Los Angeles County community of Palmdale. Fernandez was 8 years old when he died in 2014, after sustaining an extended period of abuse perpetrated by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. An investigation was launched into the circumstances surrounding young Fernandez’s death. That investigation concluded in 2016 with a finding that the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services had on multiple instances been alerted to the abusive conditions Gabriel Fernandez was subjected to but had not acted to remove him from the situation which ultimately led to his death. As a consequence, shortly after that report became public, four of the Los Angeles County social workers employed by the Department of Children and Family Services who had been assigned to Gabriel Fernandez’s case were criminally charged with child abuse and falsifying public records.
The examination of the breakdown of the government social services systems designed to protect children who are relegated to living in dangerous and potentially or actually deadly circumstances spilled over into adjoining San Bernardino County. In San Bernardino County, those issues have yet to be satisfactorily resolved, and the examination itself had some rather untoward impacts on those who were most determined to have that examination take place. This was a reflection of the intense differences and contention over what most people agree is the understandable, commendable and even noble principle of keeping familial units together, even in the face of tremendous adversity and challenge. At the core of that approach is a belief that no one will truly love a child with the same quality of care and commitment than will the child’s own natural parents or those who have taken a child in as an adoptee when the child was at a very young age, and that there is something primordially sacred about maintaining that biological or long-established bond. But while such assumptions seem self-evident and are demonstrably true in a majority or perhaps even a vast majority of cases, making keeping families intact widely accepted as an desirable approach in the delivery of social services, there are inevitable exceptions, such that strict adherence to the mantra of family togetherness has resulted in a multitude of unspeakable consequences.
Against the backdrop of the family unification ethos in San Bernardino County, bringing those exceptions to light and thereby undercutting the practice of automatic child/parental unification carries with it a degree of hazard. An example of this consists of the experience of one would-be reformer, James Wiebeld.
A member of the 2014-15 Grand Jury, Wiebeld had retired as a sheriff’s deputy after a 30-year career in law enforcement. Wiebeld was a holdover to the 2015-16 Grand Jury, which after its ranks filled out, elected him sergeant-at-arms. Wiebeld sought to have the newly impaneled grand jury maintain its focus on several issues that had been taken up by the 2014-15 Grand Jury, which had in his view had not been sufficiently resolved or reported in the Grand Jury’s 2014-15 report. Among those issues was that pertaining to the abuse of children under the purview of San Bernardino County Children and Family Services.
What Wiebeld and other grand jurors encountered, the Sentinel has been told, at first consisted of Grand Jury Advisor Michael Dauber’s subtle effort to steer the grand jury away from the subject. When grand jurors persisted, Dauber, a deputy district attorney who had been given the plumb assignment of advising the grand jury by District Attorney Michael Ramos, used progressively firmer and eventually much harsher methods to discourage the investigation, ultimately resulting in the blunting of the investigation’s focus and its shift away from the nonfeasance, misfeasance and malfeasance within the Children and Family Services Department that allowed the criminal abuse and even deaths of some of the county’s children at the hands of their parents and guardians to take place.
The failure of Children and Family Services to step in and stem the abuse was of moment with higher ranking elements in the county because attorneys had already been in contact with the families of some of the abused children and had initiated cases on behalf of those children and their families or were in the process of doing so.
Ramos had placed a premium on remaining on favorable terms with both the county’s political establishment and its senior administrators. Dauber is answerable to Ramos. Wiebeld’s established status as a grand jury leader able to influence at least a handful of his colleagues on the panel heightened concern that Ramos and Dauber might be faced with a rogue grand jury that would take the focus on abused and dead children in a direction that could prove monetarily costly for the county.
That discomfort grew into a state of alarm, when on August 27, 2015, Fox 11 News in Los Angeles reported that “Children who were under the supervision of the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services … were being abused, tortured, and killed.” According to that report, in certain cases, children had been entrusted to foster parents who had previously been caught abusing children living in their homes. In one of those cases, according to Fox 11, a child had died at the hands of an abusive foster parent after the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services was made aware of the sadistic nature of that foster parent. The Fox 11 News report made reference to an ongoing grand jury investigation.
