Job ends for disgraced social worker: Contra Costa County fails to fix lives she unnecessarily destroyed
by Michelle D. Chan, Parents Against CPS Corruption
Khlood Salah was uprooted from her birth home in the United States at the age of 9 and thrust into an extremist Islamic life in Amman, Jordan. Up at 5 a.m., school from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., prayer five times a day, private tutoring from 5-8 p.m., traditional head to toe coverage and zero tolerance for Western ideas.
When she was 14, Khlood’s father arranged to marry her off to a 24-year-old she had never met. At 15 she was taken out of school, sent to live in a Palestinian refugee camp, and formally married; thus began the nightmare.
“I lost my virginity by way of rape,” she said. “My husband was very abusive. On our wedding night, he told me he was my boss. From then on, I lived in what felt like a prison. He even controlled the way I walked and talked.” During her marriage, Khlood was regularly beaten, locked in their stone house, and forbidden contact with people outside of their immediate family.
“I lost my virginity by way of rape,” she said. “My husband was very abusive. On our wedding night, he told me he was my boss. From then on, I lived in what felt like a prison. He even controlled the way I walked and talked.”
Khlood escaped to Jerusalem, where a group of Israelis helped to get her out of Palestine and back to her family home in Jordan. When she finally made it back to the castle she had grown up in, the castle she so often loathed, relief overcame her. It was over, she thought. I can go back to my 16-year-old life, she also thought.
However, Khlood’s father didn’t accept her battered-woman excuse for fleeing. “Women are supposed to absorb their pain,” he said. And just like that, the great escape was over. Khlood’s abuser came to fetch his property, his barefoot and pregnant teen-bride.
After the baby was born, the family was approved for an American visa. To an extent, things got better in the United States. She was not as easily imprisoned, no longer were there physical barriers to freedom.
And Khlood would soon learn that in America there are resources for domestic violence victims. A year after their second child was born, Khlood fled the marriage. This time for good.
Khlood took refuge in a domestic violence shelter. Incredibly, she fought in family court for an entire year and won full custody of her children. She was finally free from the shackles of a lifetime of abuse, or so she thought.
Life on her own as a single mother struggling to make it work posed its own challenges. Nonetheless, Khlood did her best to move on with her life and to do well for herself.
The American way of life suited Khlood. She found a full-time job employed as the children’s care coordinator for a domestic violence shelter and always worked to improve her situation. She began to enjoy a glass of wine at the end of her days. She even began dating a white Irish man.
When Khlood’s family and ex-husband learned of her “loose” Westernized ways, it was as if she had murdered a busload of children and then set a thousand nuns and priests on fire. They managed to convince themselves and everyone else that she was a crazy, child-abusing alcoholic.
“My ex-husband also wanted to bring a new wife from the Middle East but couldn’t get her a visa. He wanted my children as an excuse to obtain the visa, because then he could say that she was needed here in the United States to care for the children,” said Khlood.
Life on her own as a single mother struggling to make it work posed its own challenges. Nonetheless, Khlood did her best to move on with her life and to do well for herself.
When her ex-husband initiated his malice against Khlood through the Department of Social Services, she felt utterly defeated. Having been so abused by this man and having come from a culture where she was taught that, as a woman, she had no rights and all her trauma and suffering and toil was thus self-inflicted, Khlood absorbed her pain and gave her abuser what he asked for. She simply did not know how to fight back.
He showed up in California with his private attorneys and it was all over. Khlood’s children were taken from her, never to return. She had fought so long and hard for her freedom and for her children and to live without abuse and control – and yet, she still existed in a metaphoric jail controlled by notions and ideas that haunted her all the way from Jordan and beyond.
This was seven years ago. Khlood thought she could move on, put the past behind her and start over. She was wrong. Once a person has had children removed from her, she is branded for life and, in a sense, is held hostage forever.
Sushi Wooshi: A new beginning comes to an abrupt end
There was an emptiness after the children were taken that only a parent grieving the loss of live children can understand. Routine errands and activities felt even more mundane than ordinary and there was this constant muted sharpness inside Khlood’s chest, a longing that never quite faded. It only became more bearable as time went on.
