by Michelle Chan, Parents Against CPS Corruption
Parents are people. We are imperfect. We make mistakes. We struggle. And, sometimes, in the heat of the moment we say and do things we do not mean. For Donna Levey, her mistake was calling San Francisco Child Protective Services, or CPS, for support when her family was in crisis.
If only she had known that that phone call would come to represent the point of no return. If only she had known that CPS would catapult their family crisis into a life-altering nightmare and that the agency designated to protect children and support families frequently fails to make sincere efforts to improve outcomes for children and families.
The name, Child Protective Services, implies altruism and righteous honor and integrity. There is this inherent idea that the agency can do no wrong. After all, who can argue against protecting children from abuse and neglect?
However, while our child welfare system is quick to remove children from parental custody – often on scant evidence and in violation of state and federal guidelines designed to safeguard children and shield American taxpayers from fraud – it is flagrantly unsuccessful at looking out for the best interests of children after they land in the system.
Donna Levey and I both got trapped in this system while our children suffered. Greatly impacting our experiences and ability to fight for justice and fairness were the attorneys appointed to us and our children, attorneys who were supposed to be our champions but instead somehow made things worse every step of the way. This is our story.
An autistic brother, an institution tainted into history, an early life calling …
Donna Levey was the oldest of four children. She was the primary caretaker of the youngest sibling, a severely autistic child. “I don’t know if the autism had anything to do with his immunizations, but I always found it strange that the symptoms emerged right after he had his first round of shots.”
At a year old, he began sitting on the floor, playing repetitively with a piece of string and hyperventilating. At 4, he began having seizures and was put on Dylantin and Phenolbarbital. At 5, he was admitted to Sonoma State Hospital, the largest institution for children in California at the time.
The year was 1962, and the ward was called “The Vegetable Ward,” a dim and joyless place for children 5 and under deemed to have mental issues or disabilities beyond hope, beyond salvation, beyond a life worth living. The rest of the family could not bear the dull stillness and throbbing heartache of the unit. So, Donna was charged with retrieving her brother for family visits.
“I remember this large room with all these cribs and in each crib was a naked baby with its arms and legs tied down. There were no toys and the only time the staff interacted with the babies was during diaper changes. All the babies just cried and cried,” she said.
On Feb. 9, 2005, 60 Minutes aired a segment called “A Dark Chapter in Medical History.” It exposed the torture and government sponsored radiation experiments of over a thousand children afflicted with cerebral palsy from 1958 to 1960 that were conducted without informed parental consent at Sonoma State Hospital – just two years before Donna’s brother was institutionalized there. The boy highlighted in the 60 Minutes segment died mysteriously at the age of 6, shortly after the experimentation.
At the age of 11, after six years of living in this institution that went down in history for its human rights violations, Donna’s brother was transferred to a group home. Incredibly, Donna reports that things somehow got worse for this child who had already seen the worst of humanity.
“At the group home, he was starved and beaten and sexually abused,” she said. “Our whole family was devastated. We had no choice but to bring him back to Sonoma State because no one in the family had the means or ability to care for him.”
Sadly, the brother lived out the rest of his life at Sonoma State Hospital.
“I was never able to bring my brother home, to care for him like he deserved to be cared for,” said Donna. “But I made the decision that when I grew up I would work with special needs children and one day become a foster parent, so I can help other children like my brother.”
The two boys that changed Donna’s life …
Donna worked for 16 years for the Santa Cruz City School District as a special educator. Seven years after retiring she began fostering special needs children. She had a license for medically fragile infants and cared primarily for crack-exposed babies.
“They usually came to me a few days out of the stomach,” said Donna.
Donna describes her experiences nursing these babies from womb to withdrawal to health.
For months on end, these babies were wound tight like a ball of yarn soaked in glue and left out in the sun to dry. Their arms wouldn’t bend. They couldn’t move. They just jittered and shook and cried and cried and cried. They couldn’t be comforted and had to be held away from the body because eye contact and overt nurture and affection was overstimulating.
“Consider what it’s like for an infant to have an adult dosage of a powerful drug in them, what it’s like for a five-pound baby to go through withdrawal. It lasted four or five months, those withdrawals,” she said. “Those babies couldn’t sleep, they couldn’t eat or keep food down. I fed them two-ounce bottles of formula every 30 minutes around the clock.”
