Caseworkers erred prior to child’s killing

Powers County didn't follow up on concerns, state report finds



Bethannie Johnson was removed from her biological mother’s care in 2014 and placed with her maternal aunt, Shanna Gossett.



Shanna Gossett, left, weeps during a brief recess in the sentencing proceedings for her and Rebekah Wallin for the murder of 3-year-old Bethannie Johnson in March 2016. Both women were sentenced to 48 years in prison by District Judge Brian Flynn.



Rebekah Wallin glances back at her family in the courtroom during her sentencing for the murder of 3-year-old Bethannie Johnson in March 2016.



Story by: Erin McIntyre and Gabrielle Porter
READ MORE: Failure to Protect series


Less than a year before 3-year-old Bethannie Rochelle Johnson was battered to death by her caretakers in Grand Junction, child welfare workers knew that domestic violence was potentially occurring in the home and that Bethannie’s guardian was in difficult financial straits and an unstable living situation, according to a state review of the child’s death.

The report — written by a panel of child-protection experts charged with reviewing deaths and near-deaths of children already involved in the child welfare system — reveals that Bethannie’s maternal aunt, Shanna Gossett, told a caseworker in July 2015 that she was leaving her girlfriend to stay at a Grand Junction abused women’s shelter. The caseworker warned that returning to her abuser could compromise her pending custody case in which she took responsibility for her sister’s child.

No further action was taken.

Gossett, now 30, went back to her alleged abuser, now 32-year-old Rebekah Wallin. A Prowers County judge ruled Bethannie would live with Gossett.

Six months later, in March 2016, Bethannie was dead, brutally beaten to death in a murder for which both women later admitted responsibility.

The Daily Sentinel obtained a copy of the document, called the Child Fatality Review Report, after requesting its release from the Colorado Department of Human Services.

In examining the circumstances that led to Bethannie’s murder, the Child Fatality Review Team found that child welfare workers in Prowers County — a rural area in eastern Colorado where Bethannie’s biological mother was living when abuse was first reported and she was taken from the home — erred in handling the case.

Among other errors noted, the team found that Prowers County caseworkers — operating on information provided to them by Mesa County authorities asked informally to keep tabs on Gossett, who lived in Grand Junction — should have followed up after Gossett reported that Wallin was physically abusive.

“There was a missed opportunity to assess the surrounding circumstances and determine whether additional services were warranted, given the risk factors associated with the situation, coupled with the child’s vulnerable age,” the report said.

Bethannie was born Dec. 18, 2012, into an already unstable situation. Her biological mother had in the past forfeited parental rights to a son, Bethannie’s half-brother. She was regularly in trouble with the law for a variety of drug-fueled and related activities, court records obtained by the Sentinel show.

On Sept. 19, 2014, when Bethannie was 2 and her mother was living in the Lamar area on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, Prowers County child welfare workers opened an investigation into Bethannie’s family stemming from a report that included an allegation of physical abuse. Caseworkers first made contact with Bethannie almost a week later, on Sept. 25, 2014, according to the fatality review team’s report.

A few days after the first visit, Bethannie was removed from her mother’s care and placed with her maternal aunt, Gossett.

GOSSETT’S STRUGGLES

Gossett had no notable criminal history, and had even been approved by the state to care for her brother’s child between 2009 and 2010, although that child eventually went to live with Gossett’s own mother, according to a report compiled by Mesa County child welfare workers after Bethannie’s death last year.

Still, Gossett wasn’t on firm financial footing. Prowers County child welfare workers knew that Gossett, a Mesa County resident, was struggling, the fatality review report shows.

They suggested she become a “certified kinship provider,” the same process used to certify foster parents which involves home inspections, visits from caseworkers and months of classes. Getting certified would have meant Gossett would be paid roughly $700 a month to care for Bethannie.

Child welfare regulations require agencies to place children in the foster care system with members of their family, unless it is unsafe to do so. Those kinship placements do not have to become certified in the same manner required of foster homes.

Gossett declined the chance to become certified, yet the state review team commended Prowers County caseworkers’ handling of the situation, identifying the offer to get her certified as a kinship provider as a “strength” in their practice.

While Bethannie’s custody case was pending, she continued to live with her aunt under some supervision from child welfare caseworkers.

Gossett lived in Grand Junction, which meant Prowers County officials relied on help from the Mesa County Department of Human Services to provide face-to-face “courtesy supervision.”

Mesa County caseworkers were the eyes and ears for the county 450 miles away, which retained jurisdiction over Bethannie’s placement. Though Mesa County caseworkers reported concerns, decisions regarding her welfare were out of their hands.

Nearly a year after Bethannie was taken from her mother, Gossett was in a relationship with Wallin, a single mother of three who had been reported to child welfare workers in Mesa County multiple times in the past for alleged child abuse. Some of those reports were never investigated; others were found to be baseless, according to court records.