Though the county’s official spokesman, David Wert, later denied that County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux spoke to the district attorney on the day in question or that he had ever spoken to Ramos about Children and Family Services or grand jury matters, the Sentinel is informed that on Friday August 28, 2015 a special meeting was convened at the county administrative building which was attended by Devereaux, Ramos, the director of Children and Family Services, Marlene Hagen, and a handful of other high level county officials. The primary topic discussed, the Sentinel was told by a reliable source, was the formulation of a cover story and talking points calculated to defuse the issue of negligence in the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department which led to the deaths of children in the foster parent system it oversaw.
Forthwith, county officials in August and September moved to identify those responsible for the leaks that resulted in the foster child deaths becoming public and sought to squelch any further release of information. Grand jurors, whose investigations and proceedings are considered to be confidential and are informed of such and sworn to secrecy when a grand jury is impaneled, were threatened with arrest and prosecution if they violated that oath.
In September 2015, Attorney Valerie Ross filed lawsuits against the county on behalf of former social workers Eric Bahra and Mary Anna Whitehall. Those lawsuits alleged that Bahra and Whitehall were pressured to remain silent about what they knew of the abuse of children in the foster system, and when they did not they were retaliated against.
Wiebeld was suspected of being Fox 11’s source for its August 27,2015 report and subsequent follow-ups. District Attorney Mike Ramos accompanied Dauber and a single member of the grand jury to the office of Marsha Slough, who was then the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County Superior Court. Wiebeld, Slough was told, was proving disruptive. Slough subsequently summoned Wiebeld to her office. She informed him that he was an at-will volunteer and that his services were no longer needed. After Wiebeld was bounced from the panel, Dauber, with some prevarication, told the remaining members of the grand jury that Wiebeld had voluntarily resigned his commission as a grand juror for personal reasons.
Before the grand jury’s term ended on June 30, 2016 other members of the grand jury who had been sworn in on July 1, 2015 to serve a full year until June 30 the following year – Robert Turley, Benjamin Royland, Rebecca Fults, Allen Burt, Paul Gorsky, Douglas Kinzle – left, either voluntarily or as a result of having been shown the door. The mass exodus from the grand jury itself was telling: No grand jury in San Bernardino County going back to the 1970s had suffered anywhere approaching that level of attrition. At last, when the grand jury delivered its final report for 2015-16, the heart of the circumstance in which vulnerable children were being left in circumstances where they could not protect themselves – consisting of the Department of Children and Family Services’ myopic focus on family reunification – was buried deep in the narrative, and was mentioned not as a central theme but almost as an afterthought. Rather, a watered-down version of the circumstances within the Children and Family Services that merely danced around the periphery of the deeply embedded and intrinsic issues was given, one which at best hinted at where the true problem resides. The report noted that social workers with the department did not make a practice of “recording interviews with clients” because “Children And Family Services management was uniformly opposed to the idea of tape recording client interviews… their stated reason for this opposition [being] confidentiality and possible intimidation of the client.” The report stated that “interviews with CFS [Child and Family Services] management revealed that social workers who had observed a parent under the influence did ‘not necessarily’ notify law enforcement or remove the child from the home.”
The report further noted “areas of concern about the relationship between CFS and law enforcement agencies. Interviews with law enforcement officers disclosed areas that potentially hindered investigations. Law enforcement officers disclosed, and CFS management confirmed, that CFS reports requested by law enforcement are first sent to county counsel [i.e., the county’s in-house lawyers] for review prior to being released. Law enforcement officers stated that CFS social workers are reluctant to remove abused and neglected children from their homes. Officers further stated that CFS does not always inform investigating officers of the location of a child, which causes delays in investigations.” The report also noted that law enforcement investigators “informed the grand jury that receiving redacted reports from Children and Family Services hinders their investigations” and prevents law enforcement officers from making so-called pretext calls to parents or guardians suspected of sexually abusing children.
