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Danger Signs In Boy's Death: Bright present overrode dark past to permit his adoption


Danger Signs In Boy's Death: Bright present overrode dark past to permit his adoption

15 October 2006

Sukhjit Purewal

Monterey County Herald

Oct. 15--By 1999, Vicki Hulsey had control of her demons. She had a good job in Monterey, she was taking her medications to control her bipolar disorder and she attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly. The home she provided for her foster son, Jerry, was loving and secure. Hulsey so impressed friends and social workers that she was able to adopt the boy. But seven years later, when police officers arrived at Hulsey's home in Mesa, Ariz., they encountered what one officer described was a cold and lethargic woman. Her hands were bruised and she talked of suicide. Officers also found that her adopted 10-year-old son had been beaten to death. When a police officer asked if she had killed him, Hulsey responded, "Yeah, I guess so." Court and police files indicate that Hulsey eroded from a loving mother who overcame addiction and mental illness to a woman who now stands accused of killing her son. The Herald secured Hulsey's adoption files from Monterey County courts after filing a Freedom of Information Act petition. A Superior Court judge allowed The Herald to view copies. The files showed that social workers in Monterey County were aware of Hulsey's bipolar disorder and her past struggles with addiction before granting the adoption. In reports included in the record, Hulsey freely disclosed those struggles. But social workers also witnessed that Hulsey, who by then had been caring for Jerry as a foster parent, had been providing a loving home for the boy. She had taken Jerry to see doctors to separate webbed fingers on a hand that were joined together at birth.

"The main interest of Vicki Lynn Hulsey centers around the child," according to the petition from the Monterey County Department of Employment and Social Services, which recommended the adoption. "The atmosphere in the home is one of love and consideration. It is felt he receives sufficient love in addition to good training and care to ensure a positive and happy personality." Vicki Lynn Hulsey, 45, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of 10-year-old Jarod "Jerry" Hulsey. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office Model citizen| By all accounts, Hulsey had become a model citizen by the time she petitioned to take permanent responsibility for Jerry. She was up-front and honest with social workers about her past troubles. "I have gone to therapy on and off for years to deal with my anger, sexual abuse, physical and emotional abuse," Hulsey wrote as part her adoption application. "Today, I know how to state what I am feeling and to stand up for myself without raging."

During a home study -- a process in the adoption in which social workers spend time at home with the petitioner -- Hulsey even joked that she had been dealt a triple whammy: She told the social worker she was bipolar, an addict and a lesbian. In the end, her past problems were only considered "obstacles" by social workers. Those problems were mitigated by the positives. Jerry's biological mother, in prison on drug charges, had chose Hulsey as a caregiver. Hulsey was proactive in Jerry's medical care. She was stable. And she had plenty of support in the community. Friends and co-workers wrote letters of support for the adoption. "When she is with Jerry, I have watched the kindness and love she shows him," according to one letter-writer. "In return I have seen him respond in a very positive way to this love and nurturing." Jerry's adoption was completed April 6, 1999, according to county records. Elliott Robinson, director of the Department of Employment and Social Services, who was not with the county at the time Jerry was adopted, said he was troubled by what he read in the file. "Hindsight being 20-20, you go back and read the home study and you say, 'My God, there are these warning signs,' and those are real warning signs," Robinson said. "Wasn't there someone else who could care for this child?" said Christina Riehl, a staff attorney with the Children's Advocacy Institute of University of San Diego School of Law, who was not previously aware of the case.

No discrimination| Riehl said state law ensures that would-be parents wanting to adopt will not be discriminated against, which means that social workers are often forced to balance difficult factors when recommending adoptions. In Hulsey's case, social workers were forced to reconcile the present circumstances -- a thriving child in his foster mother's care and deeply personal character references -- with a troubled history. Under his charge, Robinson said, if it is clear that a prospective adoptive parent's mental issues might present a physical danger to a child, an adoption won't take place. That wasn't true in this case, he said. He stopped short of saying a mistake was made in Jerry's placement, adding that Hulsey's case file included so many positives that he could understand why the placement was recommended.

