“There’s nothing more valuable than your babies. Nothing comes close. Not money. Not boyfriends. Not jobs. Not life. When you lose your kids you’re ready to blow your brains out.”
Elene Humlen, mother of two children.
In early May, Elene Humlen’s son, Christopher, 9, and daughter, Jennifer, 19 months, were taken from her.
A teacher spotted a bruise on Christopher’s nose and redness around one eye and sent him to the school nurse. A county social worker was called in, and later sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the campus. Within an hour they had examined the boy and decided he may have been abused.
When Humlen’s sister, who was baby-sitting Jennifer, went to Laurel School with the infant to find out why Christopher had not come home, deputies told her the children were being placed in protective custody.
Minutes later, Humlen’s sister watched in disbelief as deputies drove away with the children.
It was eight days before the children were returned to Humlen, and another two months before a Los Angeles County Juvenile Court referee dismissed attempts by authorities to gain visitation rights to periodically inspect the children and her home.
Although never formally charged with a crime, Humlen says she has been sentenced to a “lifetime of second-guessing” by friends, business associates and strangers who will hear her story and wonder if she abused her blond, blue-eyed son.
“It would have been easier to be accused of murder,” said Humlen, a longtime Whittier resident who has gone against the wishes of her attorney and friends and made her story public. “At least people would still talk to me.”
Humlen, 28, believes she is one of a growing number of parents who have been caught up in a sweep by overeager authorities searching for child molesters and abusers. Triggered in recent years by tougher child abuse reporting laws and a string gf celebrated cases, Humlen believes hundreds of people are being falsely accused of assaulting children. Because of greater public awareness--and fear--about child abuse, Humlen contends suspected offenders often are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence--an ordeal that can cost thousands of dollars and leave lifelong emotional scars.
But the authorities charged with the care and welfare of children say they are under tremendous pressure to err on the side of caution. Placing a child in protective custody, even for a short period, is sometimes the only way social workers believe they can determine whether a child is in danger at home.
Teachers, doctors, preschool operators and others are also under increasing pressure to report suspected child abuse. If they fail to alert authorities, they can be fined or even jailed.
“Child abuse is the Red Scare of the ‘80s,” said Humlen, who has become an outspoken member of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), a nationwide coalition formed a year ago to support those who have been accused of child abuse or molestation crimes.
“Everyday, normal people are getting swept up in this hysteria,” she said. “They are losing their kids without a fair hearing. Supposedly, this can’t happen in a free country.”
Although the case against Humlen was dismissed, records and sources in the county Department of Children’s Services indicate her children were appropriately detained.
When Christopher was examined at school, the sheriff’s deputies observed “that both his eyes were blackened; the right eye slightly swollen with a bruise around the socket . . . the left eye swollen with a welt-like mark” on his cheek, according to court documents.
Social worker Carmen Navarro agreed in her report, saying the injuries would not normally occur “except as the result of unreasonable and neglectful acts by the minor’s mother.”
Humlen, who differs with authorities over the extent and nature of the injuries, said Christopher was injured while playing ball with some neighbor boys on Monday afternoon, May 6.
The boys were tossing a tennis ball against a “pitch-back,” an aluminium-framed net that automatically returns the ball to the thrower. When Christopher failed to get his mitt up in time, Humlen said, the ball struck him “right between the eyes,” leaving a red mark on his nose and the side of one eye.
“It didn’t hurt much and there was no bleeding,” Humlen said, “so instead of being a sissy in front of his friends, he did not come in to the house crying that he was hurt. I was not aware of any injury.”
The mark on Christopher’s cheek, Humlen said, was not a welt, but a small scratch caused by Jennifer when the two children were playing. The next day at school, Christopher’s teacher saw the marks on his face.
When Navarro and the deputies questioned Christopher about his facial injuries and home life, his edgy, mumbled responses about the accident raised doubts about the boy’s story. As a result, Navarro wrote in her report:
“Feeling that the bruises were inconsistent with his explanation, coupled with his nervousness and fear of punishment . . . Chris may be a victim of child abuse.”
Once in custody, the two children were taken to the Medical Center of La Mirada, where they were examined for physical abuse. In her report, Dr. Elosia Vega said there was no evidence Jennifer had been abused, but noted that “Chris’ injury might have been caused by something other than a tennis ball.”
Defending the decision to take the children, a source close to the Humlen case said:
“It was not clear-cut. (The investigating parties) felt there was sufficient basis indicating abuse to detain the children at least temporarily. Sometimes in such cases, the immediate injury is just the tip of an iceberg, and we try to err on the safe side when a child’s well-being is at stake.”
The county counsel’s office, which represents the Children’s Services Department in dependency hearings, agreed to dismiss the case against Humlen after her attorney pressed for evidence to substantiate the child-abuse allegations.
Although declining to comment directly on the Humlen case, Karen Buffington, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Service Department, said social workers walk a difficult line when deciding whether a child should be removed from home.
“Not a night went by that I didn’t go home and second-guess myself,” said Buffington, a former social worker. “It’s a decision that weighs heavily on all of us. Our job is to protect the child. None of us want to take the child away from the parents. I’m a parent, and I would be angry if someone took my children.
