Problems keep proliferating at discredited private foster care agency

A decade after L.A. County auditors delivered a harsh assessment of Teens Happy Homes, probe finds that children were repeatedly harmed in recent years and dubious financial practices grew.
A decade ago, a team of Los Angeles County auditors delivered a damning assessment of Teens Happy Homes, a private foster care agency responsible for hundreds of children.
Agency workers bought beer and cigarettes with public funds intended for mistreated children, auditors found. It billed the state and county more than $100,000 for care it never provided. Employees wrote checks to themselves worth thousands of dollars and kept no receipts.
The auditors' conclusion: The county needed to give Teens closer supervision or cancel its contract.
  Not only did the county Board of Supervisors continue the Teens contract but it tripled its value, from $1 million a year to as much as $3.6 million, according to the agency's tax returns. Between 2008 and 2011, 1,154 children lived in its homes.
Interviews and an examination of public records by The Times found that questionable financial practices proliferated in recent years. At the same time, children suffered abuse and neglect repeatedly.
Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, said the long delay in reviewing the agency is indicative of the state and county's inattention to private foster care agencies that were created over 25 years ago.
"There are some clear failures indicating the need for financial auditing and performance oversight," Fellmeth said. "There is a need for systemic reform in this regulatory scheme."
County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Teens should finally lose its contract, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that if the allegations against Teens prove true, they "would constitute a serious misuse of public funds and represent a grave threat to the health and safety of the foster children."
Philip Browning, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, said in an interview Thursday that he was startled to learn of the depth of problems at Teens, and that he was enlisting the help of retired homicide detectives to examine allegations of child abuse and financial malfeasance at foster care contractors.
 "My marching orders are to figure out what's going on and fix it," Browning said. "I think we have a long way to go in terms of improving the monitoring of these agencies."
 Teens' chief executive, Beautina Robinson, grew up in foster care and knew the life from the inside out. She established the South Los Angeles agency's group home in 1990 and expanded with foster homes throughout Southern California.
As a private group, Teens was only loosely monitored by the state and county, which typically audits the finances at private agencies once a decade.
The routine audit of Teens in 2003 faced problems from the beginning. Shortly before auditors arrived, a sewage backup destroyed many financial records. The remaining documents painted a picture of financial chaos.
There were canceled checks showing the agency repeatedly bought cigarettes and beer with foster care money — in one instance, 30 cases' worth. There was $46,000 in unpaid federal payroll taxes. The agency's bookkeeper wrote $13,000 in checks to herself. "The agency was unable to explain the nature of these expenditures," auditors wrote.
The bookkeeper, fearing criminal prosecution, wrote to county auditors, saying Robinson had ordered two workers to "come up with receipts" to help keep staff "out of jail."
He was not going to get caught up in falsifying any documents.”
The plan fell apart when one manager refused. "He was not going to get caught up in falsifying any documents," the bookkeeper wrote in her letter, which was obtained by The Times.
An attorney for Teens declined to comment for this story.
In the end, auditors told county officials they "should consider whether to continue contracting with this agency due to the nature of these financial issues."
But the agency retained its contract, and the auditor-controller never completed another financial audit to see if problems had been fixed.
The problems at Teens Happy Homes weren't just financial.
Over a three-year period, 240 allegations of abuse or neglect were filed on behalf of youths at Teens' homes, a Times analysis of child abuse hotline data found. Teens' rate of nearly two allegations for each home was more than two times the average for the state and two-thirds higher than that of the rest of Los Angeles County.
About half of Teens' 131 facilities had no complaints during the period covered by the data, from October 2008 through September 2011. But four of them had 10 or more complaints, landing them among the top 40 in the county.
Investigators substantiated about 17% of all complaints from the Teens homes, about the same as the state average.
State investigators found one foster parent who had a child stay with a registered sex offender. In another home, they discovered a foster parent shoving a child's face into her brother's potty-training bowl. One foster mother stole the children's allowance and gift cards.
Among the children sent to Teens by the county Department of Children and Family Services was Tajiere Goldsmith, a premature baby just a few days old in June 2008. The baby was 41/2 pounds at birth, with traces of PCP in his veins.
The agency was required to check on the child every week, but no one came, said Caroline Geh, his first foster mother. When a social worker finally arrived, Geh said she was asked to sign falsified reports for the missed visits.
After Tajiere spent about a month in Geh's care, a Teens social worker unexpectedly arrived to move him to a new home, Geh said.
The worker refused to let her change his diaper, feed him or fold his clothes, Geh and her family members recalled. Geh said she later told a Teens official, "You treated this baby like he was a piece of luggage."