Dolan and Dylan each came to Donna at four days old, from separate mothers exactly one year apart from one another. Both of their mothers were homeless, addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol, and living day to day, fighting from one moment to the next merely to stay alive. They were in no position to care for these fragile infants who had already been subject to constant and extreme trauma in utero. Although the option was available for the mothers to enter inpatient treatment programs that would have provided housing and substance abuse counseling, that was not something they were able to do at the time.
When homelessness and substance abuse intersect, it often stems from a complex set of issues and trauma that are so deeply rooted and chronic that victims cannot easily move forward and take control of their lives. In these two cases, the mothers were not able to make the changes necessary to allow them to safely parent Dolan and Dylan.
This is how the boys ended up at Donna’s. This is why they stayed. And then Donna fell in love with them.
“They used to have seizures and so I slept with them on my chest – I wasn’t going to let them die on my watch.”
Dylan, the younger of the two boys, emerged suddenly from his withdrawal symptoms after four months of struggle. One moment he was amongst the sickest of babies. The next, he was a regular happy healthy baby.
Dolan, the older boy, was not as fortunate. Although he emerged from the everyday hell of constant shakes and seizures and wandering eyes, he never seemed to fully recover from the withdrawal like Dylan did.
A child with intense needs. A mother cries out for help.
After Donna began taking Dolan for assessments to measure for developmental disabilities and special needs, Donna alleges that San Francisco CPS urged her to stop because they did not want to have disclose any problems to prospective adoptive parents. “They wanted to adopt him out while he was still cute and little,” she said. “But I kept taking him for his assessments. Deep down inside I already knew that I would adopt both boys. I had fallen for them and they were already growing so close as brothers.”
Professor Steven R. Isham is an award-winning educator and child advocate, has extensive experience and training working with special needs children, and is the author of “Child and Family Advocacy: The Complete Guide to Child Advocacy and Education for Parents, Teachers, and Social Workers.” He shares his perspective:
“Based on the material shared, it is quickly and clearly evident that Donna Levey has done an incredible job with this young man for a very long period of time with minimal support or assistance. The first document dated March 4, 2011, titled Psychological Evaluation, describes several disorders that do not coincide with the services necessary for impacting these conditions and their severity to make a measurable improvement.
“Behaviors such as hyperactivity, delayed speech, sensory motor integration, destroying property, and attacking others would seem to be sufficient for a significantly more dramatic level of supportive services for the child and certainly for Donna. (…) The final document, dated July 10, 2015, titled “Psychological Evaluation,” has added to the scope of disorders to include ADHD, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“It is difficult to understand how no one has taken the time to identify the type and severity of the ADHD. How can anyone appropriately treat an individual with a vague and incomplete diagnosis? It makes no sense. The final issue is the deplorable absence of Respite Care for Donna Levey. It must be an indescribable level of despair, loneliness, and exhaustion she has been through for more than a decade (God bless her!).”
As Dolan grew through the years, his oppositional and destructive issues increased. He graduated from verbal aggression and minor physical altercations to major outbursts that endangered his family and their community. During one episode, he vandalized the family’s garden, smashed in a set of windows, and then set his bed on fire. During another incident, he put Donna in the emergency room.
“Even as young as 5, he would walk up to a baby and yell and curse at it. Totally unprovoked,” she said. “After he shoved me and I hit my head and ended up in the hospital, I just didn’t know what to do. Everyone said he needed a higher level of care. So I called CPS hoping we could place him in Edgewood until he calmed down.” Edgewood Center for Children and Families is a treatment facility for children struggling with mental illness and behavioral issues located in San Francisco.
Dolan never made it there.
Along came CPS. And then it was as if someone hit the switch. One minute there was light, and although times were tough and a child was hurting and a family was in crisis, the world still made sense. Then suddenly, everything went dark. And nothing since has followed any concrete set of rules or natural order.
At the far end of the universe and on borrowed time …
Before Donna had a chance to process the situation, before she had a chance to come to terms with the fact that she essentially relinquished her child to CPS, Dolan seemed to be on a fast track towards losing his family forever.
