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After Child Protective Services (CPS) removed him from Smith's care, Moses lived through three years of dependency hearings, abusive foster homes, and near-adoptions before finally meeting his adoptive parents. From ages three to six, he was placed in several different homes. The case files described one family that recounted having no troubles, but another one reported Moses having "many difficult behaviors such as grabbing and stealing others' things, hitting, kicking, not listening, and staring when confronted by the foster parents." In Watts' detailed psychological history of Moses, she noted him having "obsessions with food," and even hoarding it in his bedroom, likely as a result of being neglected by his birth mother.
These details were among numerous others presented to the judge by Steckler, who argued for Moses to be tried as a juvenile, contending that he was damaged by the system. Watts and Steckler also contended that the horrible experiences of Moses' early life shaped his lack of emotional attachment and led to poor self-control and aggressive behavior that would follow into his teens.
Troubled childhood histories similar to the one that Moses experienced are not rare, and a majority of foster youth experience multiple placements before either being permanently adopted or reunited with their birth family. According to UC Berkeley's Child Welfare Database, nearly two-thirds of California foster children experience two placements or more by their second birthday, and 20 percent of those children experience more than two placements.
A 2012 UC San Diego study found that foster children who have experienced placement instability are more likely than other children in foster care to show symptoms of mental health disorders and to receive outpatient mental health treatment. "Not only is placement change associated with mental health problems, it is also a disruptive experience," the study stated. "When children change placements they must break ties with former caregivers, move to a new environment, and establish an attachment to their new families."
In a psychological consultation report submitted to the court during Moses' criminal case, he recalled being hit on his head by a cane while strapped into a car seat. On another occasion while in foster care, Moses remembered being locked in a basement for two weeks, in the dark. He also reported times in which he was "tied up, held down, and slapped."
A 1999 United Kingdom study examined why children in out-of-home placements are especially susceptible to repeated abuse. It found that "certain children are more vulnerable [particularly] young children, children with disabilities, and children with behavioral and emotional difficulties." The study also found that boys were twice as likely as girls to be physically abused by foster care providers.
"Many kids entering foster care have already been harmed psychologically and emotionally and have developed difficult behaviors experienced as dysfunctional to new [caregivers]," the study said. These experiences make children decidedly more at risk for repeated maltreatment.
During the three years Moses was in foster care, there were two failed adoption attempts. In both cases, the potential adoptive parents changed their minds about adopting Moses due to his "behavior issues," according to his foster care history as detailed in court records.
It would not be until 2002, and three years in foster care, that he would meet and eventually move in with Susan Poff and Bob Kamin.
Historically, adoption agencies and social workers kept prospective adoptive parents in the dark about a child's history of abuse and neglect. Since the 1980s, however, laws have required them to provide detailed histories. "The earlier and traditional practice [when adopting a child] had been 'the less you know, the better,'" said Joan Hollinger, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Law and a leading scholar on adoption law and practice. "[But now] there are supposed to be these disclosure meetings and I think these meetings do occur."
The disclosure meetings to which Hollinger referred are meant to inform the prospective adoption parents of birth records, medical history, and any involvement with CPS. But the process is far from perfect. "As children enter foster care, there is information that goes with them, but there is a lot that slips through the cracks. ... And although it is now an obligation to disclose what is in the record, there remains this gap with neglect and abuse cases," Hollinger said.
Hollinger explained that confidentiality rules block adoption agencies and social workers from disclosing everything. For example, they typically will not disclose allegations of abuse that were never proven.
Some of the psychological evaluations that detailed Moses' traumatic history were presented in court after the teen had killed his adoptive parents. As such, exactly what Poff and Kamin knew about Moses' childhood may never be fully known. For example, it's not clear whether they knew of Moses being hit on the head with a cane while in foster care.
Hollinger also said that adoption agencies and social workers do not have an obligation to warn prospective parents about connections between child abuse and violent behavior later on.
At the same time, child social workers have an ethical responsibility to help abused and neglected kids find permanent homes and not keep them dangling in the foster care system. "You're a caseworker trying to complete and finalize a placement for a kid who certainly needs permanency, and you're committed to having this file be closed in what seems a positive way," Hollinger explained. "So how can you then sit there across the table from the prospective parents and say, 'There are 99 red flags there and let's talk about how serious this is.'"
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