Geh said she then left foster care for good and still keeps a photograph of Tajiere in her home.
Teens placed Tajiere with a newly recruited foster parent, Teryl Veal.
Veal had twice been banned from foster care for two years: in 1992 after children in her care had untreated serious burns, and in 2000 because she had beaten foster children with hangers, according to state records.
Days after being sent to Veal's home, Tajiere died.
Veal told authorities that Tajiere had been sleeping with her on a bare twin mattress atop cinder blocks on the floor. Despite rules requiring cribs for infants, none was available in the home, according to court records.
The home overflowed with 20 people. It was filthy and crawling with bugs, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit later filed by Tajiere's birth mother.
Sheriff's investigators suspected that Veal rolled over on Tajiere, suffocating him. But such deaths often leave no telltale signs, according to the medical examiner, and the cause of death was never determined.
The California Department of Social Services, which licensed Teens Happy Homes, spent two hours visiting Teens on the day of Tajiere's death before issuing its final report on the matter. It cited Teens for failing to do criminal and child abuse checks on Veal and fined the agency $100.
Teens and Veal, who is now deceased, paid an undisclosed amount to settle the suit filed by Tajiere's birth mother.
At a Teens board meeting in 2010, a management consultant for the agency, Jorge Gutierrez, told the directors that children dying didn't necessarily spell peril for foster care contractors, according to a tape secretly recorded by a former employee, Askari Moyenda, and provided to The Times.
Teens Happy Homes board meeting
In 2010, consultants and agency officials discussed issues that could come under scrutiny in a county audit.
Impact of a child’s death
“They don't close you down for a death all the time, OK?” said consultant Jorge Gutierrez.
Improper payments
“They're going to prove it,” Gutierrez warned of the county's inquiry into checks allegedly made out to people who did no work for Teens.
Management weakness
“This agency is on the path, and I want to give you guys all the warning right now … of being closed,” Gutierrez said.
Source: Askari Moyenda, a former employee at Teens
"Agencies have deaths happen all the time," Gutierrez said. "They don't close you down for a death all the time, OK?"
Teens officials declined to listen to the tape and verify that it accurately reflected the meeting.
The more pressing problem at the meeting seemed to be the agency's continuing financial troubles.
Robinson, the chief executive, said that Teens was unable to qualify for a credit card. To pay bills, she told the board she put expenses on her personal credit card and then issued reimbursement checks to herself from the agency's account, and receipts were sometimes missing.
She said she had bought a car with agency funds and placed the ownership in her name. The perk was not included in the $112,000 compensation package reported on filings to the county or on tax returns.
Gutierrez suggested that the agency give board members a stipend, but Robinson balked. "I've taken care of the board that needed it personally, myself, and I would prefer the board keep it that way," she said.
The board was concerned about inquiries being made at the time by the county auditor-controller, but Gutierrez said at the meeting that Teens was being alerted when county watchdogs suspected financial wrongdoing. "I have a person in there who is a very, very good friend of mine," he said.
But the audit never materialized.
Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe said through a spokeswoman that her office had initiated the audit in August 2010 and was still working on it.
The spokeswoman said the office was unaware of any employee with a personal relationship with Gutierrez, but she added that it was not uncommon for a member of her staff to notify the agency of problems as soon as they arise. "Such a notification in no way alters or diminishes ... the final audit report," she said.
Teens Happy Homes was growing rapidly at the time. In 2010, the county's funding of the agency swelled to $3.6 million.
Like all 50 Los Angeles County foster care contractors, Teens is a tax-exempt charity, but executives at Teens and some other contractors draw significant financial rewards from the agencies, according to Moyenda, a former Teens employee.
Moyenda said that he and his wife, Niki Milani, promised to pay $139,000 in exchange for two top positions at Teens in 2007, hoping it would bring them financial security after years working in mid-level jobs in the industry.
The agency agreed to terminate its top program administrator to make way for Milani, and it established a new quality assurance position for Moyenda.
The couple agreed to make a $70,000 down payment and promised to follow up with $1,500 monthly installments until the $139,000 was paid off, according to a copy of the agreement signed by the couple and the agency's chief executive and board of directors. Teens did not completely report salaries on its tax returns, so it is unknown what compensation Moyenda and Milani drew from their positions.
Moyenda said they wrote a $60,000 check to Teens and a $10,000 check directly to Robinson, the agency's chief executive.
Under the agreement, Moyenda and Milani were called "investors." They were promised the ability to appoint three members of the seven-person board of directors.
In a brief interview, Robinson said she considered the couple's money to be a "donation."
Milani and Moyenda left the agency in 2010 and 2011, respectively, in a dispute over control of the agency, and filed a lawsuit against Teens, Robinson and board members, alleging they had breached their contract. Moyenda represented himself in the case, and it was recently dismissed after a court deadline for a filing was missed.
"These aren't real charities," Moyenda said.