“All I wanted was to admit him to Edgewood for a 30-45 day stay,” she said. “I thought it would calm him down. I never thought CPS would have no interest in helping us stay together.”
This isn’t Donna’s first CPS case. The first one transpired in 2015 for similar behavioral issues that resulted in a previous Edgewood commitment. Things were different that time. A different social worker. A different supervisor. Most importantly, a different child’s attorney. Donna was allowed regular and fulfilling contact with Dolan. They were able to bond and work through some of Dolan’s aggression together. He came home in a timely manner. After he came home, things were great – for a period.
Donna admits that she made mistakes. “I now understand that I can’t approach Dolan like other children. I was a special educator for 16 years. I thought I knew best. But Dolan isn’t like any other child I’ve ever dealt with. I just needed to understand that he is disabled and I can’t expect him to act like other children. I’m so sorry for letting him go and I just want him to come home so I can make it up to him.”Donna has thought long and hard about strategies to improve the family dynamic and to help Dolan cope better with the stresses of life. She is in the process of selling her house so that she can move in with extended family in a more centralized SF neighborhood that would give Dolan more opportunities to get out and play and burn off negative energy.
“I’m also going to nurture him more when he acts out and just be more understanding with him during his episodes,” she said. Donna’s gaze is so determined it slices through the air with startling accuracy. On the receiving end, I feel her pain and fear but at the same time am struck with her dedication and strength. This is a woman who has not, will not, give up on this child that she once nursed to health from womb to withdrawal to indelible ties of kinship and love.
Dolan has been placed in a foster home in Modesto, with a foster mother who has no interest in helping to maintain family bonds, and, one step at a time, it seems that Dolan is taken further and further away from his family. Like the interloper in the classic movie, “Citizen Kane,” the department seeks to reduce family in the child’s eyes to no more than a faintly whispered “Rosebud.”
The very fabric holding them together has grown so dangerously thin that Donna fears her parental rights will be terminated.
Donna reports that their phone calls are sporadic and supervised, and that she is only allowed two hours of supervised visitation per week. “They placed him so far away, we hardly get to speak to him or see him. And, the two hours a week we get with him, even that is often canceled and not made up. How are we supposed to reunite with him like this? I can feel him slipping through my fingers,” she said.
In addition to losing Donna as a mother, Dolan is also losing his brother and best friend. This past summer the two brothers had plans to attend summer camp together. A CPS supervisor and the child’s attorney put a stop to allowing the boys this crucial quality time together.
“Where’s Dolan,” asked Dylan repeatedly as he arrived at camp. When he learned that he would be attending summer camp alone, Donna reports that Dylan was devastated. The two boys, just one year apart, used to spend hours each day playing together. Now, Dylan says, “It’s very not fun without him. We used to play tag and hide and seek and boo (a made up game), and when we watched TV at night we would take tickle breaks during commercials.”
Failed by court-appointed minor’s counsel
The role of the minor’s attorney is that of a child advocate whose primary function is to protect the rights of their young clients, to build trusting relationships, to learn their needs and wants so that they can properly represent their best interests in court and in settlement conferences. In the San Francisco Superior Court, some of the court-appointed minors’ attorneys are intentionally falling short of these duties and serve essentially as “rubber-stampers” for the department.
James Thomas Bordelon, or Jim Bordelon, is Dolan’s attorney and has a reputation amongst many CPS victims for allegedly failing to provide effective assistance of counsel and for allegedly doing so intentionally.
Donna alleges that Jim Bordelon has ordered the foster mother to take away Dolan’s cell phone and iPad and that the isolation is causing him significant emotional distress. During the second week of August he filed an ex parte motion to terminate Donna’s educational rights so that Dolan would have to attend school and therapy in Modesto.At a supervised visit, Donna reports that Dolan was having difficulty expressing his feelings and frustrations. The Human Services Agency personnel supervising the visit suggested that he try writing his feelings down on paper.
In his notes, he wrote, “I want a new loyer. I don’t want Jim. Jim is mean and crull he wants to keep me in foster care.”
In another note he wrote, “I want a seven day notice. I don’t feel safe. Get me out! Help!”
