Baby thrived before death —Part 2

Given a new life with a doting foster mother, Angel Place was then passed on to a young aunt who fatally beat her



Sheila and Oneal Blackwell, left, along with Misty Blackwell, middle, and three-year-old River and Terrell Kochenower, weep Saturday morning for baby Angel Place at the children’s memorial in front of the old Mesa County Courthouse.



Baby Angel Place.



Angel Place



Photo by William Woody—Misty Blackwell weeps Saturday morning for baby Angel Place at the children’s memorial in front of the old Mesa County Courthouse.



In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 3
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 4
RELATED STORIES:
CHILD KILLERS IN MESA COUNTY: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Q&A WITH MESA COUNTY OFFICIALS
STUDY: COUNTY NEEDS TO REPAIR RELATIONS WITH FOSTER FAMILIES
STATE WATCHDOG MADE RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNTY

As soon as Misty Blackwell held 2-month-old Angel Place in her arms, she felt like she was hers to protect. The 5-pound baby couldn’t keep her eyes open, her skin had a grayish hue, and she smelled like an ashtray. But she was hers.

It’s a feeling she never gave up, even after the baby she fostered was taken from her, placed with kin and killed by her aunt. A day after Angel died, Misty filed court documents to try to get her back, not knowing the child she had chosen a new name for was already dead.

Now the Blackwell family wants justice for the baby they wanted to adopt, a change in laws that would better protect children in Angel’s position. And a member of Angel’s biological family has named four Mesa County Department of Human Services workers in a federal wrongful death lawsuit for their role in deciding to take Angel from the foster home where she was thriving for months before giving her to relatives who killed her.

■ ■ ■

The recent death of Bethannie Johnson is evidence that there’s still a problem with how the child welfare system prioritizes placing children with kin over licensed foster homes, the Blackwell family said.

Bethannie was given to her aunt, Shanna Gossett, who has been arrested in connection with her death, along with Gossett’s girlfriend, Rebekah Wallin.

Angel’s story was different, but in the end, she died after being removed from a foster home that wanted to adopt her and given to family members.

Angel was born four weeks early, on Oct. 6, 2013, to teenage parents Ted Place and Tierra Bond. Child-welfare caseworkers first responded to a report that she had rolled off the couch when she was 7 weeks old, though she was too young to even lift her own head.

Jacque Berry, the senior child-welfare caseworker named in the lawsuit, investigated the referral and reported that Angel was lethargic, perhaps a result of her parents’ drug habit.

“The parents admittedly smoke marijuana in Angel’s presence,” Human Services records stated, noting that Ted and Tierra also admitted they were verbally and physically aggressive toward each other. “Mr. Place refused to comply with or sign a safety plan,” records indicate, resulting in Human Services caseworkers removing Angel on Dec. 6, 2013.

Berry tried to place the baby with relatives at the time, but they were unable or unwilling, so she placed Angel with Misty, a 36-year-old single woman who had become a certified foster parent.

From that point on, caseworkers documented Angel’s parents’ lack of follow-through with plans that would help them get their daughter back and lack of participation in visitation. They both moved out of state without notifying Human Services and were lax in phoning in to court hearings. Caseworkers documented Ted’s hostile nature, cussing them out on phone messages, and noted that neither parent was maintaining a steady home, income or lifestyle. They didn’t comply with drug screening requirements, didn’t have their own phone numbers for caseworkers to reach them at, and reported that they had frequent incidents of domestic violence.

Misty said she believed caseworkers were building evidence to terminate Angel’s biological parents’ rights.

“Crystal (Stewart, the caseworker, who is also named in the lawsuit) told me it was only a matter of time” before Misty would be able to adopt the child she had been caring for. She chose a new name for the baby in anticipation of adopting her, and began to call her Freya, which means “warrior princess.”

As Angel grew more attached to the Blackwell family, Human Services caseworkers continued to search for kin who would take her, as the law requires a diligent search up until a permanent placement is achieved within a year of removal from the home.

Caseworkers documented talking to 12 family members before Randy Bond, Tierra’s older brother, and his common-law wife, Sydney White, said they were interested in taking Angel.

The Blackwells were surprised to have family who lived in town show up months after Angel was taken from her parents.

“How does a kinship family jump into the system and nobody knows who they are or where they came from?” said Sheila Blackwell, Misty’s mother, who was a foster mom for years. “It was bizarre.”

According to the home study signed by Human Services employees Joni Bedell and Joyce Anderson (who are also named in the lawsuit), caseworkers met with the couple together or individually for more than eight hours on six separate occasions over a month. The couple was interviewed on topics ranging from their daily schedule to their upbringing and religion, even detailing their earliest memories and daily schedules. In the assessment, White shared that she grew up in an extremely dysfunctional home, fraught with problems related to her mother’s mental illness. She was sexually active at age 11, and reported that she was left alone often when her mother went out with men.