The knowledge that the children, now teenagers, have been well taken care of and happy with the father and his new wife has been a source of comfort for Khlood. It allowed her to pick up the pieces and rebuild her life. She met a man, remarried, and 46 months after the removal of her children – in July of 2014 – she gave birth to Yusef, better known as Sushi Wooshi.
Although the marriage was less than ideal and short-lived, Sushi Wooshi represented a new beginning for Khlood. Somehow, his birth washed away all the trauma and loss of a lifetime of abuse.
Khlood believed from the bottom of her heart that if she loved Sushi Wooshi like no boy had ever been loved before, that the quiet desperation and incessant longing would cease to stab at her from within. Together, they formed a fairytale bond forged out of magic steel. Together they developed a secret language and lived in their own secret world.
That secret world came crashing to an end.
Shortly after Sushi Wooshi was born, Khlood moved into an apartment in Moraga, a suburban town in Contra Costa County, California. After Khlood moved in, she learned that the home was below zoning standards and did not meet inspection for habitability. It was during her battle with the landlord over the needed repairs that an anonymous call was placed to the child abuse hotline alleging that Sushi Wooshi, then 18-months old, was crawling in the streets of Moraga unsupervised.
Contra Costa County Child Protective Services: Suzanne Porter, unethical social worker
The first responder assigned to Khlood’s case was Suzanne Porter. Daniel Borenstein later published articles on the controversial social worker in the East Bay Times: On March 16, 2017, he published “County hired social worker with domestic violence history” and then, on April 13, 2017, “Job ends for Social Worker with domestic violence past.”
The East Bay Times began following Suzanne Porter in 2013; it had published the article, “Former Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy, victims, decoy testify in ‘Dirty DUI’ trial.”
According to these articles, Porter had participated in an infamous DUI scheme to entrap her ex-husband in 2011 and was under a Domestic Violence Restraining Order, or DVRO, in the same county when she was hired in 2014. In the Dirty DUI scheme, Porter allegedly hired a private investigator to set her ex-husband up for drunk driving. It was an elaborate plot that involved the collaboration of a sheriff’s deputy and the use of a decoy.
Porter used the drunk driving arrest to gain an unfair advantage in child custody proceedings. Porter’s ex-husband had sued her and the county, and the civil litigation was active when Porter was hired. Moreover, in addition to the two incidents of alleged physical abuse that resulted in a judge issuing a DVRO to Porter, there was a third incident in which Porter violated that DVRO while prowling her ex-husband’s yard with their child in the car.
One of those domestic violence incidents occurred on July 10, 2009. Porter was arrested for one felony count pursuant to Penal Code 273.5A for corporal injury to her then-husband and a misdemeanor pursuant to Penal Code 273(a)(b) for willful cruelty to a child. She was arrested on site and the charges were forwarded to the Contra Costa District Attorney for disposition.
According to the police report, she went to her estranged husband’s residence and got physical with him. She grabbed him around his shirt collar, which caused red marks on his neck. Next, she grabbed him by his arm and gouged his left eye and his arms with her fingernails – also leaving marks. She did this in the presence of their child. She was then quoted in the police report saying, “Shit, if I knew I was going to be arrested, I would have done worse.”
The fact that Porter was employed by Child Protective Services to make decisions regarding the best interests of children in cases that may involve child abuse, neglect and/or domestic violence is questionable at best. The fact that Porter left in April and her cases and decisions have not been closely examined is a travesty and evidence that the system is not making sincere efforts to safeguard children from abuse and trauma. The fact that Suzanne Porter was the first responder in Klood’s case was a harsh turn of events for her child, as he suffered a loss no child that is loved and well-cared for should ever go through.
Guilty until proven innocent: A sleight of hand … and poof goes a boy
“When Suzanne Porter came to inspect my home and assess my child, she hardly even glanced at Sushi Wooshi,” said Khlood. “She never looked in the refrigerator, she didn’t look in his room, didn’t say one word to him. All she cared about was looking at all my things and asking how I am able to live so nice and have such nice things.”