The report stated that there were delays in Children and Family Services’ response to its request for information, including one in which it took the department “a period of seven months and 23 days from the date the request was submitted” to provide the information sought.
The report stated, “In interviews with county counsel employees it was stated that CFS is focused on family unification, while county counsel would prefer the safety of the child to supersede family unification. Additionally it was reported by law enforcement officers that CFS is interested in keeping families together while law enforcement seeks to arrest perpetrators of child abuse.”
The report stated that there was a 15.5 percent rate of employee turnover in the Child and Family Services Department in 2013-14 and a 23.8 percent employee turnover in 2014-15, such that social workers are “overwhelmed” by heavy caseloads.
In the grand jury report there was no mention of the deaths of any children who fell under the rubric of the Children and Family Services Department system. Nor did the report make reference to reports received by the grand jury which indicated that social workers who had made an effort to bring incidents of the abuse of children to light had been actively discouraged from doing so.
The civil cases brought against the county by attorney Valerie Ross on behalf of former social workers Eric Bahra and Mary Whitehall allege higher-ups in the Children And Family Services Department sought to keep the abuse scandal under wraps. Whitehall claims she stood witness to an effort to discredit Bahra after he locked onto a series of cases involving some 39 children who had been placed into the care of a single foster father over a period of 12 years, during which time accusations surfaced that the foster father had sexually abused some of his charges, including photographing them nude. Bahra who was just short of serving out his 12-month probationary period as a county employee, was terminated after he raised the issue of inadequate cross-referencing of abuse reports in the department’s computer system in June 2013 and then sealed his fate the next month by reporting that he suspected one or both parents of an infant who had died showed signs of methamphetamine use and that the dead child’s four siblings appeared to have been abused.
According to Whitehall, supervisors in the Department of Children and Family Services did not comply with Bahra’s recommendation that the department move against the parents and have the children placed into foster care, but acted against Bahra for having breached confidentiality and for having falsified his reports. The Department of Children and Family Services’ rejection of Bahra’s recommendation, according to Whitehall and Ross, endangered the safety of the four surviving children.
According to Whitehall’s suit, she and two of Bahra’s colleagues went to the extraordinary step of filing motions in juvenile dependency court alleging their employer, the Department of Children and Family Services, committed fraud upon the court as part of an effort to discredit Bahra and justify his firing. Six days later, Whitehall was placed on administrative leave. She later resigned.
After an interminable duration of pretrial sparring between Valerie Ross, representing Bahra and Whitehall, and county counsel representing the Department of Children and Family Services, the lawsuit involving Whitehall is scheduled to go to trial on August 20. In representing Bahra, Ross has now associated herself with Charles Bonner and his son, Cabral Bonner, and the case was moved to federal court, where the county was granted a motion for summary judgment dismissing the case. Ross, Bonner and Bonner have appealed that ruling.
On this side of the county line, the same risk of a horrific outcome as occurred in the cases of Anthony Avalos and Gabriel Fernandez in Los Angeles County potentially brought on by the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department’s reflexive policy of reunifying families exists. One example of this risk consists in the case of 5-year-old Ryan Becker, Jr. and his 8-year-old sister Josepina. Both are the product of the marriage of Cynthia (née McCray) Becker and Ryan Becker Sr. Ryan Becker, Sr. is a twice-convicted felon who currently has further felony charges pending against him. The lion’s share of criminal activity he was involved in related to weapons charges and manufacturing methamphetamine, activity which at least in part took place on a large agricultural property in Mentone, where Becker lived with his family. The ten-year marriage between Ryan, Sr. and Cynthia was a less than idyllic one, entailing serial infidelities on Ryan, Sr.’s part and physical abuse. As a consequence of a series of health issues, Cynthia developed a reliance upon dilaudid, a powerful opioid often taken intravenously. In 2017 the marriage ended in divorce. During the course of that marriage, the children had been subjected to intermittent physical abuse, consisting primarily of their father slapping them around, some occasional physicality by their mother, as well as emotional abuse by both parents. Because of Ryan, Sr.’s drug use and criminal activity, for years there was virtually no contact with Ryan, Jr’s and Josepina’s paternal grandparents, who had grave reservations about things going on in the home. Until about four years ago, Cynthia’s parents were able to remain at least intermittently in touch with their daughter. Thereafter, however, Cynthia became increasing estranged from her parents. This had the practical effect of cutting off Ryan Jr. and Josepina from both of their sets of grandparents for an extended period of time.