She also told caseworkers she had been physically abused by her mother as recently as two years earlier, when she was pregnant with her son.

The home study conducted by Human Services noted that White and Bond already had a 2-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter, and that White was a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled her sister.

“Randy and Sydney are very capable parents,” the study report said. “They demonstrate this through the parenting of their own children.”

After Angel died, a state investigation into the case concluded that Human Services didn’t properly vet the kinship home, though it had been certified.

■ ■ ■

Some of the last photos Misty has of Angel are from her birthday party.

When it became apparent that the baby would be given to White and Bond, Misty decided to have an early first birthday party for her, complete with a princess crown and a cake to smash.

She didn’t want Angel’s last memory of her to be that she dropped her off, so she asked a caseworker to come get her. They had one last breakfast together, and then Angel was gone.

Up until the day caseworkers came to get Angel, the Blackwell family protested the arrangement for the baby to live with Bond and White. Misty filed hand-written documents with the court in opposition.

A report written by counselor Michelle Doll praised Misty’s parenting skills and acknowledged that she and Angel had formed a bond. However, she recommended removing Angel from her care and placing the baby with kin immediately, citing the need for her to bond with her relatives if she was to live with them permanently.

Doll’s report also referenced a letter Misty wrote to White and Bond, proposing joint custody and urging them to tell Human Services not to remove the baby from her home. In the letter, she expressed concern that Angel would not be cared for as well in the home with Bond and White’s young children, and that they would prioritize their own kids over her. Doll called the letter manipulative, and said “the foster mother is struggling with boundaries and increases the likelihood of sabotaging reunification efforts.”

“There was no fighting it,” Sheila Blackwell said. The guardian ad litem appointed in the case, charged with protecting Angel’s best interests in court, was attorney Robert Tweedell of Delta, who cited the law prioritizing kinship placement and didn’t push to keep Angel in the foster home.

The Blackwells say Human Services officials threatened them when they protested the decision.

“They told us that if we hired an attorney to fight them that we would lose and we would never get placement again,” Sheila said.

Before the placement hearing, Misty hired attorney Trudee Gurley, who agreed to represent her and said she would get the hearing postponed.

“I paid her everything I had in the lobby on the way into the courthouse,” Misty said, but she paid more than $500 for nothing. Mesa County Magistrate Will McNulty would not allow the Blackwells to be represented by counsel as intervenors, stating that a deadline had passed.

Misty was unprepared, and with no legal experience, she was blindsided in court without so much as a pencil and no witness list or knowledge of what to do.

After the court ruled Angel would be placed with kin, visitation began. The Blackwells were concerned about Angel’s condition when the child returned from the visits dirty and sunburned.

The Blackwells reported their concerns to Human Services, but nothing came of their reports, including an incident where she returned from a visit with a mark on her face.

“They wouldn’t listen and I told them something was wrong,” Misty said, noting that she feared for Angel’s safety with every visit.

Angel started living at Bond and White’s home on July 11, 2014, although White was only 20 years old. After Angel started living there, Human Services officials issued a waiver to allow White to be a foster parent, though policy requires foster parents to be 21.

Sheila Blackwell filed a grievance with the state Department of Human Services about Angel’s placement, but nothing was ever done.

■ ■ ■

When Misty opened her door on Sept. 19, 2014, and saw the two police investigators, she thought that her efforts to regain custody of Angel had come to fruition, that her court filings for guardianship had been granted somehow.

Instead, she learned that Angel had died after being airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Aurora after being shaken and beaten by White.

Her worst nightmare had come true.

Arrest affidavits and court records show that White dropped Angel on her head in the bathroom, and a few days later, Angel wouldn’t stop screaming. White admitted to investigators that she grabbed Angel by the neck and shook her until her son said, “Mommy, stop it.”

The couple took their own son to the doctor that day, leaving Angel in a car seat with a relative. When they noticed she was unresponsive and limp, they took her to the emergency room. She died later as a result of blunt-force trauma, with multiple fractures to her skull.

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After Angel’s death, a state review board conducted an investigation of the Mesa County Department of Human Services and found that the county violated its own policies when it didn’t complete monthly contact requirements with the parent, parent surrogate or guardians in this case, which “does reflect a systemic practice issue in MCDHS,” the report said.

The review team found systemic gaps and deficiencies in the way Human Services handled the case; specifically, it failed to use its own risk-assessment tool effectively to vet the kinship placement, and found that the county completed the document accurately in a random sample of cases only 42.3 percent of the time in a six-month period.