Khlood alleges that Porter claimed she was going to close out the case but first needed to check in with the presumed father. The father had walked out on Khlood and the baby 10 months prior, and his only contact with Khlood involved efforts to cease paying child support. Nonetheless, Khlood was forthcoming in sharing any and all information with Porter.
Porter lured Khlood over to the courthouse one day by telling her they had a meeting. As it turned out, the so-called meeting was actually a detention hearing and Porter was recommending that the court detain Sushi Wooshi into state custody.
Khlood waited in the courtroom; she was anxious and fearful, confused as to what was going on. She had no attorney present and had no idea what the allegations against her were, since she had not been given notice of the hearing nor had she been served any paperwork.
“Finally, Suzanne Porter burst into the courtroom about three and a half hours late. Her hair was all wild. She had all these papers in her hand and as she came in she gave everyone a copy, including the father of my child, his brother and my sister,” said Khlood.
Those photocopied papers that Porter handed out like cotton candy were Khlood’s confidential court documents from her previous case. Along with the documents from her previous case, Khlood was also handed the detention report pertaining to the present hearing for the first time.
It is incredible that a client’s due process rights were so obviously violated and neither the judge nor any of the attorneys in the room said a word. Moreover, the dissemination of Khlood’s confidential court documents by Porter is a clear violation of Welfare and Institutions Code §827. Again, neither the judge nor any of the attorneys in the room said a word. Court proceeded as usual.
It is incredible that a client’s due process rights were so obviously violated and neither the judge nor any of the attorneys in the room said a word.
Porter recommended that Sushi Wooshi be detained based on the fact that Khlood had lost her parental rights in a prior case, because Porter claimed that Khlood had left the child with an unfit caregiver, and because she claimed that Khlood was a flight risk. Except, for a child to lawfully fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile dependency system pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code §300, CPS must demonstrate current risk. Nothing related to the former case had any relevance to the new allegations.
Khlood clearly showed that her child was safe and well-cared for, and her psychiatrist was willing to testify to her mental stability. There was absolutely no evidence to support the anonymous allegations – which Porter later admitted had come from the daughter of Khlood’s landlord, whom Khlood had been warring with at the time.
Sushi Wooshi was detained into state custody at that hearing and sent to live with strangers. Porter’s decisions and conduct on that day were not only egregious but absolutely bizarre.
The lives of families and children were forever impacted by decisions she made. Families and children deserve better than what they received from the Contra Costa CPS after Porter left the job – which was nothing, not a second glance, not a fleeting thought. Nothing.
And thus, Sushi Wooshi was left to rot in foster care, on a fast track for adoption.
What checks and balances?
This country was built on the fundamentals of justice, fairness, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To ensure that the citizens of this country are afforded these rights and are free from the inherent abuses of absolute power, our founding fathers implemented a system of checks and balances to guarantee that no singular branch of government gets too powerful.
The judicial branch was charged with “checking” the executive branch. In other words, our courts have been charged with ensuring that government agencies such as CPS do not abuse their power and violate the rights of children and families.
It is my strong opinion that Judge Lois Haight and court-appointed attorney Pamela Gagliani knowingly allowed CPS to violate the rights of Khlood and her child.
In addition to the due process and confidentiality violations and the fact that there was no evidence that the child was at risk of physical, emotional or sexual harm or neglect at the time of removal, CPS also failed to make reasonable efforts to allow the child to remain in the home or to be placed with family and failed to sincerely attempt to reunify. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 mandates reasonable efforts and timely reunification for states to receive federal foster care funding and charges juvenile dependency courts with analyzing the actions of child welfare agencies for their sufficiency.
At the detention hearing that removed Sushi Wooshi from parental custody, Khlood’s mother pleaded with the court to have the child placed with her, rather than foster care. Judge Lois Haight said on court record that she does not do that anymore because she did that once and it turned out that grandma operated the largest local methamphetamine lab.
Except there was no evidence to suggest that this devout Muslim woman, Khlood’s mother, operated a methamphetamine lab. And how does it make sense that because one woman turned out to be a methamphetamine producer that all grandparents no longer have rights?