In 2016, as the Becker marriage was foundering, due to domestic violence a member of the clergy had intervened, arranging, with the monetary assistance of Cynthia’s parents, to move Cynthia and the children into a “safe place,” a hotel room in Moreno Valley, where Ryan, Sr. could not locate them. Eventually, however, Cynthia was again in contact with Ryan, Sr. One thing led to another and, out of concern that the children’s welfare could not be assured, the San Bernardino Children and Family Services Department was contacted. That agency’s inquiry into the circumstances under which the children were living led to such grave concerns that officials contacted Cynthia’s parents, Kenny and Jacki McCray, on Valentine’s Day 2017, inquiring of them if they would be willing take the children into their Riverside home. The McCrays agreed to do so. Shortly thereafter, upon the grandparents agreeing to and complying with a host of conditions which included attending a foster parenting seminar, taking physicals, being fingerprinted, withstanding a battery of interviews, learning cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, installing carbon monoxide and fire alarms, and having their home subjected to a search and inspection, the primary upshot of which was that Kenny McCray was thereafter required to keep his diabetes medication under lock and key, the McCrays were given custody of their grandchildren.
In short order, the McCrays settled into a routine of having their lives revolve around their grandchildren, which included taking both Josepina and Ryan to visitation sessions in Redlands every Friday.
One unanticipated challenge the McCrays encountered in welcoming their grandchildren into their home was that both Ryan, Jr. and Josepina initially typically slept only three hours upon going to bed, an outgrowth of their having kept, to a point, the same hours their father and the methamphetamine-using crowd of regular visitors into their parents’ home did. Inside of three months, however, the children had segued into a more traditional schedule. When the 2017-18 school year began, Ryan, Jr., began transitional kindergarten and his sister entered the second grade. Both were progressing toward a much more conventional and stable existence, with one significant difference being that they were cut off from their biological parents with the exception of a supervised two-hour visit with their father back-to-back with a two-hour supervised visit with their mother on Friday evening, and the somewhat less significant difference of having to undergo court-mandated counseling sessions meant to redress the psychological and emotional stress they had experienced as a result of their dysfunctional domestic life for so long. Examples of their adjustment at that point consist of reports provided by their teachers with regard to their behavior and academic progress. Those reports portrayed them as children fitting within the context of their classrooms, making learning progress and getting along well with their classmates.
Ryan, Jr.’s and Josepina’s trajectory toward normalcy, however, would be impacted by two factors, the first being Children and Family Service’s general imperative to achieve family unification and the second represented in the form of the law firm of Vincent Davis.
Quite naturally and understandably, and perhaps even admirably, Cynthia Becker wanted to maintain her relationship with her children, no matter how challenging her life circumstances. Children and Family Services, too, saw merit in keeping her, as the children’s mother, in their lives. The imposition of the conditions relating to the Becker family was indistinguishable from the set of conditions placed on scores, hundreds or even thousands of other parents around the county who have either willingly or unwillingly subjected their children to hazardous or unhealthy situations. Children and Family Services’ plan of action with regard to most of these situations was to hope that the shock of having their child or children taken from them would encourage some self-realization in the parents, to then offer them counseling and the opportunity to maintain a connection with their children through brief supervised visitations, followed by further counseling and education with regard to parenting and parenting skills, eventually allowing them longer visitations and then unsupervised visitations, ultimately followed by the reintegration of the family unit where the children return once again to live with their parents, subject to intermittent monitoring. Progress to that ultimate family reintegration can crawl at a snail’s pace or move much more rapidly, based largely upon the observations and conclusions of the mix of social workers, psychological science professionals and supervisors focusing on the individual situations.
