Fighting for their families

Parents band together to get their seized children back and to change the child-welfare system

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When sheriff’s officers came to arrest Daisy Bram and her husband, Jayme Walsh, the only thing Bram could think about was the welfare of her two sons, one a newborn, the other 15 months old. Audio recorded during the arrest, at the end of September 2011 and just weeks after the birth of her second child, reveals a mother in a state of panic.

“My babies,” she wails continuously. “They took my babies! What is he going to eat? He’s only 3 weeks old!”

Bram and Walsh were arrested that morning on charges of cultivating marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale and child endangerment. Walsh was charged additionally with manufacturing a substance other than PCP—an alleged “honey oil.” Charges against Bram of child endangerment were subsequently dropped, and the child endangerment charge against Walsh was later dismissed.

But the damage had been done. It would be nearly six months before the parents were reunited with their sons, Zeus and Thor. Bram, who was released on bail shortly after her arrest, was granted visits, during which she would breastfeed her boys. Their diets were supplemented with formula, something she was strongly against.

Bram also opposed unnecessary visits to the doctor. While in foster care, Zeus and Thor were in and out of pediatricians’ offices (though test results showed they were quite healthy). And one day, when Bram arrived at the Butte County Children’s Services Division offices for a scheduled visit, she saw Thor’s golden ringlets had been cut short. She’d missed his first haircut.

“I’m missing all these moments,” she told this reporter in December. “I can never get those back.”

Bram and Walsh are among hundreds of Butte County parents whose children were taken into custody by Butte County’s Children’s Services Division last year. Many of those children surely needed help, having been abused or neglected by the very people who brought them into this world. Some of those people willingly gave up their parental rights, either not wanting responsibility for their children or simply believing they’d be better off in another home. Others, like Bram, fought to keep their kids.

About a dozen parents have approached the CN&R over the past six months with stories that would bring tears to the eyes of even the most heartless among us. Those parents aren’t quite as brave as Bram, many of them fearing that publicizing their situations would have a negative impact on their ability to regain custody of their children. They’re right to be afraid, as history has shown that speaking out is rewarded with punishment.

Take, for instance, Al Perry, a kind-hearted man and the father of Dorothy, a developmentally disabled young woman who gave birth to a baby boy three years ago next month. Perry approached the media after his grandson was taken from his family while they were seeking help in nursing the boy, who was born with a cleft palate. Because of that media contact, he said, his visitation rights were terminated.

The Perrys, whose story has appeared in the CN&R several times over the years, are part of a relatively new group calling itself Butte Families for CPS and Court Reform. The group staged several protests outside the Butte County Superior Courthouse, the first of which was held on National Adoption Day in November, when family court celebrated the finalization of several adoptions. They wanted to remind people that a happy day for some is a sad day for others.

The group is pushing for more transparency in the family-court and foster-care systems as well as a policy shift that puts more emphasis on rehabilitating families than ripping them apart.

Because of Bram’s and Walsh’s medical-marijuana charges, they have gained the support of the local cannabis community. And once members of that spirited group caught wind of the protests by Butte Families for CPS and Court Reform, many of them decided that the issue was about more than just Proposition 215—it was about families and individual rights.

The two groups have since come together, offering each other support in court and organizing a petition drive that resulted in a mass request for the Butte County Grand Jury to investigate CSD.

“They hide in the juvenile courts,” Perry told the CN&R in November. He was referring to the fact that many jurisdictions, including Butte County, keep matters involving child custody and the foster-care system sealed from the public. They cite privacy and safety concerns for the children, but many child-welfare experts, including the presiding Juvenile Court judge in Los Angeles County, have recently called for a more transparent system that would provide more checks and balances. In fact, after a state bill that would have opened the courts in California was squashed, last month L.A. County Judge Michael Nash ordered his dependency court open to the press.

“There were furious objections to the presence of these observers, a reminder that the idea of openness is profoundly unsettling in a courthouse accustomed to doing its work in private,” reads a Feb. 12 L.A. Times editorial. “But privacy has bred arrogance and resistance to notions that otherwise suit society well: that the public has a right to observe its institutions at work, and that public servants should not be allowed to hide behind secrecy to disguise inefficiency, incompetence or worse.”