According to Welfare and Institutions code §361.3 and the Fostering Connections to Success Act, the court is required to give priority to placement with relatives. And yet, Judge Haight has decided that all grandparents are possible methamphetamine manufacturers, and therefore, the law no longer applies in her courtroom?
Ineffective assistance of counsel
At the jurisdictional hearing, Khlood’s court-appointed attorney, Pamela Gagliani, coerced her into admitting to allegations that were not true and to the terms of an unreasonable case plan. Khlood alleges that Gagliani told her that if she didn’t agree, that Khlood would never see her child again.
The new judge on the case, Judge John Laettner, deprived Khlood of her right to be heard.
“In court, Judge Laettner asked if I agreed to the allegations. My attorney said, ‘I think so,’ but then I said I did not. The judge said that I have to speak through my attorney and then threatened to find me in contempt of court if I continued to speak,” said Khlood. “My attorney and the county attorney both threatened to hold an ex parte hearing to give me a guardian ad litem if I didn’t cooperate. And then the judge kicked me out of the courtroom and they finished the hearing without me.”
Additionally, Khlood could have proven that a social worker had falsified a report and that visitation personnel had falsified visitation notes. In one of the social worker’s reports, the worker wrote that Khlood was homeless and jobless when that was not the case. In fact, Khlood is a movement therapy instructor, a licensed massage therapist, a personal health caregiver and an apothecary specialist. And Khlood could have disproved negative reports that were written about her visits because she video-recorded every one of them. Gagliani made no efforts to correct the record.
“In court, Judge Laettner asked if I agreed to the allegations. My attorney said, ‘I think so,’ but then I said I did not. The judge said that I have to speak through my attorney and then threatened to find me in contempt of court if I continued to speak,” said Khlood.
Gagliani also made no efforts to exclude seriously questionable evidence that was used against Khlood. For example, Khlood had taken a psychological evaluation administered by a student. A STUDENT. The student found that she had borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality traits. However, Khlood’s licensed PSYCHIATRIST challenged those findings. In the end, the student’s evaluation stood and the psychiatrist’s testimony was thrown out.
Furthermore, Khood’s case plan contained an unreasonable condition that could only be measured subjectively: Treat others with respect. So, even though Khlood did everything that was asked of her, Contra Costa CPS claimed that she was not in full compliance because she never learned to treat others with respect.
I was present outside the courtroom at Khlood’s termination of parental rights trial, or TPR, on Sept. 28, 2017. Khlood introduced me as her parent advocate and this was the conversation I observed between Khlood and Gagliani:
“But I completed everything in my case plan. How can this happen? Aren’t I innocent until proven guilty?” The TPR is the end all of juvenile dependency proceedings. It determines whether a person will lose their parental rights and all contact with their child forever. Khlood was devastated going into that day, only to learn that there was a trial scheduled that she alleges she knew nothing about and was never prepped for.
“It doesn’t matter that you did everything they asked of you,” said Gagliani. “Nothing’s changed. You’re still fighting with your neighbor and you still have issues. And this isn’t criminal court. You’re not innocent until proven guilty.”
“You never gave me the chance to file opposing paperwork. Can we ask for a continuance?”
“No, I will not ask for a continuance. It’ll just annoy the judge and won’t bode well for you.”
“You never even told me there was trial today or what you’re going to ask me.”
“I’m not going to tell you the questions I’m going to ask because then you are going to sound like you’re lying. No attorney would tell you what questions they will ask.”
Khlood’s parental rights were terminated that day and her son scheduled for a closed adoption. Judge Rebecca Hardie, who is the adoptive mother of two children, presided over the TPR trial. “I realize that you love Yusef very much,” said Judge Hardie. “But love is not enough. Your relationship with Yusef is unconventional and not that of a mother and child relationship. Your child deserves more than you can offer him.”
Khlood’s case plan contained an unreasonable condition that could only be measured subjectively: Treat others with respect. So, even though Khlood did everything that was asked of her, Contra Costa CPS claimed that she was not in full compliance because she never learned to treat others with respect.
