Another parent convicted of having caused her infant's death and accused of abusing her other three children might understandably shun the limelight.
Not Lesia Smith-Pappas.
Four months ago, a jury found the Santa Clarita mother at fault for improperly buckling up her 3-month-old son, Alexander, before a car accident in which he died. After the accident, child welfare officials placed her other children in foster homes, contending that she and her husband, Edward, were unfit parents.
Now serving an 18-month sentence in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, Smith-Pappas and her husband are pointing fingers in the other direction. They have formed a support group of parents who, regardless of any mistakes she may have made, sympathize with her claims that the county's child protective services workers can damage families in the name of protecting children.
"There doesn't have to be any evidence other than an assumption that they can be hurt," said Fatima Ledesma, one of about 45 members in the group. "That's why Lesia's children were removed. It's outrageous."
Smith-Pappas' attorney, Dale Galipo, said, "Before they were on the defensive. Now they're on the offensive." Galipo has appealed the conviction and is planning a civil lawsuit against the county.
Smith-Pappas, 33, said she recruited members for the group--PATCH UP (Parents Alliance to Challenge Harassment of Unwarranted Petitions), which she calls a nonprofit Christian organization. She did so by distributing fliers when she was facing child abuse allegations at Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park before her criminal trial. "When I saw how they were messing around with me, I saw how they were messing around with other people," she said.
The group is a form of ministry, said the Pappases, who belong to a close-knit Pentecostal congregation. Parents facing charges by the Department of Children and Family Services are at a disadvantage, Smith-Pappas said, because no one in authority gives them information. In a telephone interview, she said she plans to provide members with rules and procedures of family law and her husband will pray for them.
Further, she said social workers need to be screened as thoroughly as parents, anonymous tips should be banned, and foster parents should come into the homes of struggling parents to help them instead of taking children away. Most of all, she said parents need a supportive place to talk: "They're afraid to open up to the social worker involved. There's too much hostility and pain."
Chief among her own complaints is that zealous social workers placed her children in foster homes a week after the August 1995 accident. That was before the funeral of their infant brother, before she had been criminally charged and without evidence their father had harmed them, she said. They spent nearly a year in various foster care homes.
"Not only did they go through a terrible accident, but then they were taken from their parents. Then they were taken from each other and separated," Smith-Pappas said. "I could handle anything in criminal court. But what they did to my kids? . . . The nightmares, the fears. It was totally uncalled for."
Beverly Muench, acting senior deputy for the Department of Children and Family Services, said that while parents' complaints are common and several parent organizations already exist, the department receives more criticism for not removing children from unsafe homes than for removing them. While the trend to provide family preservation services in the homes of families at risk of abusing their children remains strong, the state mandate, reinforced by legislators this year, is to ensure child safety and emotional well-being as a top priority, she said.
Muench noted that social workers can remove any children they believe are endangered, but if the allegations cannot be sustained in court, they must be returned within 72 hours.
A social worker's report from the time of the accident described the Pappas apartment as unsanitary with "a strong odor of urine, dishes caked with spoiled and molded food, and the living area floor covered with dirty clothing and boxes." The family had been referred to the children's services department five times previously, the report showed, and suggested that the parents abused prescription drugs and alcohol and disciplined their children with a belt.
A self-described Hollywood set painter, Pappas, 51, said he believes criminal charges were filed weeks later against his wife because they vigorously protested the child abuse allegations. He cited other cases in which parents were not prosecuted for the accidental deaths of their children.
The district attorney has no formal guidelines for such cases. Deputies in the district attorney's office said the Smith-Pappas case stood out because the mother had been cited twice for seat-belt violations and her driver's license had been suspended. They probably would not file criminal charges under the same circumstances if parents showed remorse and responsibility in other areas, they said.
In finding Smith-Pappas guilty of a misdemeanor, the jury rejected more serious charges that carried lengthier prison terms. But Superior Court Judge Shari K. Silver handed Smith-Pappas the maximum allowable sentence, six months beyond what the district attorney had requested.
"You detest authority," the judge told the mother, observing that she blamed the accident on roadside gravel and speculated that her son's death might have been caused by attempts to revive him.
The other three children, 10, 8, and 5, were returned home in July after a family reunification program in which the Pappases underwent parenting classes and counseling. A social worker's report said the parents had no drug or alcohol problems at that time, there was no evidence of physical abuse, their home was in "fair" condition and free of health or safety hazards. They have moved to a home only blocks from school so the children do not have to be driven.
But Pappas said his children have been damaged by spending 10 months in a system that treated them no better than pets and that they now distrust authority. What's more, he has suffered a heart attack.
"It's been a year of pure hell," Smith-Pappas said.
Others empathize with the situation. Ledesma, of Pomona, said her baby was placed in foster care more than a year ago amid a bitter marital breakup. "They felt the baby was in danger because of a chaotic environment. They call it secondary abuse," she said.
Another member of the group, a former foster mother in the Pappases' neighborhood, said her daughter and a foster child she wanted to adopt were separated from her for 11 months after a false complaint of abuse by a vengeful relative.
She said the investigating social worker also worked on the Pappas case and wrote an identical analysis stating that the children were "at substantial risk" of suffering serious emotional damage "as a result of conduct of the mother."
"It's something she uses constantly. It doesn't matter what the problem is," she said.
The neighbor later adopted the foster child and moved to a "friendlier," more densely populated part of Los Angeles to "escape" the social worker, she said. When she sees borderline cases of abuse or neglect, she said, she keeps quiet because "once you get in the system, you don't get out."
Once freed, Smith-Pappas said she wants to open an office where a therapist will be available to help families caught up in the system and where information on new rules and regulations will be readily available. One new law, for instance, allows parents to sue individual social workers for false reports. Previously, they were held immune.
Without its outspoken leader, the group isn't particularly active now, another supporter said. But, she added: "I imagine when she gets out, look out."