Report: problems continue a LA foster agency
LOS ANGELES—A newspaper investigation has found continuing neglect and abuse of children and dubious financial practices at a private foster care agency, a decade after it was singled out for similar problems by Los Angeles County auditors.
Between October 2008 and September 2011 there were 240 allegations of abuse or neglect filed on behalf of youths placed with families by Teens Happy Homes, according to documents cited by the Los Angeles Times (
The agency's rate of nearly two allegations for each home during that period was more than two times the average for the state and two-thirds higher than that of the rest of LA County, the newspaper said.
About half of Teens' 131 facilities had no complaints during the period covered by the data. But four of them had 10 or more complaints, landing them among the top 40 in the county.
Between 2008 and 2011, 1,154 children lived in its homes.
During that time state investigators found one foster parent who had a child stay with a registered sex offender. In another home, they discovered a foster parent shoving a girl's face into her brother's potty-training bowl. A premature baby just a few days old arrived at Teens from the county Department of Children and Family Services with traces of PCP in his blood.
The problems were similar to those outlined in a 2003 report, which also found agency workers bought beer and cigarettes with public funds and billed the state and county more than $100,000 for care that was never provided.
Ten years ago, auditors told county officials to give Teens closer supervision or cancel its contract. But not only did the county Board of Supervisors continue the Teens contract, it tripled its value, from $1 million a year to as much as $3.6 million, according to tax records.
Since then, Teens has been only loosely monitored by the state and county, which typically audits the finances at private agencies once a decade, the Times said.
Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, told the newspaper the long delay in reviewing the agency is indicative of the state and county's inattention to private foster care agencies that were created over 25 years ago.
"There are some clear failures indicating the need for financial auditing and performance oversight," Fellmeth said.
County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Teens should finally lose its contract, and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the Times that if the allegations against Teens prove true, they "would constitute a serious misuse of public funds and represent a grave threat to the health and safety of the foster children."
Lawyers for Teens declined to comment on the findings. 