How is a mother and child’s unconditional love for one another “not enough,” when there aren’t any concrete safety risks in a case that did not substantiate abuse or neglect? And what is unconventional about an exceptionally nurturing and communicative parenting style?
Khlood cannot imagine life without her son, cannot accept losing this child forever. He is so much a part of her that it feels as if she has a machete permanently lodged in her chest. What makes this pain so much worse is that Khlood knows her son is hurting even more than she is.
Imagine being a boy who is loved like no boy has ever been loved before, and then suddenly losing that love forever. Nothing can ever replace a mother’s love for her child. If this child is not allowed to reunite with his mother, he will always be empty inside, he will always be in search of something that is missing. If this child loses his loving mother forever, it will likely cause him irreparable damage.
Incentivized child removals and adoptions: Destroying families one Sushi Wooshi at a time
Throughout this ordeal, Khlood has fought to bring awareness to her case and the perceived injustices and abuses. She created a Facebook page, facebook.com/bringsushihome, and tirelessly posted pictures and videos on social media groups of herself and her son before and after the removal. In every one of the pictures and videos, it is evident that the boy loves his mother. There should be strong reason to permanently sever such a close mother-child relationship, not merely a psychological evaluation by a non-licensed student and the opinion of a social worker that Khlood has not learned to treat others with respect.
In 1997, the enactment of the Adoption and Safe Family Act amended Title IV-E of the Social Security Act regarding funding and incentivized child removals and adoption. In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act further incentivized adoption and severely limited the amount of time parents have to reunify with children.
Throughout this ordeal, Khlood has fought to bring awareness to her case and the perceived injustices and abuses.
Geri Pfeifer is a family rights activist and advocate, writer and founder of AmericasTaken.com. The website offers a search site for #Taken children and their families, web links, legal information, groups, support and solidarity. She lobbies for changes in adoption laws, an end to adoption incentives and Title IV, spends time in research and search for adoptees, and explores every facet of family court, grief and the loss of a living child.
Geri Pfeifer shares her perspective on forced adoptions:
“The creation of incentivized adoption in the United States has been the biggest desecration to the American family since slavery. Children are taken from families, not because they are abused but because they are adoptable. Placing an adoption subsidy payment on a child is not much different from selling human beings into slavery, the sex trade and human trafficking.
“The ridiculous notion that slapping a payment on the head of a child would create more families who adopt for the noble cause of assisting these children needs to be halted. Family court judges who make their decisions to separate children from their family and siblings in order to garner more Title IV and Federal Adoption Incentives should be charged with felony child trafficking, abduction, and jailed.”
In addition to incentivized child removals and adoption, our child welfare system is also grossly lacking in oversight and accountability. How is it that a woman was hired and ousted by CPS, who had a history of domestic violence and willful cruelty to a child and was alleged to have participated in a dirty DUI scheme, and yet none of her decisions or misconduct was addressed after her departure from the job?
The California Department of Social Services and the California Attorney General both need to investigate all of Suzanne Porter’s cases and Contra Costa CPS should be audited to ensure that state and federal guidelines and all the terms and conditions of Title IV-E funding are adhered to in every single child removal and adoption.
Call to action
Khlood has joined Parents Against CPS Corruption to fight for children’s rights. PACC is urging people to call the California Department of Social Services to demand that Khlood’s case is investigated for impropriety, misconduct, civil rights violations and noncompliance with Title IV-E terms and conditions.
Call the offices of Director Will Lightbourne at 916-657-2598, Jim Tashima of the Civil Rights Bureau at 916-654-2107, and Foster Care Ombudsman Karen Grace-Kaho at 916-651-6560. You may reference this article when calling.
PACC is still fighting for greater oversight, accountability, transparency, fair hearings and trials, and competent and zealous court-appointed legal representation. For advocacy, peer support and court attendance or to find out about protests and marches, class action lawsuits, reform initiatives, team-building BBQs and meetings or to learn more about our cause, visit ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com, “like” our Facebook page at facebook.com/ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com, follow us on Twitter @ProtestCPS, or call 415-815-9415.
Michelle D. Chan is president of Parents Against CPS Corruption and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.