Hearing Opens on Molestation Charges : Children: Foster parents deny accusations by the state and girls' relatives. The youngsters have suffered in a system that was supposed to protect them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state hearing began Wednesday into accusations that two sisters, 3 and 8 years old, were repeatedly molested in a Whittier foster home where one of the children was placed by a Juvenile Court referee despite warnings from county social workers that the child might be in danger there.

State Department of Social Service officials are seeking revocation of the foster home license of Steve and Becky Brown, alleging that Steve Brown repeatedly molested the children and that his wife, Becky, "knew or should have known" what was taking place in the home.

State officials are basing their accusations on medical evidence and statements by the older girl, according to documents and interviews.

Whittier police are investigating the accusations but no criminal charges have been filed.

The Browns angrily denied any wrongdoing and said they are victims of a custody battle being waged by the family of the children.

"We have never touched any child, ever," said Steve Brown. "We are a family rooted in Christianity."

He predicted that he would be vindicated in legal proceedings.

Wednesday's hearing was continued until June 4 by Administrative Law Judge Ralph Dash after state officials submitted sealed medical evidence and the Browns presented a written motion for dismissal of the accusations.

But before granting the continuance, Dash told opposing attorneys that his goal in the hearing is a safe and stable home for the children involved. "I don't want to have these children be Ping-Pong balls," he said.

The children, however, have long since become Ping-Pong balls in the foster care system, bouncing from home to home.

Some facts in the complex case are obscured by Juvenile Court confidentiality provisions and a gag order imposed on participants in a May 11 custody hearing. Still, interviews and documents obtained by The Times disclose a tragic story of children born damaged, then further wounded while in the care of a system that was supposed to protect them.

The case also illustrates the difficulty of solving child molestation cases, especially those involving foster children who are frequently moved from home to home.

The story begins in Los Angeles with a young cocaine addict who gave birth to six children by a number of different fathers between 1976 and 1986.

The eldest child has cerebral palsy and at least four of the other five were "drug babies"--born with dope in their systems. Call them Albert, who is now 14; Brian, 9; Cathy, 8; Donna, 6; Evelyn, 5, and Gina, 3. The children have been in and out of foster homes all their lives because of their mother's inability to care for them.

Gina was first placed in the Browns' foster home in March, 1987, when she was 6 months old. Her brothers and sisters were in other foster homes.

The Browns are a middle-class couple who describe themselves as devout Christians. They have two teen-age daughters of their own. Stephen Bruce Brown, 44, produces records, mainly of religious music. Becky Jean Brown, 42, is a marriage and family counselor.

In October, 1987, after spending seven months with the Browns, Gina, along with her sisters and brothers, was sent by county Children's Services workers to live with her mother in a single room in a Los Angeles motel, according to court documents. The Browns continued to visit Gina.

By late January, 1988, the children's mother again gave up trying to care for her family. Albert was put in a special home because of his cerebral palsy and the other children were placed with the Browns. Brian, then 7, was subsequently sent to live with one of his aunts.

In February, 1989, after a weekend visit with relatives, Becky Brown took Gina to a Whittier hospital when the child complained of sore buttocks, the foster mother told police. Doctors at the hospital found medical evidence that Gina had been sexually molested.

Children's Services workers subsequently took all four sisters to the Child Sexual Abuse Crisis Center at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center. Doctors there found evidence that three of the four girls--Gina, Donna and Cathy--had been sexually molested.

The girls were removed from the Browns' home and placed in alternate foster homes. And the children's family and the Browns accused one another of molesting the youngsters, according to police reports.

During an investigation by Whittier police, Steve Brown passed a polygraph test and that department initially concluded that the children probably had been molested while in the custody of the girls' relatives in Los Angeles. The case was referred to the Los Angeles Police Department, which concluded that the girls were probably molested at the foster home in Whittier. The case fell into limbo.

In March, 1989, Cathy, then 7, told her new foster mother that she had been repeatedly molested by someone named Steve, according to social service documents. But Cathy, who has been diagnosed as mildly retarded, subsequently told another foster mother that she had been molested by an unnamed man while at her grandmother's house, court documents said.

In a Juvenile Court report filed April 24, 1989, the Children's Services Department noted that it was still not clear who had molested the children but recommended that all four sisters be placed with their aunts.

Instead, Juvenile Court Referee Elizabeth Horowitz made the Browns "de facto parents" of Gina--a step toward permanent guardianship--and all four sisters remained in other foster homes.

