By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Next Wednesday, the Santa Ana truck driver will appear in a courtroom at the Betty Lamoureaux Juvenile Justice Center for a "permanent disposition" hearing. That's when he'll likely find out whether all five of his kids will be given up for adoption. The SSA took Jose's children away more than a year ago when it concluded his wife is a drug addict and his refusal to acknowledge her problem makes him an unfit father.
Jose's nightmare started on July 22, 2004, the day after his wife Angela gave birth to their fourth child, a baby girl named Angelika, at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. Hospital records show Angela had received "limited" prenatal care and that Angelika had a "high-pitched cry" and difficulty feeding upon birth. Medical staff tested Angela and the baby for drugs, and both tested positive for methamphetamine. Accompanied by a Santa Ana police officer, a social worker attached to the hospital told the couple the bad news: the county was taking custody of their newborn.
"The woman came in and said she was going to put a 'hospital hold' on the baby because of the toxicology results," Jose recalls. "I was shocked. I told her to show me the proof. She said they were confirming the toxicology results, but she didn't show me anything. . . . She said they were taking the other kids for risk of abuse."
Later that day, the social worker and cop went to Jose's mother's house and hauled away the couple's three older children: Adrienne, now 7, Joseph, 6, and Justyna, now 2 and a half years old.
An SSA report from December 2004 says the children were taken away for their own protection. "The child and the mother presented with a positive toxicology screen for amphetamine/methamphetamine at the time of the child's birth," the report states. "The children's mother participated in the use of illegal drugs . . . approximately two days prior to the birth of the child . . . the mother placing the child at serious risk of harm."
Angela filed a complaint with the California Department of Health Services (DHS). On March 2, 2005, DHS sent her a letter saying her complaint had been "substantiated"—bureaucratic jargon meaning that she had a legitimate grievance. The DHS letter acknowledged that the social worker was supposed "to provide counseling, social support and assistance in crisis situations." But once she told Angela about the drug test, "there was no further intervention by the hospital social worker, even though it became a possibility that the mother would not be taking her baby home due to a positive drug screen."
By that time, Angela's children had already spent several weeks at Orangewood Children's Home and then with foster parents in Murrieta, hours away in Riverside County. Angela and Jose have been allowed to visit their children just once a week for two hours at a time. Meanwhile, SSA officials told the couple to attend parenting classes and ordered Angela to complete a drug treatment program, including drug testing.
DHS did nothing further to intervene. After passing several drug tests, Angela refused to complete the program; SSA punished her by limiting her weekly visits to a mere hour.
Angela denies ever knowingly taking speed and says she's never used drugs or been arrested. Indeed, SSA reports reveal that she has "no criminal history."
"I am not a drug addict, and I have never been arrested in my entire life," Angela says. "They wanted me to go through a nine-month-to-a-year treatment program. When I would go, they would ask me how much do I drink. I don't drink. 'Well, what's your drug of choice?' 'I don't do drugs.' 'Why are you here?' 'The court wants me to be here.'"
In SSA documents, officials say Angela's refusal to admit guilt—the fact that she "has not accepted responsibility for her actions"—and Jose's refusal to leave her would place the children at risk of abuse should the couple regain custody.
"The mother's substance abuse is an unresolved problem, which impairs her ability to effectively care for, supervise and parent the children," a December 2004 SSA report concluded. "The children's father knew or reasonably should have known that the children's mother was using illegal drugs while she was pregnant with the child . . . and failed to protect the child, placing the child's health at risk."
Angela claims she has no idea why she tested positive for methamphetamine. But there is this: she recalls feeling anxious two days before she gave birth. A friend gave her a pill she said would calm her down. Angela also says she's asthmatic and that she used an asthma inhaler while pregnant. Although SSA reports show Angela told them about her condition, those reports fail to note that asthma inhalers contain chemicals that can cause a false positive on drug tests.
In fact, when Angela submitted to a drug test last year, she received a list of medications that produce false positives for drugs. Obtained by the Weekly, the list includes Vicks Inhalers, herbal teas and medications—such as those released by asthma inhalers—that include ephedrine.
Yet Angela's case became more complicated in September, when she gave birth to another child, Julian, who also tested positive for methamphetamine. Combined with her refusal to complete drug treatment classes, Julian's positive test has led SSA officials to threaten to put Angela's children up for adoption. The county may follow through on that threat as early as next Wednesday, when it will hold a pre-adoptive hearing on their case.
Angela acknowledged that most people might see her refusal to take drug classes as unreasonable.
"People say, 'If it was me, I'd be doing everything they ask. You should walk through fire for your children.' But I feel that my rights have been violated." She's standing up for the rights of all parents by not cooperating, she says. "Even if you cooperate, it doesn't even guarantee you'll get your children back. More parents need to stand up against the system. That's why I'm doing this."
The county's policy on drug-addled mothers is clearly aimed at protecting children from harm. But in this case, it's clear the county's policy is creating rather than protecting victims. Since being taken from his parents, county officials admit, Joseph has developed severe behavioral problems, including temper tantrums and hitting other children at school. An August 2004 report says, "Joseph has been witnessed on several occasions by staff at Orangewood . . . to hit himself and call himself stupid or dumb. Also noted is the fact that the child has a low frustration tolerance and he becomes angry at his peers very easily and has been observed to yell at his peers at these times."
An August 2005 status review report examining the children's progress in the past year says that Joseph had told a psychiatrist, in March, "that he was stolen from his parents" and that he "feels he is betraying his family." In April, Joseph "got in trouble at school for not following directions and also for putting his hand around another child's neck." Later that month, "while Joseph was at preschool, a child snuck up behind Joseph and he pushed that child." On May 2, 2005, also at preschool, "Joseph became frustrated when a child in front of him was hesitant in going down the slide and Joseph hit the child."
The report shows that a county social worker then met with Adrienne, Joseph and Justyna and informed them that their parents "had done some things and they could not return to their parents" until the couple finished taking classes. "Adrienne asked what would happen if her parents did not complete their classes, and [the social worker] replied that they could be adopted by a family or stay in foster care until they are 18 years old. . . . Joseph kept saying, 'It's really sad' and Adrienne was crying."
"It's insane," Angela says. "They are punishing my kids because I'm not jumping through their hoops. They have told Jose they would give him custody, 'But the fact that you are with the mother prevents us.' He said that he'll do what it takes to get the kids back. But it's a scary thing to think we could have our parental rights terminated. They are just totally abusing their authority, and this is going to cause long-term trauma to our children."
"I don't think she's a drug addict, but I don't want to lose my children," Jose says. "I don't know what to do."