And, “I did not say I want to go to Modesto school. I seid well I made this desisien not my mom. I want to go home. I want to go to MaCollie school in San Francisco not go to school in Modesto. I want to go home NOW!! I’m missing out on my life. Modesto is to FAR! PS Jim and John are Fat Ass Lires.”
In one of these notes Dolan drew expressive faces depicting stick figures afflicted with rage and anguish. He labeled one of them, “ME!”
The more Dolan complains of his attorney and foster home and begs to go home, the harder Jim allegedly works to isolate the boy from his family.
How is it that Dolan is old enough to speak for himself in court and yet no one is listening to him?
A pattern of ineffective assistance of counsel by court-appointed attorneys at 400 McAllister Street, SF
Jim Bordelon was my first court-appointed dependency counsel. Fifteen minutes after I first met him, he violated my confidentiality without first getting informed consent.
When my case first opened, my estranged husband and abuser was the target. Domestic violence was the primary safety concern. Substance abuse was secondary, but that was an issue that I had already sought help for voluntarily before the investigation was opened.
My abuser’s substance abuse was also at issue. CPS was going to award me full custody. I had filed a police report and obtained an Emergency Protective Order after he choked and threatened to kill me in front of my uncle and son. He was later arrested and spent the night in jail chained to a pole.When the San Francisco assistant district attorney called, I begged him to drop the charges. After the Emergency Protective Order expired, I let my abuser see my son on my birthday. The very next day was the detention hearing. Just minutes before this hearing, my abuser’s counsel informed Mr. Bordelon of my indiscretion.
Without saying a word to me, without even informing me that he had this information, Mr. Bordelon went straight to the social worker.
Although I take responsibility for the part I played in this, Mr. Bordelon should have sat down and talked to me first before approaching the social worker. Or, he should have at least told me before or afterwards what he planned on doing or had already done. Had he simply spoken to me about it, I would have come clean with the department myself. I believe that this may have changed the outcome of that hearing.
The department recommendations were changed. My son was promptly removed from parental custody. I was charged with Failure to Protect. This incident was just the beginning. It is my strong belief that, for the next year, Mr. Bordelon intentionally provided ineffective assistance of counsel to me, willfully failed to provide me with documents served upon him, and attempted to manipulate me and others into believing that I was crazy.
Before I had a workable understanding of the court system, I informed him that he was fired. He did not bother to tell me for another three weeks that not only was he still representing me, but that I did not have the authority to fire him.
He remained on my case for another two months. I was finally granted the right to a Marsden hearing. A Marsden hearing is the only means by which a client can remove a court-appointed attorney in California. These hearings are held under seal and a client does not have the right to have support or witnesses in the courtroom or to obtain the transcripts without the permission of the judge presiding over the hearing.
It is during these sealed hearings that I feel my rights have been most violated and it is due to what has transpired in these hearings that I have now dedicated my life to fighting for transparency, accountability, oversight, fairness and justice for children and families in the dependency court and child welfare systems.
As soon as Mr. Bordelon was removed from my case, attorney Mark Wasacz was waiting outside the courtroom for me. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than Mr. Bordelon. I was dead wrong. Whereas Mr. Bordelon passively failed to properly represent me, Mr. Wasacz did so blatantly and in a way that shook me to the core.
For the next nine months, Mr. Wasacz deprived me of my due process rights, deprived me of my right to trial and to be present at trial, helped to cover up gross and criminal departmental misconduct (a social worker forged my signature on a falsified document), allowed the department to withhold vital evidence, blocked a restraining order I was going to file through the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic, repeatedly allowed the department to place my son at risk, and allowed my abuser to stalk, harass, threaten and financially abuse me.
The entire time that Mr. Wasacz represented me, I furiously studied California dependency law and the child welfare system to prove to the court that I was competent to self-represent. This is what gave me the knowledge and tools that that would later allow me to pursue activism and advocacy with reasonable credibility.
None of it mattered. You see, Mr. Wasacz had tricked me into agreeing to the appointment of a guardian ad litem during a sealed confidential hearing that he originally told me was regarding a sanctions motion I had written and filed along with 140 pages of supporting evidence.A guardian ad litem is normally appointed to children or persons who are incompetent and/or insane to the point where they are unable to speak for themselves. It was instead used to silence dissent. At the time of the appointment, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a certified marriage and family therapist had already cleared me of any serious diagnoses that would imply that I am incompetent, insane, or that I do not understand the nature of the proceedings.