In the case of Cynthia Becker, there was observable action on her part and the behavior patterns of her children in the immediate aftermath of her visits with them that served as red flags to the children’s grandparents, their counselors, teachers and those contracted by the Department of Children and Family Services to monitor the visits. Those concerns were passed along to the case worker and supervisor assigned to the Becker children’s case. During one of the visits, Cynthia informed her son and daughter that all of the animals on the family farm in Mentone – the chickens, rabbits, goats, pigs, and donkeys the children were familiar with – were dead. That in fact was not the case. According to Jacki McCray, the children’s maternal grandmother, both children were deeply troubled after that particular visit with their mother. School teachers in contact with the children’s counselors and case workers said that Josepina and Ryan, Jr. showed signs of being traumatized immediately after that meeting with their mother. At one point, Cynthia Becker gave her daughter, who was old enough to remember several episodes of her mother slipping into dilaudid-induced comas or extended deep-sleeping fits, a bag containing several medical devices – including a feeding tube, intravenous lines, scissors and tape – what the child took as a suggestion that her mother was very ill and might not have long to live. Cynthia again used the theme of dead animals to maintain a fierce psychological grip over her children. First, she bought a male Chihuahua puppy and a female Chihuahua puppy which she gave to Ryan, Jr. and Josepina as gifts. She allowed the children to play with them, but kept them with her, promising that they would be able to see them all the time when at last they were able to come live with her again. On a subsequent occasion when she met with the children, she told them the Chihuahuas were dead.
Cynthia took advantage of the opportunities presented by the school district to allow parents to participate in school holiday events such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Teachers noted and reported to the children’s counselors that the children, particularly Josepina, manifested tremendous anxiety in her mother’s presence.
The more Cynthia had contact with her children, the more problematic their behavior, particularly at school, became.
Cynthia was not without resources. She was able to retain an attorney, Vincent Davis, who through a series of court filings, as well as letters and phone calls to the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department, pressured officials there to speed up the timetable on Cynthia being reunited with her children.
On October 23, 2017 at the recommendation of Children and Family Services Supervisor Kathrene Barmann, Judge Christopher Marshall, to whom the case pertaining to Josepina and Ryan, Jr. had been assigned, granted a motion by Denise Gardner-Adigun, a lawyer with Davis’ law firm representing Cynthia, that gave Cynthia unsupervised visitation, conditional upon Cynthia first completing psychological evaluation and no one other than Cynthia participating in the visits with the children.
Despite Judge Marshall’s order that a psychological evaluation of Cynthia be completed and that no visitation between Cynthia and the children take place while the psychological evaluation is pending, Cynthia was allowed by Children and Family Services to initiate the unsupervised visits at once. No psychological evaluation of Cynthia was undertaken. Moreover, evidence would emerge that also in defiance of Judge Marshall’s order, one or more to the men in Cynthia’s life were present during her visitations with the children.
With Davis and Gardner-Adigun militating to speed up the timetable by which Cynthia would regain custody of the children, as part of the legal process an attorney, Kierre Coghill, called children’s counsel, was assigned to represent the children. Simultaneously, the McCrays were preparing to make their own legal bid to be declared de facto parents by the court, which would give them a greater degree of standing in looking after their grandchildren. As a part of her advocacy on the part of Ryan, Jr. and Josepina, Coghill offered a counterweight to whatever efforts might be made by Children and Family Services, the McCrays or either Davis or Gardner-Adigun representing Cynthia in asserting their interests, in the event that Coghill believed those requests might be damaging to the children.