Livingston County SA to review death of foster child case

BLOOMINGTON — The Department of Children and Family Services has found enough “credible evidence” to substantiate allegations of abuse and neg… Read more
Cullom foster parents under investigation in girl's death
CULLOM — Livingston County authorities and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services are investigating the death of a 4-year-old… Read more
Death of foster child, 4, ruled homicide
PEORIA -- A Peoria County coroner's jury ruled Tuesday the May 4 death of a 4-year-old girl living in a Cullom foster home was a homicide. Read more
PONTIAC — Livingston County State’s Attorney Seth Uphoff plans to review a 2-year-old case involving the death of a foster child to determine what — if any — criminal charges should be filed.
Uphoff was not state’s attorney on May 4, 2011, when Kianna Rudesill, 4, of Bloomington, died of head injuries. She was living with a Cullom foster family at the time. Former State’s Attorney Tom Brown did not file charges in the case.
“This case is certainly tragic,” Uphoff said last week. “I can only imagine the impact on the victim’s family. It warrants a careful and thorough review. It’s something I will focus on more.”
That was good news for Kianna’s great-grandmother, Evelyn Rudesill of El Paso.
“I’m glad he’s going to look into it,” she said. “It’s been two years and we need closure.”
While Uphoff said he knew of the case, nothing had transpired since he took office in November to bring it to the forefront. That changed last week during a juvenile court hearing to determine whether the foster parents’ two biological children could be returned to their home.
The two children — as well as Kianna’s three other siblings who also were in foster care at the home — were taken into the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services after Kianna was rushed from the Cullom home to OSF Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center in Pontiac on May 3, 2011.
A 911 caller from the residence said a child having seizure-like symptoms. The girl was later airlifted to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria where she underwent surgery for a severe brain injury. She was later taken off life support.
A Peoria County coroner’s jury ruled the death a homicide. A report from forensic pathologist Dr. J. Scott Denton indicated Kianna suffered eight points of impact to her head and face, seven on her back and 18 on her arms and legs. He said the injuries were “more consistent with inflicted rather than accidental blunt trauma.”
The Pantagraph has not identified the parents because no criminal charges have been filed against them.
During an initial juvenile court hearing regarding custody of the foster parents’ biological children, Livingston County Associate Judge Robert Travers determined the foster mother caused Kianna’s death after hearing testimony from doctors who treated Kianna, a pediatric specialist called in on the case and Denton.
That decision prompted the court to require the biological children remain in DCFS custody and for the parents to undergo psychological testing and to meet with a clinical psychologist.
During last week’s juvenile court hearing, clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kalvelage-Roth said she met with the parents once a month for the past year. She testified she found the couple to have very good parenting skills and recommended their biological children be allowed to return home.
When pressed by DCFS attorney Andrew Killian, Kalvelage-Roth said she believed the foster mother’s story about the incident — that Kianna threw a temper tantrum and hurt herself. Kalvelage-Roth noted Kianna had reactive attachment disorder, a psychological condition that can cause a child to “act out” and throw his or her body around during a temper tantrum.
Judge Travers asked Kalvelage-Roth if she had received a copy of the testimonies of the physicians, the pathologist and the pediatric specialist indicating Kianna’s injuries were not self inflicted. Kalvelage-Roth said she did.
“Yet you believe the (foster mother) had nothing to do with the death?” Travers asked. “You testified you believe the (foster mother’s) story. To believe her is to disbelieve or ignore the testimony of three doctors. How do you rationalize that?”
Kalvelage-Roth said she believes certain information is allowed in court and other information isn’t.
“It matters not what I believe about what the court says or (the parents) say,” Kalvelage-Roth said. “I did what DCFS asked — determine if it is safe to return the kids to the home.”
Travers said he had “grave concerns that the parents are not taking responsibility for their actions.” But he also concurred with the parents’ attorney, John Coghlan, who said the situation was at a stalemate.
Coghlan said the parents had done everything the court had asked; had received increased visitation rights; and said no evidence was ever presented that the couple abused their biological children.
While Travers said he stood by his original ruling, he believed the couples’ biological children were suffering by the separation and were being “held hostage” by a goal of finding more evidence of parents possible involvement in Kianna’s death.
He agreed to return the biological children to the home. A status hearing is scheduled on July 9.