In July 2015, Gossett, who was living with Wallin, told a Mesa County child welfare caseworker that her girlfriend was physically abusive. Gossett told the caseworker she was planning to take Bethannie with her to the Latimer House, Mesa County’s domestic violence shelter.

The Mesa County Department of Human Services confirmed last week that its caseworker reported the conversation to case managers in Prowers County, who never followed up, according to the state review team.

In a prepared statement, Mesa County’s child protection agency stated, “MCDHS believes that our procedures and practices are in compliance with the relevant statutes and regulations.”

Despite warning signs that Bethannie’s home life was becoming more unstable over time, now-retired Prowers County Judge Douglas Tallman granted Gossett custody of Bethannie in September 2015, a year after she was taken from her biological mother, the state’s review noted.

State regulations require child welfare cases involving young children to be resolved within a year of removal from their homes.

A week after his ruling, Tallman left the bench on Oct. 2, according to the Colorado Judicial Department. Attempts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.

“It appears the maternal aunt lacked stability and was in a crisis situation when guardianship of the child was granted to the maternal aunt,” the state’s report said.

Prowers County officials declined to comment for this story through their attorney, who stated the agency would not confirm or deny contact with a child unless ordered to do so by a district court judge.

 

OTHER FINDINGS

The decision to trust Gossett with her niece’s care would prove fatal, but Bethannie’s case was riddled with errors long before Wallin’s alleged abuse was reported.

The review team found that Prowers County child welfare workers started making errors in September 2014, on the very first day they met with Bethannie.

Some of the errors were administrative — a failure to enter the initial report about Bethannie’s potential abuse in a statewide database, for example, or follow state-established timelines.

Others seemed potentially more serious. Gossett, who in the past had cared for her brother’s child, had been vetted by child welfare workers between 2009 and 2010 through an intensive home study. Caseworkers didn’t update the home study to take Bethannie’s situation into account and re-examine Gossett’s living situation, however, in violation of state regulations.

The state review team found that child welfare workers’ failure to take action when Gossett reported she was the victim of domestic violence in July 2015 was also an error.

Other errors included neglecting to complete a form called a Colorado Family Safety Assessment Tool until close to two weeks after the initial report about Bethannie’s alleged abuse while in her biological mother’s care, the state report said.

When the tool was finally completed, it contained an important error.

The caseworker who completed the document failed to answer a yes-or-no question on that form after Bethannie was removed from her mother’s home and placed with her aunt and a case was opened based on reports of physical abuse. The question was, “Caregiver(s) have a history of homelessness.”

Even accounting for the error, the risk assessment score would have remained high and been cause for concern, the fatality review team noted in its report.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Though the review team noted specific concerns about Bethannie’s case, it also made recommendations to improve the child welfare system and help prevent future situations like this from happening.

The team recommended Colorado’s Division of Child Welfare dedicate more attention to children age 5 and younger in their care, including a method of supervising children after permanent placement is achieved and the cases are resolved.

Bethannie weighed 24 pounds when she died — the same weight as when she first came to live with her aunt 18 months earlier. But there was no requirement for caseworkers to continue checking up on her or any children who have achieved permanent placement, which typically happens within a year of removal from their biological parents’ homes because of expedited case resolution requirements for young children.

The team also recommended the state adopt formal guidelines for courtesy supervision when children involved in the system are moved outside the counties where their cases originated that retain jurisdiction over their placements.

Currently, there is no requirement that counties notify each other if cases move.

Legally, Prowers County had the option of not notifying Mesa County that Bethannie had moved here, and was not required to seek help with supervision at all.

Currently, 17 Mesa County child welfare cases rely on courtesy supervision from other counties. Mesa County caseworkers are supervising two cases from other counties, according to Kari Daggett, Child Welfare Division director.

Mesa County supports the recommendation that the state department of child welfare adopt standardized practice expectations for requesting and providing courtesy supervision when cases move between counties, according to Daggett. The agency already considers risk factors involving children age 5 and younger that were present in Bethannie’s case, such as unstable living arrangements.

The state is seeking contractors to assess and potentially identify services for children after they are permanently placed in homes, with a goal of beginning those services in November.

According to a request for proposals issued in April by the Colorado Department of Human Services, these contractors would provide services including respite care, transportation, crisis intervention and support, therapy and other services for children and families after final custody has been granted by the court system.

These services could be used in kinship placements, after adoptions are finalized, or when children are reunified with their biological parents. The purpose is to maintain stability and prevent children from re-entering the foster care system.

Regarding the recommendation to require additional scrutiny of risk factors in homes for children age 5 and younger, Colorado Department of Human Services spokeswoman Liz Owens said the state formed a task group that spent a year researching and examining data.

The task force issued recommendations in February encouraging more collaboration between agencies, addressing high turnover rates and other issues, but did not recommend additional tools for assessing safety of young children, stating that these risk factors were already considered.

The state child welfare department is working with two existing groups called the Child Protection Task Group and the Permanency Task Group to examine courtesy supervision practices.They both meet in August, are scheduled to discuss the matter and could recommend new rules at that time, Owens said.

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