By Michael Volpe
There have been horror stories in abundance recently about the misbehavior of child protective services workers across America who abuse parental rights and traumatize children.
Some of those tales have come out of Pennsylvania, and now a coalition of parents is saying they've had enough.
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They are organizing under the name of the Operation CYS Reform and Family Law Reform and aim to stamp out abuse first in the state, and then nationwide.
"We The People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania demand that our legislators in Harrisburg and Washington address public concerns about unacceptable conditions with CYS, related agencies and Pennsylvania's judiciary," they said in a statement.
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"We have set a guideline of changes we would like to see implemented into these two branches of government. A nationwide campaign is being conducted by activists, advocates, and victims of each state in an effort to have our voices heard on the problems facing American citizens in our current form of child protection agencies and family law courtrooms."
They cite cases such as that of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly, who had cerebral palsy.
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In 2006, authorities said, she was starved and tortured to death by her mother in Philadelphia. She weighed 42 pounds when she died.
Her death happened even though Dana Poindexter, a CYS case worker in Philadelphia, was investigating the Kelly home due to reports of prior abuse and supposedly making regular visits. Furthermore, Mickal Kamuvaka, the head of a Pennsylvania Department of Human Services contractor, was being paid by the state to provide a social worker who would visit the Kelly home twice weekly. Kamuvaka never did it and instead he used the case to commit health care fraud.
Poindexter and Kamuvaka were two of eight people to serve lengthy prison sentences for their role in Kelly's death. Kamuvaka also received another 17 ½ years for his role in the health care fraud.
Kelly's death was supposed to have sparked a full top to bottom review of Pennsylvania's Child and Youth Services system, which was supposed to lead to wholesale changes, but the new parents organization, already with about 100 members, says that's just not so.
WND spoke to about 20 people in this group, and all said they are victims of corruption within Pennsylvania social services, primarily in CYS.
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The charges range from abusing benefits and ignoring real cases of abuse to ordering children back to the custody of their abusers and huge investigations of bogus claims.
Another case cited is that of former psychologist Jim Singer. In 1986, Singer reported a case of suspected child abuse to CYS after he said one of his patients, a female minor, indicated she was being abused by her father.
As a psychologist, Singer was a "mandated reporter." Mandated reporters are individuals in certain specialties, like psychologists, who are required by law to report any suspected child abuse they see as part of their professional duties.
Singer also followed other protocols, including bringing in at least one other medical professional to confirm his patient's story. That doctor, Dr. Albert Varacallo, has since written a number of politicians on Singer's behalf.
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But rather than having his own allegation of abuse investigated, CYS began investigating Singer.
According to a video report on Singer, two separate CYS case workers confronted Singer's patients in attempts to obtain negative information.
In one instance, CYS officials approached another individual who had also reported abuse and revealed Singer's private information.
"They [CYS officials] kept pressuring me to say something against him [Singer] and I kept telling them I didn't know him. They then proceeded to tell me that Dr. Singer had reported child abuse. Before they left my home, I knew that Dr. Singer had reported child abuse. I knew who the perpetrator was and I knew who the victim was," the individual explained.
Singer told WND that revealing personal information by CYS to his patients breaks all rules of professional ethics, and he believes this was done with the intention of intimidating him in order for him to reverse his allegation that his patient accused her father of abuse.
Within a year of making his allegation to CYS, Singer was on the receiving end of seven separate professional complaints to the Pennsylvania Psychology Board. In 1992, the PPB took Singer's license after a long and convoluted bureaucratic process.
In 1996, an investigation by the Pennsylvania State Police headed up by then-Lt. Ivan Hoover concluded that Singer was the victim of rampant corruption on the part of CYS, PPB, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office.
But that report went nowhere.
According to a study done by the Tribune-Democrat an astonishing 49 percent of cases of child abuse deaths in Pennsylvania involved circumstances where CYS had previously been warned about problems in the children's families.
Similarly, according to a 2008 study by the Leadership Council, approximately 58,000 children are handed back to their abusers every year in the USA.
In an exclusive interview with WND, Tina Popolizio, a resident of Chester County, Pa., said her daughter was one of those 58,000.
She says in 1997, she had a daughter with her husband. They divorced in 2007, with Tina getting custody and her husband getting regular visits. She said she noticed changes in her daughter about six months after the divorce, but couldn't figure out exactly what the problem was.
On March 14, 2010, the 13-year-old called the Crime Victims Center of Chester County and told them that her father had been molesting her. Despite that report, CYS case worker Mandi Campbell continued to order the daughter to have regular supervised visits with the ex-husband. Campbell even approved four unsupervised overnight visits.
An investigation cleared the husband, and full visitation was restored.
"I believe that Chester County CY&F (Children Youth and Foster Services) did not do a thorough investigation. They refused to intervene on four unsupervised visits while the investigation was still going on, placing [my daughter] with her identified sexual abuser. They refused to see that the refusal of mental health treatment for a child who apparently needed help, was neglect and did not help (her daughter) to obtain treatment," the mom said. "(Her daughter) disclosed while we were living in Bucks County, so Bucks County CPS refused to go against Chester County CY&F, and would not open up their own investigation.
