The Public Eye: Sierra County officials face questions over their custody of foster child

Sierra County’s auditor-tax collector and its former human services director have been accused of sidestepping proper reviews to gain custody of a foster child, despite one of them having a record in the state’s child abuse database.

San Jose attorney Israel Ramirez made the accusations in a claim filed on behalf of the 10-year-old girl against Sierra County, located just north of Truckee. The actions of the two Sierra County administrators, who are married, are just some of the wrongful decisions by Sierra County officials in the girl’s case and show the need to move child welfare services to an independent agency, Ramirez said.

“This is not just someone who fell through the cracks,” he said. “This is someone who was a victim of negligence of the highest order.”

Ramirez said the county’s Child Protective Services agency is plagued by conflicts of interest – an accusation that has been made in other recent court cases and a grand jury report.

Sierra County officials declined to discuss Ramirez’s case in detail with The Bee. Ramirez filed the claim Oct. 23, and county supervisors voted in closed session on Nov. 5 to reject it.

“It was a mutual decision based on the limited amount of information county counsel provided us,” Supervisor Jim Beard said.

Ramirez must now decide whether to file the case in federal court.

Janice Maddox, who resigned as health and human services director this month, and Auditor-Tax Collector Van Maddox received custody of the girl with the intention of adopting her in 2010. Janice Maddox resigned because she was tired of the job and wanted to return to counseling in the private sector, Van Maddox told The Bee.

Ramirez’s claim cites a June 2013 Sierra Superior Court judgment that said the girl’s records contained no evidence of how the Maddoxes became the girl’s foster parents.

The claim also says Van Maddox has a record in the state’s Child Abuse Central Index, raising questions about his fitness as a foster parent. Ramirez said he does not know what the record contains.

Van Maddox told The Bee that he was not aware of the record until he saw the claim. He said he contacted the state and then Sacramento County officials and found out it was a mistake. The state database is confidential and generally available only to law enforcement and child welfare officials.

James Marks, who worked as a Sierra County social work supervisor when the Maddoxes were seeking adoption, said his understanding is that Sacramento County had lost any documentation it had about Van Maddox’s record, which apparently involved an abuse allegation from a child from a previous marriage. He said he learned about Maddox’s record from his wife.

“She was crying. She was very upset about it,” said Marks, who said he testified about the case in Superior Court.

Van Maddox defended the planned adoption. He said his wife first resigned from the department in 2010 so she could adopt the child. He also said conflicts were further removed because the California Department of Social Services handles all adoptions for the county. Department spokesman Michael Weston did not return calls from The Bee.

“We thought we were stepping in and helping this child” after placements with two previous families had failed, Van Maddox said.

After a few months, the child was removed from the home for reasons that are not clear to Ramirez. Van Maddox declined to discuss why.

Janice Maddox, who had been an assistant director, was rehired as director of health and human services in November 2011.

The Superior Court judge, according to the claim, said it was a conflict of interest for the county to continue handling the girl’s case when Maddox was in charge of health and human services. Janice Maddox did not return a call from The Bee.

According to the claim, the court’s judgment reads: “The court finds that the testimony of Ms. Maddox was evasive, disingenuous, self-serving and not credible. The court finds that Ms. Maddox stayed involved in (the girl’s) case to (her) detriment.” Because the judgment is filed in a confidential dependency case, The Bee could not review its contents.

The girl was returned to her mother earlier this year. Ramirez said the reunification should have happened much sooner, considering that the county returned the mother’s son to her five years ago. If she was fit to take care of the son, she was fit to take care of the daughter, too, he said.

Instead, the girl endured placement into three separate homes, each time told that she was with her “forever family,” Ramirez said. She was also put in a group home for older troubled children, where she learned some bad habits such as stealing, he said. The girl is receiving therapy for the trauma of her time in foster care, he said.

Ramirez is seeking unspecified monetary damages for the girl, as well as changes in the county’s child welfare system. The claim demands that the county set aside $1.2 million for an outside agency to take care of foster children.

Besides any objections they may have had about the merits of Ramirez’s case, supervisors may have viewed his financial claim with skepticism after pressuring social service directors to cut costs wherever possible.

Others have made conflict-of-interest complaints similar to Ramirez’s.

In 2011, social worker Jean Newfarmer-Fletcher filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging that she was the victim of retaliation after she found numerous errors in a previous investigation conducted by another social worker. A supervisor who was dating that social worker allegedly tried to cover up the errors and retaliated against Newfarmer-Fletcher.

The mother who lost custody of children in that case also filed suit in U.S. District Court, saying children were wrongly removed from her home. Judges dismissed both cases and ruled in favor of the county.

Conflicts of interest in Sierra County also came up in a grand jury report this year. According to the report, the grand jury received a number of complaints from county employees who said they were afraid to report workplace issues because of fears of reprisal. One reason: health and human services employees didn’t want to complain to auditor Van Maddox, because he was married to the then-director. A number of employees thought he was the county’s personnel manager, too, according to the report.

Van Maddox said employees were misinformed about his role and that they have a number of places to file grievances besides his office.