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Shutting Down the Press
February 13, 2014 permalink
Last year California's CalCoastNews started an investigation into financial misconduct within the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), a county nonprofit which works closely with Child Welfare. CAPSLO knew how to stifle criticism. In July their associates in San Luis Obispo County Child Welfare Services seized three grandchildren of publisher Karen Velie. Gwen (age 10), Brenden (8) and Kaleb (7) are still in foster care and the family is restricted to weekly visits. On the newspaper's own website there is a list of articles on San Luis Obispo County Child Welfare Services.
The children are not getting loving foster care. Kaleb, who has had skull surgery, was denied headache medication. Brenden is lactose-intolerant but cow's milk is part of his diet. At a 5:30 pm visit, the children had not been fed so far that day. After more than four months in foster care, one of the boys reverted to infant behavior.
The pretext for taking the children was dirty home. The pretext for rejecting grandmother Karen Velie as interim custodian was a drunk driving arrest in which she tested within the legal limit.
Enclosed are three articles including a letter from California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who has raised the issue of the Velie family child seizure in his campaign for governor. Mr Donnelly also appears in a video interview on YouTube and local copy (mp4).
Grandchildren of CCN publisher spend holidays in county hands
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.
Letter by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly to SLO County Social Services Director Lee Collins
OPINION By ASSEMBLYMAN TIM DONNELLY
Dear Director Collins,
It has come to my attention that allegations have been made that San Luis Obispo County Child Welfare Services seized the grandchildren of Karen Velie, a respectable local publisher, in retaliation for her news agency conducting an investigation into alleged abuse of power by county agencies.
Aside from the trauma inflicted on these children, especially during the holidays, this apparent act of intimidation is in violation of TITLE 18, U.S.C., SECTION 241 ; “If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same…”
As a California State Representative, I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and of California against all enemies foreign and domestic. In addition to the freedom of the press, the United States Constitution requires that legal proceedings be fair and that the accused have an opportunity to be heard before the government acts to take away their life, liberty, or property. Indefinitely removing children from their loving family without proof of a wrongdoing is unfair and an abuse of power.
Please explain by what authority this action was taken. Having a dirty house is not a crime and I am convinced that these children would be best served by a prompt and permanent return to their family. Numerous studies have shown that the stability and love that children receive in their own homes can never be matched by a faceless government bureaucracy.
Due to allegation of misconduct against the county, and the apparent connection to the seizure of the children, these children need to be returned to their family immediately unless proof exists that a crime has been committed.
I hope this troubling episode will be quickly resolved and will seek steps to ensure this never happens again in our state.
Thank you in advance for your prompt and thorough reply.
Assemblyman ; 33rd District
Tim Donnelly is an assemblyman representing California’s 33rd district and is currently running for governor.
County bullies in full revenge mode
OPINION: By DANIEL BLACKBURN
It was a casual get-together of professional women, mostly from the South County and Santa Maria, and the tone was cordial until one of the ladies happened to mention that she had read an article on CalCoastNews.
“The mood of the gathering changed instantly,” she later recalled. “The contempt was palpable.” The room went to ice, and the subject was dropped.
CalCoastNews has been loathed by a segment of county readers since its inception five years ago. That goes with the territory; every newspaper for which I have worked was roundly reviled by the local population. Competent investigative reporting has a way of upsetting fat cats and moral midgets intent on exploiting the status quo.
But my friend wanted to emphasize: What she heard expressed at that gathering was deep, raw, visceral… pure hatred.
News outlets don’t often become the target of anonymous, ongoing, compensated character assassination, and see its reporters probed by private dicks in the hire of public officials.
Nevertheless, it’s all still just part of the job, I guess.
But there’s nothing in the job description about placing one’s family in jeopardy of governmental kidnapping.
That’s the simplest and most accurate way of describing what has happened to the grandchildren of CalCoastNews co-founder and publisher Karen Velie.
(For those of you familiar with social media terminology, the linked article already has been “shared” by 1,536 readers, and is probably CalCoastNews’ most widely read article, ever.)
Velie has been prohibited by order of the court to discuss her family situation, so those of us who haven’t yet been silenced will continue the conversation.
That’s the right thing to do, for Velie, her family, and all of the families now afflicted by these kinds of punitive child welfare services. And it’s the right thing for society.
Those who have followed the grandkids’ plight know that they were taken by San Luis Obispo County’s Child Welfare Services (CWS) last summer on the thinnest of premise after declaring the home of their mother, Velie’s daughter, “dirty.” Since then, child welfare case workers have tried to justify shuttling the children from foster home to foster home, admonishing Velie to change her attitude and her profession if she wanted to see the children again.
In other words, some CWS people apparently did not like what CalCoastNews has been reporting about CWS’s conjoined agency, the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO).
These are not empty assertions. CWS case workers have been oh-so-willing to make these comments with witnesses present or listening.
Check the law: None of these arbitrary “reasons” justify splitting up a family, nor does Velie’s bogus DUI, pasted on her in the immediate aftermath of the CWS abduction.
As the family separation wore on, it became clear from their own comments that CWS employees had every intention of putting Velie’s grandchildren up for adoption.
Did you get that? Up. For. Adoption.
That’s when CalCoastNews published its first mention of the Velie family plight.
The article provided a perception of the county’s CWS policies that generally remain hidden from public view by confidentiality laws and loosely interpreted regulation. But the veil of secrecy surrounding child welfare activities in general is intended to protect the kids, not provide impenetrable cover for inept welfare workers and their unprofessional retaliatory actions.
People need to know about this. Don’t count on most of the local media to bother looking into this situation with open eyes, though, partly because there are too many sacred cows grazing on county largesse, and partly because there is a distinct lack of journalistic huevos hereabouts. This is doubly troubling because I believe an informed, bold, inquisitive, and politically insulated media guards against unwarranted governmental intrusion into our lives.
There seem to be plenty of people in this county who would not agree with that opinion.
They are the folks who are content to sit mute and watch as the sticky fingers of government pluck apart families without sound reason. They are satisfied to look the other way even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of official misconduct.
They are the folks who believe this will never happen to them, or theirs.
Lastly, I should note that this news site’s publisher doesn’t allow reporters to write commentaries. So, figuring that apologizing later will be simpler than getting her approval now, I’m just going to go ahead and post this.
CalCoastNews’ senior correspondent says unprintably hateful correspondence may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org