In the end, it still doesn’t add up for Misty.

The Blackwells are still struggling to understand why it took months for family members who lived in Grand Junction to come forward and say they wanted to provide a home for Angel. Human Services documented contacting 12 family members during its search for kinship placements before Bond and White surfaced.

Human Services received an application from Bond and White to be Angel’s foster parents in February, three months after the baby had been placed with Misty. It was the same month the young pair purchased a new house, with a $910 mortgage due every month. Bond’s job as a Coca-Cola delivery driver paid a minimum of $27,000 per year, according to Human Services documents. Sydney was a stay-at-home mom who made no additional income. They would receive roughly $700 a month in compensation for fostering Angel, if she was taken from Misty and given to them.

It’s also not clear why the agency decided to place Angel with a 20-year-old woman who already had two young children. Neither of Angel’s parents responded to requests for an interview.

When asked whether Human Services would do something different if presented with the same case today, Executive Director Tracey Garchar said, “I don’t think there’s any admission of guilt on our part.”

Garchar said every case his staff deals with has risk associated with it.

“I don’t think we have a case that doesn’t have a red flag,” Garchar said. “There’s not this situation where we have no risk.”

Garchar indicated that some cases have tragic outcomes, no matter what steps Human Services takes.

“When we review those cases and we look ourselves in the eye and go home and there is not anything that indicates error, omission, fault, negligence on our part, those are the hard ones,” Garchar said. When asked if Angel is one of those cases, he said, “There is nothing that we did that directly resulted ... in that fatality, one of our decisions.”

The Blackwells disagree, and so does Angel’s family, which has litigation pending against caseworkers Bedell, Anderson, Stewart and Berry. More than anything, the Blackwells want laws changed that prioritize kinship placement over foster families.

“I want to change that law that lets the judge say, ‘Yeah, you’re a great foster mom but you’re not blood, so she’s going back.’ That law is wrong,” Misty said. “We want the laws changed. We want to protect the children.”


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WHAT IS KINSHIP CARE?

The emphasis on prioritizing kinship care started in the 2000s, with federal reforms that came to the child-welfare system. Among those new policies were requirements that social workers inform family members when child relatives were removed from their parents’ homes, keep sibling groups together when possible, and set deadlines for diligent searches to find relatives who could take in the children and possibly adopt them.

Colorado’s child-welfare workers follow guidelines set in the Code of Colorado Regulations, a set of policies that are adopted by the state department of human services, reviewed by the Attorney General and made into rules.

Section 7 of these regulations governs child welfare, and is one of the sets of laws social workers follow. Though the main goal is reunifying children with their parents, sometimes that is not possible for safety reasons or other factors. In that case, policies direct caseworkers to prioritize placing children with kin.

The rules state that kinship care shall be used to keep children with their families, minimize the trauma of out-of-home placement, “support and strengthen families’ ability to protect their children and to provide permanency.”

Colorado counties are not required to certify a kinship family before placing a child in kinship care. Though Mesa County Department of Human Services offers certification of kinship homes, allowing those relatives who take in children to receive a minimum of $25 per day reimbursement per child upon approval, some other counties do not certify kinship homes and do not offer compensation.

As of July 2016, Mesa County had 272 children placed in out-of-home care, and 56 of those children were in certified kinship care, meaning their relatives went through the classes, home inspection and screening process to receive roughly $750 per child, the same amount foster parents receive. Another 30 were living in uncertified kinship care. Most of the children were placed in foster care families (133), 14 were in group homes, 27 were in residential care and 12 were living on their own.

Currently, Mesa County has 92 certified foster homes, 39 certified kinship homes, and 54 non-certified kinship homes, according to the department.

—Erin McIntyre, The Daily Sentinel


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In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

The purpose is to inform the public about how the children ended up living with the people who ultimately killed them or are accused of killing them, the warning signs, the fallout that resulted from the deaths, and the changes some want to see happen to try to prevent future killings.

The Sentinel reported this series using law enforcement records, court documents and interviews with Department of Human Services employees, families of children who were abused, foster families and other stakeholders.

Reports and documents not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act were provided by family members or other parties to the cases. You can view some of these documents at GJSentinel.com.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 18, 2016: Instability defined the house in which Bethannie Johnson lived — and died

MONDAY, SEPT. 19, 2016: Angel Place was taken from a loving foster mother and given to an aunt who killed her

TUESDAY, SEPT. 20, 2016: Lyla Blackwood’s death came days after an abuse report was made — and never addressed

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 21, 2016: An examination of kinship placement, the need for more foster families in Mesa County, and potential reform

If you see or suspect child abuse, call 970-242-1211 or 844-CO-4-KIDS.


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