On July 27, Horowitz gave the Browns permission to visit Gina for four hours a week without supervision.

In September, Jean Foss, Children's Services worker on the case, asked Horowitz to stop the unmonitored visits with the Browns, according to court documents. Foss reported to the judge that Gina, who had just turned 3, "now masturbates frequently" and was seeking other "sexual stimulation." Foss warned the court that she believed the "minor is once again receiving attentions which are sexually stimulating to her and which may be construed as molestation."

But Horowitz did not stop the visits with the Browns, and the next month, last October, she held a hearing to decide where to permanently place the four children.

By this time, Cathy had made several accusations, naming a number of men as molesting her, including uncles and a street person named Stevie who, she said, visited the motel where she had lived with her mother, according to sources.

However, social worker Foss warned Horowitz not to place Cathy with the Browns and advised the judge to leave all the children with other foster parents until it could be determined who had molested them.

"My concern," Foss testified, according to court documents, "is based on a lack of our having been able to eliminate the Browns as . . . possibly having been molesters."

But Horowitz did not take Foss' advice. Instead, she divided the children between the feuding parties, according to court records. She placed Gina with the Browns, Cathy and a sister with their aunts and the fourth sister with a former boyfriend of the girl's mother who claimed to be the child's father.

Horowitz and Foss have declined comment.

On Nov. 30, Horowitz appointed the Browns as legal guardians of Gina and removed the child from court supervision and the protection of the Department of Children's Services.

Children's Services worker Rosie Wyatt had told Horowitz that her evaluation of the Browns found them suitable for guardianship. But she told The Times recently that she was unaware of the unresolved accusations of child molestation.

"I would have recommended denial," asserted Wyatt. "That information was not provided to me." The children's relatives have retained attorney Linda Pate in hopes of setting aside the Browns' guardianship of Gina.

Last month, Pate took Cathy to see Dr. Janice H. Carter, medical director of the South-Central Los Angeles Regional Center, a private, nonprofit agency serving the developmentally disabled. In an interview with Carter, Cathy said that Steve Brown had repeatedly molested her, according to a Juvenile Court document.

In subsequent interviews, Cathy gave consistent and convincing accounts of the alleged molestations, according to state and local officials. They included Lawrence Bolton, assistant chief counsel for the state Department of Social Services; Carol Heard, staff attorney with state social services, and Agent William Heckel of the Whittier Police Department.

Bolton said he did not think Cathy's reported mental retardation would affect her credibility or ability to testify.

"I have interviewed the girl several times," he said, "and we think she will make a credible witness and whatever slight mental retardation there may be will not be a factor in the hearing." After interviewing Cathy, state officials suspended the Browns' foster care license on April 18. Gina and six unrelated foster children, all girls, were removed from the home. There are no allegations of molestation regarding these six children.

Gina was again taken to the Child Sexual Abuse Crisis Center where doctors discovered evidence that she had suffered repeated abuse since she was examined the year before, according to a county children's services report.

Doctors found that "sexual activity/penetration has occurred and been ongoing," according to the report. "There is no sign of healing."

State social services attorney Heard maintained in an interview that Gina's maternal relatives had no unsupervised visits with the child during the last year, leaving Steve Brown as the most likely suspect.

Despite the state's allegations against the Browns, Juvenile Court Referee Elisabeth Krant, who has taken over the case from Horowitz, is allowing Becky Brown to visit Gina without supervision for eight hours a day, three times per week.

State officials say they fear that the girl might be dissuaded during the visits from giving information regarding the alleged molestation.

"I think it's outrageous," said Heard. "The logical step would be to not allow the child to have any unmonitored visits with anyone who might have perpetrated or (been aware of the alleged molestation)."

Krant declined to comment.

Steve Brown says it is an outrage that he is again under suspicion of child molestation after believing that Horowitz cleared him at last October's hearing when she decided to put Gina in his custody.

Brown maintains that he and his wife are the victims of Gina's aunts and attorney Pate in their efforts to gain custody of the child and possibly to file a suit.

A hearing on Pate's challenge to the Browns' guardianship of Gina and a petition by the Children's Services Department to again make the child a dependent of the court is scheduled before Krant next month.

As for criminal charges, there may never be any. Heckel, the Whittier police officer who interviewed Cathy, said he does not think the child would be able to withstand cross-examination in a criminal proceeding.

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