Caretaker of missing foster child Rilya Wilson has probation terminated

 After nine years of cooperating with prosecutors, the former legal guardian of missing Miami foster child Rilya Wilson appeared Monday in court, where her probation was terminated.
Pamela Graham, who pleaded guilty to two counts of child neglect in 2004, will not serve any jail time.
In December, Pamela Graham testified against her former live-in lover, Geralyn Graham, who was charged with murdering, kidnapping and abusing the child in 2000. The two women are not related.
Geralyn Graham is serving 55 years in prison for kidnapping and torturing Rilya, whose body was never found. A jury in December convicted her of abusing and kidnapping Rilya, but deadlocked on a first-degree murder charge. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office says it will retry her for murder.
In 2004, Pamela Graham pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against her former companion. Her original plea deal called for 364 days in jail plus five years of probation, to be meted out after her testimony.
Over the years, she checked in with authorities every week, exactly 416 times in all, prosecutor Sally Weintraub told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel De La O on Monday. Before Monday, Graham still believed she was going to spend the time in jail.
Pamela, a meek woman who testified tearfully at trial, said Geralyn would bind the child’s hands to the bed railing with plastic “flex cuffs” and confine Rilya for hours in a laundry room. Pamela also testified that Geralyn obtained a dog cage in which she confined Rilya to keep her from climbing on furniture.
At trial, Pamela also told jurors that Geralyn pressured her to lie about Rilya’s disappearance — but never revealed what happened to the child.
“I was scared,” Pamela Graham told jurors. “I knew that I was the one who had legal custody of her, and I was afraid that whatever happened to her, I would be blamed for it.”
The disappearance of the chubby-cheeked 4-year-old roiled Florida’s Department of Children & Families, which had awarded Pamela custody of Rilya, who was born to a drug addict.
For more than a year, the agency failed to note that Rilya was missing. When workers discovered that the girl was gone, Geralyn Graham claimed a mystery DCF worker had whisked her away for mental-health treatment.
Prosecutors in 2005 indicted Geralyn Graham on a murder charge after she allegedly confessed to a jail cellmate that she had smothered the child with a pillow and disposed of her corpse in a body of water in Southwest Miami-Dade.

Foster mom found guilty of burning child

FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) -- A former foster mother was convicted of burning a young boy’s arms with a hair straightening iron in Superior Court on Wednesday.
After a week-long trial and a day of deliberation, 33-year-old Kelly O’Brien of Fall River was found guilty on charges of assault and battery of a child under the age of 14 causing substantial injury, and reckless endangerment of a child.
A judge ordered O’Brien to serve 8 to 10 years in state prison to be followed by 10 years of supervised probation upon her release.
"This was a very disturbing case and I am thankful for the jury's verdict. The need for good foster parents in our society is more crucial than ever because of the increasing challenges they face. When a person with the solemn responsibility of caring for a foster child instead physically or sexual abuses that child, the need for a successful prosecution and severe sentence is paramount," District Attorney Sutter said.
In January 2009, Police were notified after a doctor at an area hospital filed a child abuse report with the Department of Children and Families after a 4-year-old boy was taken in for treatment of third-degree burns.
The boy underwent skin graphing surgery.

Burton man charged with possessing child sexually abusive material served as a foster parent

