Red flags preceded GJ toddler’s killing — Part 1

In a child welfare system that favors kinship care, a 3-year-old girl ended up living with an aunt reportedly victimized by domestic violence and a woman previously suspected of child abuse. Six months later, Bethannie Johnson was dead.



Nahveya Horner, 6, sister of Bethannie Johnson releases a balloon in memory of Bethannie during the How are the Children Initiative vigil April 14 on the lawn of the Old County Courthouse, 544 Rood Ave.



Bethannie Johnson, 3, was found battered to death at 3021 N. 14th St. in Grand Junction. Court cases for Shanna Gossett and Rebekah Wallin are moving forward, with both women still being held in the Mesa County Jail, in separate areas.



Shanna Gossett



Rebekah Wallin



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 2
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


Six months before the battered, lifeless body of 3-year-old Bethannie Rochelle Johnson was found on the floor of a Grand Junction home, a judge ordered that the toddler be placed in the custody of her aunt.

Little is known of the decisions that put Bethannie in the home where she would die while in the care of Shanna Gossett and her girlfriend, Rebekah Wallin. It’s not known what, if any, other options the court had.

But court documents provided to The Daily Sentinel show that several elements of Gossett’s life would have likely raised some red flags with the officials charged with deciding where Bethannie would live.

On March 17, police officers responding to a 911 call found her unresponsive with bruises “from her toenails to her head,” according to a Mesa County Department of Human Services report. Investigators noted in later reports that some of the bruises on Bethannie’s body looked old, and that the toddler — whose weight of 24 pounds and a few ounces placed her in the first percentile of weight for children her age — appeared “very small and malnourished for a 3-year-old.”

Gossett was arrested later that day after telling law enforcement she had pushed the toddler’s head into a wall two days earlier, and when the girl “didn’t get up,” Gossett claimed, she hid the unresponsive child under her bed for some time after the injury. After initially claiming that her girlfriend Wallin knew nothing about the incident, Gossett told investigators in July that Wallin had swung Bethannie by her ankles and smashed her into various pieces of furniture and punched her in the face on several occasions during the child’s last months alive. Gossett told deputies that Wallin smashed Bethannie into a shelving unit on March 15, and that Wallin wouldn’t let Gossett call 911 for the unconscious child for two more days. Wallin, Gossett claimed, was worried she would lose custody of her own children.

Following Gossett’s interview, Wallin was arrested. Both women face charges of first-degree murder, child abuse resulting in death, second-degree kidnapping and false imprisonment.

While the details of Bethannie’s death are well-documented in public records, the question of how she ended up in Gossett’s custody remains unanswered.



ACCUSED KILLER HAD TROUBLED PAST

Unlike Gossett, who had relatively few run-ins with the law before her arrest in March, Bethannie’s biological mother, Lori Johnson, has a long, mostly drug-related criminal history, according to court records. She voluntarily forfeited her parental rights to a son, Bethannie’s half-brother, several years ago. Public records show Johnson had some ties to Lamar, a small town in Prowers County, more than seven hours from Grand Junction on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

In September 2014, a case for Bethannie’s placement was opened in Prowers County. Gossett — who had at one point been given custody of another relative’s child, although she ultimately sent that child to live with her own mother — took over care of Bethannie in an “expedited placement” that is noted on a report from Mesa County child welfare officials.

Leaders of the Prowers County Department of Human Services refused to be interviewed for this story without a court order.

Tracey Garchar, executive director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services, confirmed his department provided “courtesy supervision” in the case. That means Mesa County case workers did some legwork in vetting Gossett as a possible guardian for Bethannie, but Prowers County case managers and their court system made the final custody decision.

It’s not clear whether the Prowers County judge — confirmed by the clerk of court as now-retired Judge Douglas Tallman — was told before the September 2015 ruling that, at the time, Gossett’s living situation was unstable at best, and that in recent months she had been in and out of the Latimer House, a domestic violence shelter. Gossett alleged to a Mesa County caseworker that her then-girlfriend was physically abusive.

While that caseworker warned Gossett that returning to a domestically violent situation could jeopardize her Prowers County custody case for her niece, it’s not clear whether anyone followed up to learn that Gossett’s girlfriend was Wallin, or to learn whether Gossett had, in fact, returned to Wallin’s home with Bethannie in tow. It’s not clear what information from the conversation with the Mesa County caseworker was conveyed to the Prowers County case managers making decisions on behalf of Bethannie, although it’s implied that everything would have been passed along in the courtesy supervision arrangement.

“Because of the open criminal case and no sentencing on this case, we cannot answer this question,” Mesa County child welfare officials said in a written response. “However, in general terms, when we are involved in any courtesy supervision case and we find or become aware of safety issues or concerns, we do report those items to the county of jurisdiction.”

The timeline of Gossett’s relationship with Wallin is also hazy. Wallin told law enforcement that Gossett’s stay at the Latimer House was during a two-month separation period, which would have meant they were back together in September 2015, when the Prowers County court case was closed.

But Henry Stark, the father of one of Wallin’s own children, told The Daily Sentinel he thought the two were broken up for a longer period, which would have meant they weren’t together when Gossett was given custody of Bethannie.

Since it’s unknown how much the Prowers County staffers knew about Wallin’s relationship with Gossett, it’s also not clear whether anyone informed the judge of Wallin’s own history of being reported for suspected abuse of the children in her own care. For example, on several occasions dating back to 2011, tipsters had called Mesa County to warn of Wallin’s alleged “anger issues” and report that she had given her children alcohol. All of these reports either were not assigned for assessment or were closed as unfounded by Mesa County. It’s not known whether the court had information about Wallin’s other background with law enforcement, which included a citation on suspicion of assault in 2010.