“But as social workers, we’ve all had children die on us, children we left in homes that maybe we should have moved,” she said. “It’s a devastating feeling. We are human, and we do make mistakes. . . .”
Since 1981, various professional groups have been required to report suspected child abuse.
By law, any “child care custodian” who has knowledge or “reasonable suspicion” of child abuse must immediately call police and follow the call with a written report within 36 hours. Failure to do so is punishable by six months in jail, a $500 fine or both. Teachers, surgeons, school nurses, counselors, dentists, preschool operators and social workers are among those covered by the law.
“For a teacher, it’s a tough, tough position to be in,” said Catherine Carey, director of communications for United Teachers of Los Angeles, which represents about 26,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest.
“When I was teaching, some of my students would come to school with all kinds of bumps and bruises, and I’d wonder if they had been abused,” she said. “But then you’d see them on the playground, the way they would run, skip and fall. Had they’d been abused? Or were they just active kids? No teacher enjoys making that call.”
Humlen said Christopher’s teacher was correct in sending her son to the school nurse. Teachers, she said, should report suspected child abuse cases. But she added that most teachers aren’t properly trained to spot signs of abuse.
“I expect teachers to take action when something is amiss,” she said. “The problem is the law threatens teachers who fail to report abuses, but nobody has taken the time to really show them what to look for. It’s a real Catch-22.”
Waited One Year
In response to disclosures that some school officials waited more than a year to report accusations that a teacher was molesting pupils, the Los Angeles Board of Education recently voted to distribute leaflets explaining the state child abuse reporting laws. The board also ordered administrators to develop reporting procedures at each of the district’s 540 campuses.
Suspected child abuse cases in Los Angeles County have increased dramatically in recent years. About 75,000 cases were referred to the Children’s Services Department in 1984, a number that Buffington predicts will climb to 85,000 this year. Of those, the department expects to file petitions to gain custody of children in 18,000 cases--double the number of cases the department took to court in 1981.
“Our job is to protect children,” Buffington said. “But invariably when we act, we wind up helping the entire family--the children and parents.”
Humlen wonders. A single parent who never married, she said county officials took her children without ever questioning her. It took 24 hours, she said, to find out that Christopher had been placed in a Norwalk foster home and Jennifer in MacLaren Home, a county-operated shelter for abandoned or abused children in the San Gabriel Valley.
What angered Humlen most was the runaround she said she received from authorities when trying to find out why the children were taken.
“Nobody bothered to call me, the mother of those two children, to ask if I had abused them,” Humlen said. “It wasn’t until I went to court, three days after my babies had been taken, that I learned what I was suspected of.”
During the eight days her children were gone, Humlen said her life quickly unraveled.
She stopped eating and sleeping as she spent days compiling “every shred of evidence that would prove that Christopher had never been treated with anything but love and care.” Seeking evidence to support her case, Humlen wrote Christopher’s former school teachers, Little League coaches, doctors and dentists.
She contacted several dozen attorneys, searching for someone to plead her case. To pay the mounting bills, she went to Hollywood and pawned her jewelry, including a pair of diamond earrings she received as a gift from her sister, and a locket with a picture of Christopher she bought on his fourth birthday.
At one point Humlen was hospitalized, suffering from shock and dehydration. By the time the county released her children on May 15, her weight had dropped below 100 pounds for the first time since her high school days. She lost 15 pounds in less than a week.
Humlen estimates she has spent more than $15,000 to recover her children, clear her name and pay her medical bills.
Tired and ailing, Humlen was put on an indefinite leave of absence from her job as a saleswoman at a Whittier automobile dealership.
“I used to read child abuse stories and I’d think to myself, ‘They should hang that S.O.B.,”’ she said. “But never once did it ever occur to me that in any of those cases, that somebody might be innocent and somebody might be getting hurt.”
When Christopher returned to Laurel School in late May, Humlen said other students taunted him with cruel remarks about his mother, calling her “a child abuser.” He retaliated, getting into fights. With three days left in the school year, Humlen stepped in and pulled Christopher out school.
“I just couldn’t watch him take that anymore,” Humlen said. “He was confused, hurt and frightened.”
Although he is enrolled this fall at a new campus in the East Whittier City School District, there are still problems.
On a recent afternoon as Christopher and several friends played outside, Humlen said two sheriff’s squad cars raced past Humlen’s house to the end of the cul-de-sac.
“A little girl several houses down had fallen into a pool and was drowning,” Humlen said. “When the deputies went by, Christopher ran into the house, hid under his bed and stayed there for two hours. He was afraid they were coming to take him away again.”
Humlen’s life has changed too.
She said she used to work long hours at the car agency, often into the night processing orders and preparing lists of clients to call the next day. Humlen’s parents, who lived with her, watched the children.
“Some nights I’d get home just in time to tuck them into bed. But no more,” said Humlen, who now works in fleet sales at a Downey dealership. “Now, I try to get home every night at 5 o’clock because it might be the last time I ever see them again. That’s how paranoid this thing makes you.”