On December 15, the McCrays filed for de facto parent status and Coghill filed papers with Juvenile Court beseeching the judge to not remove the children from the McCray household. Coghill also asked that the unsupervised visitation sessions that Cynthia had been granted with her children be terminated and that those meetings once again be supervised, based upon Coghill’s citation of the children’s counselors’ observations that in the aftermath of the unsupervised visits the children’s behavior was spiraling out of control. At that point Children and Family Services Supervisor Kathrene Barmann put forth her agency’s request that the visitations remain unsupervised and that they be upped from two to four hours. Judge Marshall granted the agency’s request.
At that point, Jacki McCray was hardening in her perception that the Children and Family Services Department was rushing too quickly toward reunification of the children with their parents, and that her daughter was still engaging in action that illustrated she was not yet ready to take on the responsibility and burden of caring for them. McCray now says that Children and Family Services personnel were threatening her with removing the children from her custody because of the agency’s belief that she was being obstructionist with regard to its determination to see the children reunited with their mother in a way that was overlooking the potential of hazard to the children. McCray contacted another Children and Family Services Department supervisor, who assured her she would look into the discrepancy between the recommendations of the children’s teachers and counselors, who were adamantly opposed to allowing the unsupervised visits to continue, and the diametrically opposite recommendation made by Barmann. If the counselors’ concerns, teachers’ concerns and children’s counsel’s concerns were vindicated, the supervisor said, she would move for an emergency ex parte hearing so the unsupervised visit order could be overturned. McCray said she never heard back from that supervisor.
Meanwhile, Davis and Gardner-Adigun were intensifying their importuning of the Department of Children and Family Services to progress toward reunifying Cynthia with her children. Competing with the narrative provided by Davis and Gardner-Adigun that Cynthia had a right to and merited unfettered access to and custody of her children was Coghill’s assertions that the children were fearful of their mother and that Josepina in particular had expressed repeatedly that she did not want to talk to her mother.
On January 29 the children were subpoenaed to appear in court, although they did not actually testify, rather interacting with Coghill in the hallway. Again, through a presentation of letters from teachers and counselors indicating that the development of the children had regressed as a result of the unsupervised visitations, along with statements she had obtained from the children, Coghill pressed Judge Marshall to curtail the unsupervised visitations. Marshall denied that motion, allowing the unsupervised visits to continue, but did order the McCrays to supervise any phone calls between the children and their mother.
Of particular note is what was observed by Josepina’s counselor after the unsupervised visitations began. The counselor began questioning Josepina about her contact with her mother. Immediately upon the question being asked, Josepina put her fingers in her ears, turned her back on the counselor and, when the counselor sought again and again to restate that question and others along the same line, climbed under the table, refusing to answer or to be engaged at all. Subsequently, Josepina would tell her teacher that she didn’t like the question because previously, when she had been questioned by the counselor, she had told the counselor about guns and drugs at her family’s house. During the unsupervised visits with her mother, Josepina told the teacher, her mother had told her that she should not tell the counselor about those things because if she did, she might never see her again.
On March 22, 2018 a hearing with regard to the children was again held before Judge Marshall, which was scheduled to include the McCrays’ motion to have de facto parental status conferred upon them. The day’s proceedings lasted a total of three hours, as they repeatedly moved in and out of the judge’s chambers, during one of which a supplemental report prepared by the children’s counsel was presented to the magistrate. Ultimately, Judge Marshall did not conduct the scheduled trial to determine if the McCrays would get de facto parental status. He did, however, consent to allowing Cynthia to have overnight visits with the children.
On April 17, Judge Marshall’s March 22 order was expanded and Cynthia was granted a 29-day extended visit with the children. With only the exception of May 6, on which a combined birthday celebration for Kenny McCray and another of the McCrays’ granddaughters was held, did the McCrays see their grandchildren during that duration. On May 15, Cynthia came back to court and Judge Marshall at that time, with the support of Children and Family Services, awarded full custody of the children to her.