Mesa County caseworkers noted in a report written after Bethannie’s death that Gossett herself had been removed from her mother’s home as a child in one of three social services cases that were opened about her and her family. The report doesn’t go into detail about what abuse or neglect was alleged in those cases; however, Gossett’s own background as a possible victim would likely have been a red flag in the process, based on state standards.

It’s not clear why the judge determined that Gossett should assume responsibility of Bethannie. It’s not even clear whether the court had any other options at all, because juvenile court records of this nature aren’t subject to state open records laws.

Meanwhile, court cases for Gossett and Wallin are moving forward, with both women still being held in the Mesa County Jail, although in separate areas. Gossett’s next court appearance will be a preliminary hearing at noon Friday in front of District Judge Brian Flynn. Wallin will appear before Flynn at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 12 for a review hearing. Neither has yet entered a plea.



LIKELY NO INSPECTIONS 
OR HOME VISITS

While there has been no public review of Bethannie’s placement, state regulations would have required a certain base level of investigation into Gossett’s life.

Gossett would have been required to go through the Structured Analysis Family Evaluation process — a comprehensive home study process required for extended family members looking to become official guardians. Scrutiny would have included checks through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and sex offender registration. Caseworkers would have been required to interview Gossett face to face in her home, according to Mesa County child welfare workers, who spoke only in general terms.

State policy requires that caseworkers pay monthly visits to foster families to ensure a child’s well-being and to offer support to the family. In truth, Mesa County Child Welfare Division Manager Kari Daggett said, many foster families have multiple government workers in and out of their home every month: guardians ad litem for the child, court-appointed special advocates, and, in some cases, other service providers if the family is receiving some type of counseling.

“These folks could ... potentially have anywhere from four to eight people in their homes a month depending on what services are in place,” Daggett said.

However, since Gossett was classified as a “kinship” provider rather than a certified foster provider, she would likely have been given some support from a case manager. But she wouldn’t have been subjected to inspections or home visits after the initial investigation, according to information provided by Mesa County child welfare, which confirmed that its supervision of Bethannie’s case ended in August 2015, a few weeks before the Prowers County court issued its decision. Leaders with the Mesa County agency wouldn’t comment further on the specifics of Bethannie’s case, except to say that, after the case closed, any further contact would have been “voluntary.”

“When a child welfare court case closes, unless there continues to be voluntary case management or services, it means that all jurisdiction over that family to make decisions or intervene ends,” the Mesa County agency wrote in a statement. “You would need to verify with the county of jurisdiction whether or not voluntary services continued past September 2015.”

It’s not clear whether any caseworker working on behalf of either Prowers or Mesa counties ever saw Bethannie again after September.

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FRIENDS: RELATIONSHIP 
WAS UNHEALTHY

Whether human services workers knew it, friends and acquaintances of both Gossett and Wallin said, in retrospect, their dynamic seemed unhealthy.

A mutual friend who introduced Gossett and Wallin told law enforcement the pair quickly became romantically involved and soon moved in together, according to Mesa County records. The unidentified friend told law enforcement that Wallin was harsh on the children in her own care, on Bethannie and on Gossett.

“(The friend) stated that introducing them was a big mistake …,” the report said. “The friend reported that they believe Ms. Wallin controlled Ms. Gossett and made her into someone she is not.”

Stark, who spoke in an interview before Wallin’s arrest, said he wasn’t always in close contact with his ex-girlfriend because of their own “rocky relationship.” However, a year before Bethannie’s death, Wallin and Gossett had asked him to father another child for them, a request he refused. He said he had occasional contact with Gossett.

“Actually, (Gossett) seemed pretty stable. She had a good head on her shoulders,” Stark said. “She was just very appeasing to Rebekah, so whatever Rebekah would snap her fingers and say, ‘Do,’ she would.”

‘IT COULD HAVE 
BEEN MY CHILD’

The day Bethannie died, Mesa County child welfare caseworkers removed the three other children who lived with her, all of whom were in Wallin’s custody. The three children were moved into foster care while the county looked for long-term living situations for them.

Stark, whose 2-year-old daughter lived with Wallin, said he learned about Bethannie’s death by watching the news, although early reports didn’t specify the child’s name. It was nearly 5 p.m. the day after Bethannie’s death that he learned his daughter was alive and was in foster care.

“I will be honest, I felt a little relieved that it wasn’t my daughter, but still in a sense I felt a loss …,” Stark said. “I was sick. I knew Bethannie. I spent Christmas with Bethannie. The kid used to sit up on my lap with my daughter … and watch movies together.”

After several months of court hearings, parenting classes and other Department of Human Services requirements, Stark — who already had custody of his older daughter — was given custody of his younger child.

Stark said he still has questions about how the county handled the situation. He and his girlfriend had reported their concerns about Wallin in the past, once as recently as January, and didn’t see any follow-up.

“My kid almost overdosed on a pill that was left out by accident,” Stark said. “My daughter broke her leg at 9 o’clock at night on a trampoline. … Why was my kid on a trampoline at 9 p.m.?”

The trampoline incident was reported to the agency, but wasn’t assigned for assessment, according to a report written by the Department of Human Services. Caseworkers in the same report noted the incident where Stark’s daughter ingested a prescription pill of Clonidine, a medication that can be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s not clear whether an investigation was opened in that case.

Stark said he is trying to move on and be supportive of his daughter and the trauma she went through. But, Stark said, he still remembers that day when he learned that a child had died in the home where his daughter lived.

“I just sat down and just was numb, you know?” Stark said. “Just sitting there thinking … it could have been my child.”


Failure_to_Protect.jpg

FAILURE TO PROTECT

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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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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