The ramifications of Los Angeles County’s now-open Juvenile Court system have yet to be realized. Another L.A. Times editorial notes that the secrecy kept both the failings and the successes of the children’s-services system from being publicized.

In Butte County, Shelby Boston sees a CSD system that employs hard-working individuals and helps children and families in need. As assistant director of the Department of Employment and Social Services, which includes CSD, Boston says the system works—but she isn’t one to deny there are areas that need improvement.

Daisy Bram with her two sons, Zeus and Thor, during a supervised visit in December 2011.


Every three years, the CSD is mandated to evaluate its performance and set goals. The county submits those goals to the state, which in turn answers to the federal government. In a quarterly report Boston submitted on Feb. 29 (obtained by the CN&R through a Public Records Act request), she outlines how Butte County’s CSD is doing in relation to its goals set at the end of 2010. She explains the three areas of concentration: to increase the percentage of children with no recurrence of maltreatment; decrease the percentage who re-enter the CSD system after reunification; and increase placement stability.

The explanation of the third offers some insight into the system: “A key contributing factor to decreased placement stability for children is our current practice of placing children into a temporary shelter home versus an ’emergency’ relative placement. … A workgroup has been established to develop a new Emergency Relative Placement Policy which will allow for earlier relative placements, with an anticipated roll out date in April 2012.”

A graph accompanying the explanation shows that just more than half (52.5 percent) of children who’d been in foster care for 12 to 24 months as of the third quarter of 2011 had been in two or fewer homes. The others, presumably, had been in three or more homes.

“That’s one of the things that, when looking at the county’s data, we realized that other counties are performing better than we are,” Boston said during a recent phone interview. “San Luis Obispo County has amazing numbers in this area, so we’ve been in communication with them to find out, ‘What is it that you do?’ and then we’re doing our best to replicate that in our county.”

She said she expects the new emergency-placement policy to be ready for review by the end of April.

Recent numbers released by the California Child Welfare Performance Indicators Project (a product of UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research and the state Department of Social Services) break down child-welfare statistics by county and offer a bigger-picture view of how Butte County is performing. (Note: When asked for Butte County’s most recent statistics regarding children taken from their homes, the local CSD office pointed to the results of the project.)

According to those results, in 2010, Butte County CSD received 3,930 referrals. Of those referrals, 819 were investigated and found to be substantiated. Of those, 377 children (46 percent of the substantiated cases) were taken from their homes and placed in foster care. Additionally, on a single day—July 1, 2011, the most recent date available—there were 588 children in Butte County’s child-welfare system.

“Just because we substantiate that an abuse or neglect has occurred, it does not mean a child will be put into foster care,” explained Boston. “We do everything possible to keep the child at home safely.”

The numbers indicate there’s still something to be desired of Butte County’s performance, however. The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform used the most recent statistics available on UC Berkeley’s website and compared the number of children taken into CSD custody to the number of impoverished children in each county. Those were then used to determine rates of removal.

“As a group that believes strongly in family preservation, we feel that a high rate-of-removal almost always is a sign of a bad system,” the report reads. “But a low rate-of-removal is not necessarily a sign of a good system.” To remedy this, the report also includes two key “safety” categories—the rate of children being re-abused within six months and the rate of children being returned to foster care after reunification.

Butte County ranked low on all counts, with its rate of removal ranking No. 1 among California counties with 10,000 or more impoverished children (see chart this page for more info).

Boston could not comment on that data, as she was unfamiliar with the report.

“I believe that most of us in the field are in it because we feel called to it,” she said. “We see the value and the importance in our role and a benefit to the community and the children in our community.”

Bram’s story has touched people and gained quite a bit of attention. When she handed out fliers with a picture of her and her sons and a short explanation of her circumstances, people listened.

“Attention Butte County citizens,” the flyer reads. “On the morning of September 29, 2011 the Butte Interagency Narcotic Task Force (BINTF) kicked in our doors, arrested my husband & I, and in working with CPS, kidnapped our children. My 3 week old newborn was ripped from my arms and he and his brother, 15 months old, were taken and placed in a stranger’s home. Neither of these babies have ever been away from their mother. …

“If it can happen to me and my family, it can happen to you,” it continues. “The state should not be able to enter anyone’s home, abduct the family, severely traumatize the young children, and do so with public tax dollars.”