BURTON, MI – A Burton man charged with six counts of child sexually abusive material, accused of possessing and manufacturing child pornography, has acted as a licensed foster parent for around five years.
Michael Thomas Bradley, 57, was arrested Thursday, April 11, and charged with six counts of child sexually abusive material . He is accused of harboring images of three to five boys ages 4 to 10 years old in photographs and several computers at his home.
Amanda Holdsworth, director of communications for Lutheran Service of Michigan, said Bradley had been licensed through the agency as well as the state’s Bureau of Children and Adult Licensing.
Two foster children in Bradley’s care were immediately removed from his home Thursday when the organization was notified by Burton police of the incident, she said.
Those children have been placed with other foster parents. Bradley has had other foster children, but Holdsworth said she could not release the exact number.
She noted people hoping to become foster parents in the organization go through “a pretty thorough background check,” including a criminal check, provide personal and professional recommendations and perform 20 hours of state-mandated foster parent training.
Holdsworth said foster parents are required to renew their position every two years with the state, but LSSM also requires a renewal each year along with six hours of foster parent training and they are notified when any legal incident arises.
An independent investigation by the agency has begun that will include Child Protective Services, criminal investigators and LSSM staff. The organization handles up to 800 foster children at any given time.
“The average time is 45 days (for an investigation),” Holdsworth said, followed by recommendation to the state’s licensing agency. “If there is evidence to support (the claims), they would recommend to BCAL to revoke the license.”
Bradley has been released on a $150,000 cash surety bond, pending further charges. He’s been directed to have no contact with the victims or any children under 18 years of age. An 8:30 a.m. Friday, April 19 pretrial hearing has been scheduled.
Each charge Bradley faces comes with a potential punishment of four years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. Leyton said if Bradley is found guilty, it would be up to the discretion of the judge on whether or not he served the time consecutively.
"We took a lot of computers, computer equipment through the search warrant," said Burton Detective Shawn Duncanson, noting there were also dozen of pieces of material taken from the home.
A forensic investigator is sifting through information on “a number of computers” taken from the home, Leyton said, who expected additional action to come forth against Bradley.
“I believe there will be additional charges coming once those are reviewed,” he said, but Leyton could not provide a timeline on when more charges may come.
Holdsworth was a bit shaken by the news, stating, "We do such thorough checks and you go through everything and when a red flag hasn’t been raised, it’s scary. Our primary concern is the children."
"To see something like's obviously a tragedy and we're concerned for the children," she said.

Burton foster parent charged in child pornography case

(04/15/13) - A Burton foster father has been charged with six counts of possessing child sexually abusive material. A court official confirms the sixth charge. Online records show five.
Michael Bradley, 57, was arrested Thursday, formally charged in court Saturday and is now free on bond. Burton Police say two children have been removed from his home. They do not believe those kids are victims.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan confirms Bradley has been working with its Flint location since February of 2008.
Director of Communications Amanda Holdsworth says Bradley passed intense background checks, yearly reviews, completed training and had great recommendations. He is licensed through the State of Michigan. Holdsworth said she could not comment on how many children he's fostered throughout the years.
Burton Police Detective Shawn Duncanson said someone came into the police department Thursday to report something disturbing.
"(That person) saw some materials at this person's house and was concerned," Duncanson said.
Police executed a search warrant at Bradley's Burton home that same day. Bradley was arrested, but not in Genesee County. We believe he works in the Lansing area and may have been arrested there.
The children removed from his home are under the age of 10, according to Holdsworth.
Police are now in the process of going through mountains of evidence. Multiple computers and storage devices were taken from his home, according to Duncanson.
"We will take that evidence down to the prosecutor's office where they'll review it and I'm pretty confident more charges will come out of it," said Duncanson.
Holdsworth said there is an investigation underway at LSSM as well. Children are not being placed in his home.

Foster Father Indicted for Injury to a Child

CORPUS CHRISTI - A grand jury has indicted Irving Patrick, 46, for injury to a child. Police arrested Patrick last year for allegedly shaking his 2-year-old foster daughter because she wouldn't go to sleep. According to the arrest warrant issued last September, Patrick claimed he tried performing CPR on the hurt child. The toddler was hospitalized with a fractured skull, brain injuries, burns on her chest and underarms, and two broken ribs. The little girl survived and was placed with another foster family.

