Kathleen Schormann and the Unquiet Death of Lance Helms
In 11 years as a social worker, this is the case with the most evidence I have ever had, and the court would not let us keep him safe.
On April 6, 1995, childrens social worker Kathleen Schormanns worst nightmare came true. Two-and-one-half year-old Lance Helms, a child on her caseload, was beaten to death. Unfortunately the death of a child in the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services system is not uncommon. With caseloads many times over the safety limit, DCFS workers just dont have enough time to spend with every child, and workers miss clues foretelling tragedy. But this was not the situation in the Lance Helms case. For nine months Schormann had done everything in her power to fight the courts decision to place Lance with his father. Less than a month after the courts last refusal to remove the child from the fathers home, the child was killed. The fathers live-in girlfriend was convicted of child abuse leading to death.
Schormann was so shaken by Lances death that she lost confidence in her ability to protect the children on her case load and asked to be removed from the field. She then turned to her union steward, Tim Farrell, for help. Together they were determined to unmask the Los Angeles dependency court. The cries to save Lance may have been ignored, but the shouts following his death are shaking up the system. The aftermath is a text book example of how workers, the union, journalists, relatives, and community groups working together can make a difference.
In order to protect clients confidentiality, workers are not normally allowed to discuss cases. The following is based on testimony before the California State Senate Committee on Crimes Against Children.
When Schormann first got the case, in June of 1994, Lance Helms was in long-term foster care with his aunt, Ayn Helms. The baby had been born with heroin in his system, both his biological parents had long histories of heroin use, and his mother was in prison. Ayn had become the childs de facto mother. All was well until David Helms, Lances father, attended a drug rehab program and began working to regain custody.
What is there to reunify. I just dont get it, Schormann thought after reading the file. The child was happy and safe, living in a caring, loving home, with a responsible caretaker. The father had never lived with the child, and he had a long history of violence and drug abuse, with a scary psychological profile referring to anti-social and criminal behavior with a high probability of recurrence. His own mother, Gail Helms, had once obtained a restraining order against him and had urged the court to protect Lance from his father.
Nevertheless, in August 1994, dependency court referee Richard Hughes, against the recommendations of DCFS, ordered a 60-day visit for Lance in Davids home. On October 10, Ayn reported that Lance had returned from Davids visit with scratches and bruises. When Schormann investigated, Ayn gave her photographs of Lances injuries, the first in a long series the aunt and grandmother would take, documenting that at the very least the father was unable to supervise the child properly or to keep him from being harmed. But in what was to become a tragic pattern, the court turned a blind eye to the photographs and to Schormanns objections and continued with reunification.
On January 17, 1995, Ayn Helms testified at a court hearing that David looked as if he had been using drugs. When she picked Lance up from Davids care the next day, she immediately noticed a black eye and a severely bruised temple. After examining the bruises, Schormann took the child into DCFS custody and filed a petition with the court requesting that DCFS retain jurisdiction of the case and remove the child from Davids home. Several days later, Hughes ordered the child returned to David Helms.
Schormann was livid. She demanded that the courts decision be appealed. When that demand was refused, she demanded to know why neither county counsel nor the DCFS court liaison would advocate for DCFS.
In late February, Schormann was told by her supervisor that county counsel had requested that Schormann drop the petition and agree to a dismissal of the charges against David Helms. County counsel even requested to meet with her after work hours to discuss the matter. Schormann refused and asked union steward Tim Farrell for help. Farrell told her to do what she felt was right and the union would back her up. So she responded to her deputy supervisor by citing the departments failure to fight the court aggressively, concluding, If this kid dies, its not on me.
In March, Hughes stayed the petition. County counsel let Schormanns supervisor know that the court was angry and wanted the petition dropped, and that county counsel was going to recommend dismissal of the petition. Without notifying Schormann, the supervisor wrote a supplemental report recommending that Lance remain with the father and that the father be enrolled in Project Safe Care, a light-weight parenting program.
On April 6, 1995, Lance Helms was brutally beaten to death. Ayn Helms was so devastated that she died from Lupis five months later. Although the girlfriend of David Helms was convicted, Schormann feels that responsibility rests with the Los Angeles dependency court. She testified, In 11 years as a social worker, this is the case with the most evidence I have ever had and the court would not let us keep him safe, including county counsel, the fathers attorney, the minors attorney, and commissioner Hughes. . . . Hughes turned the case down eight times.
Dependency court is based on the criminal model, with each party (the parents, the child, and DCFS) represented by a different attorney. The court normally appoints the childs attorney. But Schormann testified that she was told David Helms attorney selected Lances attorney, despite the obvious conflict of interest. Ernesto Ray, the attorney representing Lance, met repeatedly with David Helms but never met with Ayn or Gail Helms or consulted with Schormann or sent her copies of his reports, as is customary. It was clear to Schormann from the beginning that they were in opposite camps.
The court operates on group think, according to Farrell. Many of the judges let the parents attorney and the childs attorney work in consort, and then county counsel and the judge join in behind them. They ridicule anyone who doesnt play along, particularly social workers.
Lances death, the department began an investigation. Schormann,
the previous child social worker, and her supervisors were to be interrogated
in private by a panel of six county counsels. Schormann refused to be
questioned without her union steward present. It became clear from the
tone of the questions that the panel had no interest in determining what
went wrong, but was intent on blaming the social workers for county counsels
Unlike most of Schormanns clients, Gail and Ayn
Helms knew their rights and were not going to disappear. After Lances
death, the three women joined forces to give meaning to his life by using
his death to bring change and save others. The grandmother, and
his aunt, had fought for the little boys safety as fiercely as mother
tigers protecting a cub. Strong, courageous women, they had refused to
shut up and go away in the face of ridicule from the dependency
court and smirking attorneys, Schormann stated in a commentary she
wrote about the case for the Los Angeles Times. With the assistance of
Hear My Voice, Gail Helms organized a house meeting of the grandparents
rights group and, later, a demonstration on the steps of dependency court.
In response to his appearance at the demonstration, Farrell was investigated by the DCFS personnel office. He was later warned that if he persisted he would no longer have any credibility in courtthey would freeze him out. Farrell responded by talking up the case everywhere he went.
Gail Helms eventually gave copies of Stewarts expose to Senator Richard Polancos office. The State Senate Committee on Crimes Against Children began hearings on the Lance Helms case in January 1996. When Schormann was subpoenaed, she thought her time had finally come to tell what happened. Then she received a letter from county counsel Victor Greenberg warning her that if she testified, not only could she lose her job, but she could be held criminally liable, lose her license, and be prevented from obtaining any other professional licenseshe would be blacklisted.
Farrell took time off to accompany Schormann to the
hearing in Sacramento. The two of them met with SEIU legislative aides
Michelle Castro and Allen Davenport. They wanted to protect Schormann,
but they also had another strategy: Schormanns forced silence would
expose the court more powerfully than even her testimony would have. Schormann,
whom Farrell describes as a woman who knows only how to speak the truth
and what she feels, was outraged that she would not be able to tell her
story. distrusting what she perceived. Farrell tried to reasure her In
Sacramento, I trust these people with my life, he told her. It
is not your fucking life, she snapped back.
Polanco drafted legislation, named after Lance Helms, designed to open up the proceedings of dependency court to legislators and the media, and to change the Welfare and Institutions Code to put more emphasis on insuring the safety of minors. He pressured the presiding dependency court judge to lift the confidentiality restrictions from the Helms case. He then reconvened the hearings, and on March 15, 1996, Schormann finally got the opportunity to testify publicly about her attempt to save Lance Helms and the disastrous actions of the Los Angeles dependency court.