On June 4 came an illustration of how the reunification of the Becker Family could represent physical danger to Josepina and Ryan, Jr. On that day, Jacki McCray was at her Riverside home when she was visited by an investigator with the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department, Marina Karlsson. Upon McCray inviting Karlsson into the house, the investigator provided McCray with a document that informed her that McCray was under investigation for having recently physically abused Josepina, as was indicated by still extant bruising on Josepina’s arm.
McCray was rocked back on her heels, stunned, rendered virtually speechless. Subsequently, however, she examined the documentation and it then came to her that she had not had contact with her grandchildren since May 6, which was several weeks before Josepina had sustained the injury. McCray contacted Karlsson and informed her that her grandchildren had not been in her home since before the bruising on Josepina occurred, and that neither she nor her husband had contact with the children for nearly a month. Karlsson noted that information. Karlsson’s supervisor, Sheila Mmuir, later gave indication that McCray was no longer a target of the investigation.
The children, however, remain in the custody of Cynthia. Unresolved at this point, precisely, is who bruised Josepina’s arm. What is known is that Josepina was in the custody of her mother at the time she was injured.
Jacki McCray expressed the belief that the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services is dedicated more to the principle of reunifying children with their parents than in ensuring the safety of children.
“As foster parents for our grandchildren, we followed every instruction given to us,” McCray said. “We attended every class we were supposed to. We made sure the kids never missed a visit with their parents, counseling session, or school function. We were asked by the social workers upon getting the children if we were willing to put the children’s wellbeing above our own child. We said, ‘Yes.’ We thought we were all on the same page. That was not the case. We truly believed that the parents would get the help they needed and receive their children back and we could once again become grandparents. We were wrong.”
A basic problem, McCray said, is the contradiction between the principles that were laid out in the foster parent training, which call for foster parents reporting to the appropriate authorities any indication of danger to the children under their guardianship, and Children and Family Services’ unalterable goal of reuniting parents with their children. Complying with the foster parent seminar instructions was construed by Children and Family Services as obstructing family reunification, McCray said.
“You follow the rules, and do what you’re told and hope everything will be good,” McCray said, remarking that is “not really” what happens. “By following the rules and reporting what we were supposed to, the case workers with Children and Family Services caused us nothing but grief. Our job was not only to care for the kids, but to report to the case worker any concerns. We did that. So did the teachers and counselors. The problem is, the case worker doesn’t want to know the parents aren’t following the rules. That makes the process of reunification harder for them. Reunification is the only goal San Bernardino Child and Family Services is interested in. I asked a case worker and her supervisor, ‘What is more important, the welfare of the child or reunification?’ The answer was, without hesitation, ‘Reunification.’ Their priority was not the welfare of the child. During the 14 months our grandchildren lived with us we were threatened with removal by the case workers and supervisor five times. That was because when we would report what was going on with the parents, we were told we were not in compliance with reunification.”
McCray said that because Children and Family Services was so myopically focused on bringing about family reunification, it was misinterpreting the motives of those it was dealing with.
“CFS kept insisting that was our goal was to raise our grandchildren completely on our own and that we wanted to keep our grandkids,” McCray said. “That was not true. We wanted to take care of them until their parents were able to. However, we could see the changes CFS told us needed to take place in our daughter weren’t happening.” That Children and Family Services relentlessly pushed for the children to be placed with her daughter despite that lack of progress, McCray said, shows that for Children and Family Services, “It didn’t matter what the cost to the children was.”
The Sentinel was unable to reach Cynthia Becker or Ryan Becker, Sr.
At press time, phone calls to Davis and Gardner-Adigun had not been returned and Davis did not responded to an email from the Sentinel.
Phone calls and an email to Marina Karlsson, the investigator assigned last month to looking into the physical abuse of Josepina, were met only with an email acknowledging that Karlsson had received the email but was away from her office and not able to respond to it.
As was the case two years ago, the intense media scrutiny of a case of fatal child abuse on the west side of the San Bernardino County/Los Angeles County line has brought the policy of the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department into sharper focus.