Couple in foster care abduction face fraud charges

NEW YORK — A New York City couple who abducted their eight children from foster care in 2011 now face charges they took more than $116,000 in child care subsidies and other benefits even though the children weren't living with them.
The city's Department of Investigation says Shanel Nadal and her husband John Payne pocketed benefits for which they weren't eligible. Payne's brother is also charged.
All three were arrested as of late Wednesday. It wasn't immediately clear if they were still in custody.
Authorities said Nadal slipped out of a supervised visited at a Queens foster care agency with her sevens sons and infant daughter then left town with her husband. Police at the time identified him as Nephra Payne.
Nadal and Payne each got 60 days in jail for custodial interference.

Man Sentenced for Raping Foster Child

April 11th, 2013
GREENFIELD, Mass. (WGGB) – A man, formerly from Franklin County, has been convicted of charges that he raped a foster child.
A Franklin County jury found 22-year-old Joshua Matthews, who recently lived in Keene, N.H., guilty of two counts of forcible rape of a child.
Matthews also lived for a time in Athol.
Mary Carey, spokesperson for Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, says that the charges against Matthews were in connection with over two years of sexual abuse that he committed on a then 7-year-old foster child living in his home.
The boy, who is now 14, testified in court about the abuse.
Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Carrie Russell says, “It’s solely because of this child’s strength and resilience that we were able to bring this case to court and ultimately secure a conviction.”
Sentencing is set for Friday, April 12 in Franklin Superior Court. Matthews faces a possible life sentence.

Appellate Court backs DCF decision to fire social worker whose foster child died

The state Appellate Court on Monday reinstated a labor arbitrator’s decision that the state Department of Children and Families acted properly in firing social worker Suzanne Listro of Mansfield, whose 7-month-old foster child died as a result of injuries possibly sustained under her care in May 2008.
A trial judge had vacated the arbitrator’s decision and ordered a further arbitration hearing. But the Appellate Court held that the judge had exceeded the limited scope of judicial review of arbitration awards. It overturned his decision and ordered that the arbitrator’s decision be “confirmed.”
Listro’s union, AFSCME Local 2663, which challenged the arbitrator’s decision in court, can ask the state Supreme Court to review the Appellate Court decision. But the state’s top court doesn’t have to hear the appeal.
The union faces an uphill battle in at least one respect: The three-judge Appellate Court panel was unanimous, and Supreme Court rules indicate that the court is more likely to accept cases when an Appellate Court panel splits its votes.
Listro was arrested on criminal charges of first-degree manslaughter and risk of injury to a child in the death of the baby, Michael Brown Jr., who had been placed under her care after DCF removed him from his parents’ home in East Hartford. But Judge William Bright acquitted her of those charges after a non-jury trial in Vernon Superior Court in 2010.
Listro told investigators that Michael fell 26 inches from her bed to a tile floor when she turned her back to remove a videotape from a videocassette recorder. When she picked up the baby, Listro reported, he became limp and unresponsive.
She called 911 and administered rescue breaths while she waited for the ambulance to arrive. Michael died that night after being treated initially at Windham Hospital, then taken by Life Star helicopter to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.
Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, the state’s chief medical examiner, concluded that Michael died as a result of shaken baby syndrome. But defense experts vigorously disputed that conclusion at Listro’s criminal trial.
DCF fired Listro in July 2008 after a hearing in which she declined, on her lawyer’s advice, to respond to the disciplinary charges leveled against her by the department.
After a hearing held more than two years later, the labor arbitrator decided that there was “just cause” for Listro’s firing, finding that she was negligent in her care of the baby. The arbitrator also found, however, that DCF had failed to prove that Listro had shaken the baby — or that no one else could have harmed him.
Although Listro was off duty at the time of the events at issue, the arbitrator found, her actions “made her unemployable by the government agency responsible for the care and welfare of children.”
When her union appealed to court, Judge Referee Robert J. Hale, a semi-retired Superior Court judge, ruled that the arbitrator had exceeded her authority by basing her decision on negligence, when the department hadn’t accused Listro of negligence.
The Appellate Court disagreed that DCF was required to identify negligence as the reason for Listro’s firing.
It said the union contract required the department to identify the evidence supporting the personnel action under consideration, adding that the termination letter did identify the conduct on which Listro’s firing was based.
Judge Douglas S. Lavine wrote for the Appellate Court, “Negligence is a legal theory; … it is not evidence of conduct.”
The termination letter “did not put a label on Listro’s serious off-duty misconduct but clearly identified her behavior and the events that constituted the serious off-duty misconduct at issue,” Lavine wrote.
Joining him in the decision were Judge Carmen E. Espinosa and Judge Referee Thomas G. West.