Bram came to the CN&R seeking help in putting her family back together. Her husband was in jail, she was forced to sell her car and move out of their house in Concow to pay for her own bail, and she was allowed to see her sons just a few hours each week. We decided to hold off on the story because her children were at stake. Now that they’re back in her custody, it’s time to tell it.

Bram explained how the social workers and Juvenile Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger required her to attend drug-rehabilitation counseling, and how the counselor turned her away, saying she had no drug problem.

A group of parents, including Al Perry (left), protest outside the Butte County Superior Courthouse in November 2011.

meredith j. graham

She explained how reunification services were ordered for her but not Walsh, because he was incarcerated (and how she feared she’d be forced to choose between her husband and children).

And she explained how she was allowed to breastfeed Zeus and Thor in the Children’s Services offices until she made somebody uncomfortable. It was her custom to feed both boys simultaneously, making modesty difficult. Aside from that, she’s of the mindset that breastfeeding is a natural thing and, as she was in a room alone with her sons, she saw nothing wrong with removing her shirt to feed them.

That, apparently, did not sit well with the social worker who walked in during their meal. After telling Bram she was being inappropriate, she left the room and returned with a male supervisor, who informed Bram she’d need to cover up. She eventually, reluctantly, gave in.

What played out in her next court appearance gave her reason to pause when next considering talking back to CSD. It was at this point, weeks after Bram’s arrest and separation from her children, that her social worker decided to recommend to the judge that she not breastfeed until her drug tests came back negative for THC.

“If they were so worried about me breastfeeding, why did they wait so long?” she asked. To Bram, it appeared a clear case of retribution, and it wouldn’t be the last.

She and Walsh—who was released on bail in December—brought a slew of supporters to a few recent hearings. They believe the increased attention on their case had a direct effect on the court’s decision to return Zeus and Thor to their parents last month. Then, last week, Butte County Assistant DA Jeff Greeson filed child-endangerment charges against Bram. She’s due in court April 3.

Tamara Lujan learned of Bram’s fight through reading her flier and listening to the audio Bram had posted online of her and Walsh’s arrests. Upon hearing the woman’s screams for help, she knew where she’d be concentrating her efforts for the conceivable future.

“As a mother, a grandmother and a woman, I said no,” said Lujan, her soft Southern accent sounding endearing but her tone painting a picture of a woman not to be messed with. Lujan, who recently moved to Oroville, immediately contacted NORML (the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws) and started a local chapter of the NORML Women’s Alliance.

“I just thought, maybe this is something they’d be interested in,” she said. “This is not just about cannabis. This is about our rights as families and individuals. They’re taking something as simple as the family unit and destroying it.”

She helped lead the charge on a recent petition drive and collection of complaints from local parents that were compiled and sent to the grand jury.

“We’re asking for an audit of CSD’s funding and an audit of affiliated nonprofits,” Lujan said. “If we don’t feel the grand jury’s response is appropriate we’ll pursue other legal avenues.

“When I contacted NORML, they identified Butte County as an urgent-need county,” she continued. “The resources of NORML are behind us.”

Lujan isn’t stopping there, though. She’s using her background in PR and marketing, and her role as local leader of the NORML Women’s Alliance, to create a program called Have a H.E.A.R.T. (Hands-on Emergency Action & Response Team).

“I kept thinking about mothers, and how we’re the heartbeat of the family, and of our communities,” she said. “This is how I can have an immediate impact.”

Have a H.E.A.R.T., which Lujan said will launch in the next month, will offer support to families upon their first contact with CSD. It will offer information on individual rights, legal connections and support in the form of a nice card or a warm meal.

Her goal is to start Have a H.E.A.R.T. in Butte County, expand to the rest of the state and ultimately take it national.

“You can be a child molester and have more rights than a parent with a child in CPS custody,” Lujan said. “I see what’s happening—there’s not a focus on keeping families together and using foster care as a last resort. Why are they not keeping kids in the home if they’re not in imminent danger?”

For Lujan, who has connected with 20-25 parents in just the past few months who’ve had dealings with CSD, the battle has only begun. She hopes the grand jury investigation will yield results. Beyond that, she wants to arm Butte County families with knowledge of how the system works and how to protect their rights.

“If it takes my last breath, this will stop,” she said.