She noted the father eventually received therapy, but "by that time it was too late, the delay caused the police investigation to close because the police had no one to speak with about her mental health …"
According to other members of Operation CYS Reform and Family Law Reform, cases in which children are returned to abusers aren't the only thing that needs reform. In some cases, several members told WND, frivolous charges of abuse against parents and guardians receive thorough investigations which include taking children from stable homes.
Ron Shegda said that in 2011 he had been taking care of his 56-year-old sister with Down syndrome for about seven years when a case worker from the Northhampton County Office of Developmental Programs named Donna Reeck decided to remove her from his home. He was subsequently charged with abuse after his sister purportedly accused him, and he told WND that he hasn't seen his sister since she was removed from his home. A local article on the case stated that the evidence of abuse was flimsy.
"The district attorney's office said there was no indication of abuse by Shegda or the employee of Mercy Special. The D.A.'s investigator said during his interview with Lorraine she would say 'yes' to anything," said a report.
An email to the Northhampton County Office of Developmental Programs as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which oversees CYS of Office of Developmental Programs, were unreturned. Shegda told WND that his case is part of a much larger problem that needs immediate attention.
"When some horror, such as a kidnapping, is inflicted on a loved one, we call the perpetrator a criminal. In Pennsylvania, similar to occurrences nation and worldwide, The Department of Human Services (which oversees CYS) increasingly acts inhumanly by snatching away our loved ones from our very homes! They do this without warrants, without evidence, and with punishing consequences if anyone dares question their actions.
"Our constitutional rights of security of our persons and homes, due process, confronting our accusers, and free speech are violated at every turn when these wheels are set in motion. Human Services never admits they are wrong. Instead, they intimidate and threaten innocent, normal families, in the name of greed and the personal agendas or incompetence of workers involved," he said.
Vickie Correll-Rick lives in Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania and is a foster parent who said that she had her foster child removed from her home in February 2013 after Correll-Rick encouraged that foster child to file charges against her previous foster parents for child molestation. Correll-Rick said not only was her child taken away but that same child was then placed with their abusers.
"My foster daughter was removed from our home in February 2013 on a demand by Schuylkill County CYS caseworker Lindsay Yanuzzi. This being the first safe home for the 15-year-old-girl while being held hostage in the system for over 10 years. She came from a home where a foster mother, father, son and cousin sexually and physically abused and tortured her and her four siblings for over four years under the watch of Lindsay Yanuzzi (SCCYS) and KidsPeace," she said.
In California, the issue of Child Protective Services abuse has become championed by Republican state assemblyman. There has been no such politician on a statewide level in Pennsylvania, however, WND spoke with one local politician ready to investigate abuse in his county.
Stephen Barron is the Comptroller for Northhampton County. In an interview with WND, Barron said that his office is planning on bringing in an outside auditor to do a top to bottom review of Northhampton County's Office of Developmental Programs. Barron, who said he worked in Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services prior to being elected comptroller, said he believes that many social workers suffer from group think and jump to conclusions based on prior experiences.
"Social workers often make determinations based on prior cases and assume that all families are similar," he said.
WND reported earlier when four California social services agency workers were fired for their involvement in the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who, authorities allege, was beaten and killed by his mother and her boyfriend.
And three others, according to County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, were disciplined.
But activists contend there needs to be a lot more cleanup done at Child Protective Services, the agency that involves itself in the lives of children and families.
Authorities report Fernandez sustained a fractured skull, his ribs were broken, his skin was burned by cigarettes and BB pellets were lodged in his chest and his groin. His death was reported in May and the subsequent criminal case now is getting under way.
In an interview with WND, leaders of parents rights groups said they were sad, but not very surprised.
After WND reported on the effort of California Republican gubernatorial candidate Assemblyman Tim Donnelly to audit CPS for abuses of power and confiscations without justification, those with power began taking steps to correct the problem.
Much attention also came to the issue when baby Samuel Nikolayev was removed by police from his mother's arms because his parents sought to obtain a second medical opinion about a health matter he had.
Democrat Mike Gatto, from Los Angeles, said that the state agency was too lax (citing the Gabriel Fernandez case), and Republican Tim Donnelly said they are, in some cases, too aggressive and "overzealous."
Legislators agreed that there are instances within the system of overly aggressive and random confiscation of children (such as the Nikolayev case), and yet there are cases like Gabriel's where a child dies for being lost in the process.
Ed Howard is senior counsel for the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. He said that "behind the concerns of assembly members is a concern about whether CPS is using its extraordinary powers (that of removing children from their families, and that of saving a child from abuse and death) to take children in a manner that is wise, accountable, and not arbitrary."
The baby's mother, Anna Nikolayev, now is one of those who does not trust the system.
Crying, she said, "You can't break into my house and take my child. They ripped my child out of my arms."
She told WND that she still worries CPS workers will find other reasons to take her child, or other children wrongly.