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Child Welfare Articles

Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Overview: Providing Services on the Run

Children's Services Committee Plans Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Social Workers, Foster Kids and Community Suggest Issues

SB 2030 Findings

Special Reports

Dependency Court Overwhelmed

Social Worker Meltdown Series

Protecting Children, Restoring Families, It takes Time


July 2001
Crisis in Transitional Services for Foster Youth -- Independent Living Programs Make a Difference

Housing Is A Major Problem

Leonard Moncure and Jennifer

From Homeless to College Graduate

The social worker may be the only one you can trust

Kathy Garcia: I try to be that one adult a child can feel safe talking to.

February 2001
Assemblywoman Dion Aroner "The union needs to take leadership in providing best practices for taking care of kids and families"

Making a Difference, Jacob Ocampo takes social work to the community

September 2000
Social Worker Awareness Campaign

Riding Along with Bilingual Worker Frederick Machado

Social Worker Heartbeat

February 2000
Are Social Workers Entitled to a Life?
Just Say No to Excessive Overtime


October 1997
Caseload State of Emergency

CWS/CMS Computer Crashes Child Welfare System

Seeing Through The CWS/CMS Mess

February 1997
Adoptions:Parent v. Child

Los Angeles County:Working in the Adoption Factory

Creating New Families

June 1996
Kathleen Schormann and the Unquiet Death of Lance Helms

Family Reunification Workers Speak Out


SEIU Local 535 Dragon--Voice of  the Union-- American Federation of Nurses & Social Services Unioin

Kathleen Schormann and the Unquiet Death of Lance Helms
by Richard Bermack

profile photo of Kathleen SchormannJune 1996

“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, children’s social worker Kathleen Schormann’s 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 don’t 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 court’s decision to place Lance with his father. Less than a month after the court’s last refusal to remove the child from the father’s home, the child was killed. The father’s live-in girlfriend was convicted of child abuse leading to death.

Schormann was so shaken by Lance’s 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.

State Senator Marks holding up a photo as he speaks at a legislative hearing
State Senator Milton Marks examines one of the photographs of Lance’s bruises that the court ignored.

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 child’s de facto mother. All was well until David Helms, Lance’s father, attended a drug rehab program and began working to regain custody.

“What is there to reunify. I just don’t 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 David’s home. On October 10, Ayn reported that Lance had returned from David’s visit with scratches and bruises. When Schormann investigated, Ayn gave her photographs of Lance’s 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 Schormann’s 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 David’s 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 David’s home. Several days later, Hughes ordered the child returned to David Helms.

Schormann was livid. She demanded that the court’s 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 department’s failure to fight the court aggressively, concluding, “If this kid dies, it’s not on me.”

In March, Hughes stayed the petition. County counsel let Schormann’s 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 father’s attorney, the minor’s 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 child’s attorney. But Schormann testified that she was told David Helms’ attorney selected Lance’s 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 parent’s attorney and the child’s attorney work in consort, and then county counsel and the judge join in behind them. They ridicule anyone who doesn’t play along, particularly social workers.

Union steward Tim Ferrell and Kathleen Shormann, in office infront of a sigh that says-Talk the Truth to Power.After Lance’s 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 counsel’s negligence.
Schormann told the Dragon that disregard for social workers and adverse court decisions leading to injuries and even deaths of children in Los Angeles “happen all the time.” Dependency court proceedings are kept secret to protect clients’ confidentiality, but many feel that confidentiality serves more to protect the court from criticism. DCFS workers cannot legally discuss cases, and clients are usually too devastated and too intimidated by the court to speak out about decisions that have led to family tragedies.

Unlike most of Schormann’s clients, Gail and Ayn Helms knew their rights and were not going to disappear. After Lance’s 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 boy’s 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.
Since the confidentiality rule prohibited Schormann from speaking out about what had happened, Farrell, sporting his union cap, went to the demonstration in her place. At the demonstration, he told James Rainey from the LA Times and Jill Stewart from the LA Weekly that the union was at the demonstration ”to pull the covers off the court.” The LA Times ran several articles. Jill Stewart wrote a major expose about the case in the LA Weekly, for which she won the L.A. Press Club’s award for investigative journalism.

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 court—they would freeze him out. Farrell responded by talking up the case everywhere he went.

Gail Helms eventually gave copies of Stewart’s expose to Senator Richard Polanco’s 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 license—she 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: Schormann’s 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.
For the tearful Schormann, it was a long walk from the SEIU office to the senate committee room. When Schormann was called to testify, she took the union’s advice: she stated that the department wouldn’t let her testify, and she turned over to the committee the letter threatening to blacklist her. The response was explosive. Senator Dan Boatwright was so outraged that he offered to pay any fines levied on Schormann out of his own pocket.

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.