Social worker can't escape felony case

Date: 2001-10-12

Associate director served six years for son's death

Tim Harrington
Daily News Leader

STAUNTON - For two years, Karen Diehl has been providing care for elderly residents as associate director of Valley Program for Aging Services.

Nearly 15 years ago, a jury convicted her in the death of a person under her care: a 13-year-old boy - her adopted son.

Since some local officials have learned about Diehl's background, they question her hiring and her continued employment at the agency.

Diehl's employers, however, have steadfastly defended her, saying that she has been loyal and highly-respected employee and that she will remain with the organization.

In September, Augusta County Supervisor Tom Sikes brought up the issue of employee background-check standards among agencies that received county funds. He had Diehl in mind.

She has a master's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a bachelor's degree from Mary Baldwin College, which she earned while in prison, serving six years of a 31-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, assault and battery, child neglect and abduction.

In 1987, Diehl and her husband Michael were convicted in Virginia Beach Circuit Court of torturing and killing one of their adopted children.

Michael Diehl also lives in Augusta County, serving a 41-year sentence for first-degree murder, abduction, child neglect and simple assault at Augusta Correctional Center.

It was a case that involved a somewhat nomadic, Christian-fundamentalist family - 17 kids in all - living in a school bus. There was a mentally disturbed boy with severe discipline problems. And there were ultimately fatal punishments inflicted on him in attempts to try to correct those problems.

"We did not know of the felony record until it was suggested that we check into it," said Valley Program for Aging chairman Jane C. Hickok in an e-mailed statement. "She had worked at (the agency) for a while and had been and is a valuable employee."

Even though the agency received more than $200,000 from five counties and five cities this year - $31,840 from Augusta County, $29,800 from Staunton and $25,500 from Waynesboro - it is a private organization with an annual budget of more than $3 million.

And although the localities have liaisons to the 15-member, board of directors, local governments can't control how their public fund contributions are spent, nor do the localities mandate standards in the hiring practices.

Sikes said that may change soon. "We're spending the taxpayer's dollar, so there has to be some degree of accountability that it's being used responsibly," he said. "(It) is a great organization that performs an invaluable service to the community, but they made a mistake in hiring Ms. Diehl."

Having previously worked in the adult-care industry for 10 years, Sikes has also served on the National Association of Counties human-services committee and chairs the National Association of Counties long-term health care subcommittee.

"It's not like I've come to this decision without having any background on the issue," he said. "I'm not saying Diehl doesn't deserve a second chance, just not in this field.

"You don't hire a sex offender to run your after-school program," he said. "This is the same kind of situation."

The agency's officials disagree.

When Carol Brunty, director of Staunton-Augusta Social Services, raised the issue in December, she received a brief letter from the agency saying that Diehl's performance, "which is working with older adults, has been excellent."

It said that: Diehl had not violated any personnel policies by not revealing her past during the interview and application process she had been forthright with details of her past and she had "conscientiously fulfilled" her legal responsibility for her crimes.

"Furthermore, in light of the agency's mission, which is to support independent living with dignity and quality, all of us should with integrity, bring this issue to rest," it said. "We have with integrity, brought this issue to rest."

After Staunton City Council member Rita Wilson went to the agency with questions about Diehl in August, a letter was sent to City Manager C. Robert Stripling. It detailed Diehl's education and how the agency first started working with her in 1998. She was an intern with ElderAlliance of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, completing her master's degree.

It said that Diehl would not be fired, and it advised against the spreading of "hurtful information" about her.

Virginia Beach attorney Paul E. Sutton II, who represented Diehl in her 1987 trial, agreed. He said that when he would tell his wife that Diehl was a "nice person" and that he was "very fond of her," Sutton's wife would look at him like he was crazy.

"But I know (Diehl), and she doesn't," he said. "It's beyond my belief that she could have done what she was convicted of doing. All of us are made up of good parts and bad parts - she has many good parts to her."

The history

The family's saga after leaving Post Falls, Idaho, in 1984 has been well documented on the pages of The Washington Post, the Virginian-Pilot and in dispatches from The Associated Press. Those reports are largely backed up by the Virginia Department of Corrections and from Diehl lawyer Sutton:

The Diehl family left Post Falls in a modified school bus for a two-year trip across the country to "spread the word of the Lord."

The family consisted of Michael, Karen and 17 children between the ages of two and 17. Four children were biological and 13 were adopted, many with physical disfigurements or mental illnesses.

The most troubled child was Dominick, who reportedly abused his siblings and urinated on family possessions. Sutton said that he was biological son of a Chicago prostitute and drug addict - a "difficult child" who was prone to setting fires and other destructive behaviors.

Another foster family had adopted Dominick and his brother. They kept the brother but sent Dominick back to the adoption agency.

The Diehl family arrived in Virginia Beach in April and stayed there for several months. They were featured on the Christian Broadcast Network's "The 700 Club" and often taught Bible classes in the various area parks where they camped.

In October, Karen Diehl called the Virginia Beach Rescue Squad saying that her son Andrew - Dominick was renamed Andrew as a reward for improved behavior - had fallen and hit his head.

Officials determined that the boy had been beaten, and after spending five days in a coma, he died. An autopsy revealed that he died of blunt trauma to the head that could not have occurred in a fall and that there was more than one blow.

During separate, simultaneous jury trials, the couple said that they disciplined Andrew by beating him with a stick, shackling him naked to the floor of the bus and forcing him to consume his own feces and urine.

Karen admitted to beating Andrew about the head with a stick, whereas Michael denied participating in the attack. Sutton said that it came as a surprise to everyone involved in the case that Michael was given the more severe sentence - "just one of the vagaries of a jury."

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, Karen was paroled in 1993. It's Augusta Correctional Center policy not to let convicted felons visit with prisoners, so it's not clear whether she could visit her husband, if she chose to, or if they are still married.

Attempts to contact Diehl were unsuccessful.

She began working at the Valley Program for Aging in 1999.

Sutton said that he hadn't spoken with Diehl in a long time but that he hoped she would be able to keep her job. He said many of her former adoptive children and all her biological children turned out fine, which was a testament to their mother.

In 1995, the Virginian-Pilot interviewed a then 17-year-old Daniel Diehl, who had just been accepted into the Air Force Academy.

The straight-A student said that he wasn't close with his biological parents anymore, but he credited them with giving him a mental toughness and broadening experiences.

He said that the other kids were not treated the same as Andrew. "It stereotyped the whole family. Me, I had normal spankings like any other little kid should have, but it was nothing abusive," he said. "I think they dealt with him so long, they just really forgot what they were supposed to be doing."

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I remember them

I remember this case and I am disgusted that this woman is actually free and able to potentially do this again. I was a news watching high school senior in '87 when this case was reported, and the facts that were brought to light about that boy's treatment were so inhumane you almost couldn't believe them. That young boy was tied up, forced to eat his own feces, and left in his own soiled clothing for days and weeks on end as punishment for his beavior. These are as pathetic a human beings as you will ever find, master's degree notwithstanding.

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