Foster parent accused of collecting child porn pleads not guilty

INDEPENDENCE, Ky. —A northern Kentucky man has pleaded not guilty after being arrested on child porn charges.
Police arrested Timothy Johnston after finding pornographic photos on his cell phone.
Neighbors in Independence said Johnston was a foster parent and volunteered with the Boy Scouts.
Police said Johnston, 64, collected child pornography and sent some images from his computer to his cell phone.
Kentucky’s Attorney General’s Cyber Crimes unit gathered evidence against Johnston online.
Johnston was the foster parent of two boys, ages 11 and 13.
He was arrested at his home Friday night.
A neighbor said she was suspicious of Johnston.
"I told my boys to stay away from him since they were real little. Don't talk to him, just keep walking. He just scared me,” Serena Nolan said.
Kenton County Prosecutor Rob Sanders said parents who think their children may have had contact with Johnston should call police before asking the tough questions.

Wis. foster care company accused of misspending

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The owner of a foster care company accused of misusing $6.1 million in taxpayer dollars built his operation from the ground up, driving all over Wisconsin to vet potential foster families, a newspaper reported.
The state Department of Children and Families sent Community Care Resources a letter in January announcing the agency had decided to revoke the company's license. The state claimed the company's owner, Dan Simon, and his wife, Mary Simon, charged the state for unallowable personal expenses, including trips and cars, the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper reported in Sunday's editions. .
State Department of Justice officials have said they are investigating the Middleton-based company. Dan Simon has denied the allegations and appealed the revocation, the newspaper reported. The company can continue to operate until the matter is resolved.
The newspaper reported Simon started building CCR out of his Madison basement in 1989. He traveled around the state in search of potential foster families, often wearing blue jeans and with his hunting dog beside him.
"His folks were common folks, country folks, and that's pretty much the way he presented himself," Gordon Cunningham, of LaFarge, a 23-year CCR foster parent, told the State Journal. "His car — I think it was an Oldsmobile— had maybe 125,000 miles on it, but he had no desire to give it up because it still worked."
Simon licensed foster parents, then contracted with counties to place children with them. The counties paid CCR a per-child fee. Part of the money went to the foster parents. The rest went to CCR.
"It was incredibly tough work, and they did it really well," Tim Strait, who worked for CCR as a staff psychotherapist in the mid-2000s, told the newspaper. "They took absolutely broken kids and helped them put their lives back together."
The company grew, earning about $6 million in annual revenue, according to the State Journal. Simon earned an average annual salary of about $340,000, plus additional income as the company's only shareholder, the newspaper reported.
In 2007, CCR opened a new headquarters in Middleton. The building is currently assessed at $1.2 million. Simon's ways began to change, foster parents said.
"Maybe it was the stress and strain, but he got kind of aloof," Cunningham told the newspaper.
The state allows foster care agencies to make a profit, but state and federal guidelines require any costs charged to the state be reasonable and properly documented.
According to the state's allegations listed in a February report in the State Journal ( ), Dan and Mary Simon earned at least $531,000 in inflated salaries, and the company billed the state for more than $64,000 in personal travel, charged $120,000 in expenses related to the couple's three homes, six vehicles and three boats and was reimbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars for miscellaneous and undocumented expenses between 2009 and 2011.
Dan and Mary Simon declined to comment to the State Journal for Sunday's story. A telephone message The Associated Press left at the company's headquarters Monday wasn't immediately returned.