Obstructed by an attorney who was openly working against me and a guardian ad litem who was appointed to serve as a legal gag and to classify me on paper as incompetent and insane, I may as well have been imprisoned. I had lost all control over my situation. The guardian ad litem appointment forced my eyes open. I felt truly for the first time the burn of oppression and injustice in this country, finally seeing clearly what I was up against, why families so frequently seem to fail.
Everything had been taken from me – the comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle, my son, my freedom, my right to speak for myself. My abuser – who now has full custody – even stole my wardrobe, my jewelry, my passport and my dog. Utterly destitute, I could not hire a private attorney to remove Mr. Wasacz from my counsel. I ate at soup kitchens. I panhandled loose change to pay for photocopies and postage for the three court motions I wrote and filed with supporting documentation to have Mr. Wasacz and the guardian ad litem, attorney Ruth Kalnitsky-Roth, removed from my counsel.
Each time, I stood before the same judge who also unlawfully appointed me a guardian ad litem. Each time, I was deprived of my Sixth Amendment right to self-represent regardless of how much evidence I presented of attorney misconduct, guardian ad litem abuse, that I was neither incompetent nor insane, and that I had a workable understanding of dependency law and civil procedure.
There was a dark period. I had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that something like this could happen in this land of opportunity, in this so-called land of the free, that all these people in positions of power had come together to take away my rights and the rights of my son. For a split second I thought the unthinkable. But my son was still alive. Not all hope was lost … And I pulled myself together.
With no choices and hardly any hope left, there was no other option but to take it to the streets and protest. I would make my voice heard even if it meant fighting publicly against an all-powerful system, against all odds, against public favor, and against common sense.
After months of protesting with a group of my peers, god sent me an angel. I met an attorney who, for lack of better phrasing, took pity on me. Mr. Wasacz was finally removed from my case and now, after all this time, I am finally able to fight a fight that should have been fought long ago.
But how about Dolan? How does Dolan, a child, remove the person he perceives to be a bad attorney from his counsel? At his age, he is even more vulnerable than I was. Dolan cannot build a website and circulate flyers; Dolan cannot protest courthouses and shout into bullhorns.
And, when Dolan wrote notes and drew pictures, his cries for help were ignored. This system is supposed to protect children from abuse and neglect and to improve outcomes for them. What do we do when the very system itself has become the abuser and the attorneys designated to ensure fairness and justice for children and families have been given absolute power with no oversight or remedies for victims?
I contacted Mr. Bordelon for a comment regarding this article. He declined to respond.
Solutions and support rather than incentivized destruction and false promises …
In 1997 the Adoption and Safe Families Act amended the federal funding to states and counties from Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. ASFA effectively shifted the emphasis of child welfare from promoting family preservation and reunification to child removals and adoption, extending subsidies and incentives for child removals, foster care and adoption. Furthermore, it made specific provisions to increase the adoptability of special needs children by providing significantly increased financial incentives for fostering and adoptions of these children.
“My son is a cash cow,” said Donna. “All he is to them is a number. You should see the amount Medi-Cal gets billed every month for appointments I am not even sure he’s actually going to.”
According to a policy brief titled “Child Welfare Financing Reform: The Limits of Flexibility and the Need for New Resources,” Title IV-E Foster Care and Title IV-E Adoption Assistance received a combined $7.14 billion compared to the $381 million toward Title IV-B Promoting Safe and Stable Families. While the federal funding for prevention, early intervention, and family reunification is inadequate and fixed, Title IV-E funding for foster care is open-ended. This financing structure encourages child welfare agencies to emphasize family desecration and loss for monetary rewards.
According to the 2015 San Francisco Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Project, San Francisco county received roughly $1.5 billion for Title IV-E funding alone. Had CPS made serious efforts to adhere to the terms and conditions intended to promote family preservation and timely reunification in every case, do you think these numbers would be nearly as high? Can’t more money be allotted to Title IV-B funding, or alternately, can Title IV-E foster care funds be used with increased flexibility across a continuum of care?
As for the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, it is my firm belief that many of the San Francisco court-appointed dependency panel attorneys are intentionally failing to properly represent their clients. Over the past year, I have communicated with hundreds of people who have cycled through the Unified Family Court Division at 400 McAllister St.
The same attorney misconduct from the same handful of “bad players” comes up over and over again. The same due process violations. The same efforts to manipulate their clients into believing they are crazy and that it is OK to keep children out of parental custody for symptoms of ADHD or anxiety or situational depression (yes, depression resulting from the removal of their children) what these people need is to get kratom or Afinil pills to clean themselves from the anxiety that’s killing them. The same “I don’t know why the social worker won’t progress the case forward even though you’ve gone above and beyond all the required services and you don’t pose any safety risks … there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The main reason why I believe that these bad players are doing this purposefully is that not all clients are treated the same. For some of these attorneys, there were clients here and there that they really fought for. For example, Mark Wasacz and Ruth Kalnitsky-Roth – who committed guardian ad litem fraud against me – zealously represented other clients after I started speaking out about what happened to me.
Another example is the private attorney my abuser hired to represent him; she generally works as a court-appointed attorney. In the cases where she was court-appointed, she followed the pattern of ineffective assistance of counsel to a tee. However, she represented my abuser – a senior intellectual property attorney at a major corporation – diligently and competently. Suddenly she had the answers to the questions all her poor clients asked incessantly – through tears and desperation and despair – questions that, for them, went unanswered.
This is a major problem because these court-appointed dependency attorneys can literally hold their clients hostage, since removing them can sometimes be next to impossible. There need to be more remedies. The California Bar Association is the agency designated to protect the public from bad attorneys; they instead tend to protect bad attorneys from the public.
I complained to the bar. They did nothing. I also complained to the Bar Association of San Francisco. I did not even receive a call back. I complained to San Francisco Superior Court CEO T. Michael Yuen, Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court Teri L. Jackson and also the Supervising Judge of the Unified Family Court Division Judge Anne-Christine Massullo. I was told that there was nothing they could do and was re-directed to the California Bar Association.
Except there was something the courthouse could have done. According to the San Francisco Local Rules of Court Rule 12.6(B), “failure to abide by these Local Rules for Juvenile Dependency or the Dependency Representation Program manual can result in probation, suspension, or removal from the Bar Association of San Francisco Juvenile Dependency Panel and/or sanctions or appropriate action by the supervising judge of the Unified Family Court.”
The San Francisco Superior Court and the Bar Association of San Francisco must do significantly more to ensure that Dependency Panel attorneys are properly representing children and families. What is motivating these attorneys to properly represent clients if cases are fed to them and they have no fear of being removed from cases or reprimanded for even the most serious and egregious misconduct? If our own attorneys have no incentive to work for us and somehow even seem to be rewarded for their disloyalty, what is left of justice for children and families?
Call to action
Donna Levey has joined Parents Against CPS Corruption, or PACC, to fight for children’s rights. She is now leading the San Francisco county class-action lawsuit promotions.
Social change can be enacted through the civil courts. PACC is organizing class action lawsuits in San Francisco County, Alameda County and Contra Costa County to give more people access to justice. Please get in contact if you currently or recently have had a CPS case, if you are a former or older foster youth, or if you were denied kinship placement.
PACC is also urging people to call SF Superior Court CEO T. Michael Yuen and Unified Family Court Supervising Judge Anne-Christine Massullo to demand that Jim Bordelon, Mark Wasacz, and Ruth Kalnitsky-Roth are removed from the San Francisco Juvenile Dependency Panel and that Mr. Bordelon is removed as Dolan’s counsel. The phone numbers are 415-551-5737 and 415-551-3747, respectively.
PACC is still fighting for greater oversight and accountability, due process, equal protection under the law, fair hearings and trials, and increased efforts towards kinship placement and timely reunification. For advocacy, court-attendance, peer support, or for information on our cause, class action lawsuits, planned protests and marches, please visit ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com, follow us on twitter @protestCPS, like our facebook page Facebook.com/ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption or call 415-815-9415.
We are hosting a barbecue in late September. Please call or email for details.
Michelle Chan is co-founder and president of Parents Against CPS Corruption and can be reached at protest@parentsagainstCPScorruption.com.