Still, Robinson added, "I can logically say I wish it hadn't been made." Little is known about Jerry's father. His name was marked out of the case file and Jerry's biological mother, Gheri Gribbins, doesn't like to talk about him. Like Gribbins, he had been in and out of jail for drug-related offenses and the two weren't together when Jerry was born June 24, 1995, according to the file. "He was more interested in drugs than being a father," she said in an interview with The Herald shortly after her son's death. Jerry was an infant when he first became known to the Department of Social Services. At nine months, he was found in a car with Gribbins, who had passed out from a heroin overdose. She was charged with child endangerment and ordered into treatment, according to the documentation in his case file. Gribbins didn't complete the treatment program, nor did she work very hard at being a mother, according to social workers' notes. For months, she passed Jerry around like a borrowed sweater to be cared for by her friends and fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members. Several, like Hulsey, were tender with him, others were not. While in the care of Gribbins' girlfriend, Jerry wound up in the hospital bruised and dehydrated. He hadn't been getting enough to eat, according to a social worker's chronology of events. So when Gribbins was being sent away to Chowchilla State Prison in December 1996 to serve a sentence for theft and violating parole, she told the court she wanted Hulsey and Hulsey's girlfriend to care for her son, according to a report in the case file. "I thought she would be a good mother to my son," Gribbins later said. Felt a connection| Hulsey's connection to Jerry was cemented even before he was born. It traced back to a sobriety meeting, where she met Gribbins, pregnant at the time, according to her adoption application. "Something inside of me felt drawn to her unborn child," she wrote. "It was very strange, nothing I had ever felt." To Hulsey, Jerry came before her four-year relationship with a woman, who eventually left the relationship. Hulsey acted quickly to become certified as a foster parent, while Jerry waited in a certified foster care home. In March 1997, he moved in with her. And when it became clear Jerry would not be reunited with Gribbins, Hulsey dived into the adoption process, according to the case file.

The file contains a wealth of reference letters from Hulsey's friends and colleagues at Monterey Peninsula College, where she worked as a utilities specialist. The letter portrayed her as a nurturing parent, committed employee -- a solid person. She served as the president of the college chapter of the California State Employees Association.

"Vicki's intense humanity has motivated her to give outstanding speeches to the college board, an intimidating prospect even to experienced educators," according to one of the letters. "She has championed the needs and services to students as the primary function of the college when administrators and faculty have forgotten that mission." Hulsey sought extra help for Jerry's delayed speech and for his hand, which was twice operated on at Stanford Children's Hospital to separate his fingers, social workers wrote. Dark past| In addition to the positive contributions in Jerry's life, Hulsey's case file contains hints of her dark past. As part of the adoption process, applicants are required to write about their personal history, a "life story."

In her life story, Hulsey was unflinching when describing her personal history and troubles. "Vicki's childhood was not happy," reads a line from a report prepared by a social worker in the case file.

Hulsey wrote that her parents had been physically abusive and she had a lot of anger toward them. She had been a substance abuser for nearly half her life. A failed engagement and an abortion led Hulsey to realize she was a lesbian, according to the file. Starved for structure, Hulsey joined the Navy, where she was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous.

But the service also forced her to lead an underground personal life. "I probably would have stayed in but had grown tired of looking over my shoulder every time I was at a gay nightclub or event," she wrote. Hulsey left the service in 1986 and settled in Monterey. She abused alcohol during the next four years before getting serious about sobriety. Hulsey talks about starting therapy "to seek help in controlling my anger." Therapy, she wrote, helped her confront her shame about her sexual feelings. It was there, too, that she claimed to have unblocked memories of sexual molestation by an uncle, according to the file. Bipolar disorder| She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1990, Hulsey said. She said she hated the idea that she needed medications, so she chose to limit her diet and to take amino acids rather than use prescribed medications. That changed, however, when she "saw her cat fly and realized she was hallucinating," according to the file. At the time the home study was written, Hulsey was taking Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and Mellaril, an anti-psychotic medication, as indicated in the social worker's report. In itself, bipolar disorder is not a barrier to adoption if the person is medicated, according to Robinson, the county social services director. But when taken with Hulsey's other issues, especially the issue of substance abuse, it should have presented a problem. Bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression, is characterized by severe mood swings, according to Dr. Robert Levin, a Monterey-based psychiatrist. Without medication, the periods can last weeks, he said. Depression born from the condition can leave one prostrate in bed. During untreated manic stages, it can lead to psychosis -- a distortion of reality leading to hallucinations, Levin said. When alcohol or drugs are mixed in, the conditions are further exacerbated. Doctor's evaluation|

Hulsey's adoption application included a note signed by her granting permission to Monterey County officials to talk to her psychiatrist. The only doctor's evaluation contained in the file is from Hulsey's medical doctor, who noted that she was in excellent physical condition. The evaluation also stated Hulsey did not have troubles with depression and mental health. Ultimately, Hulsey's life appeared to have deteriorated during the past several years. She took a medical retirement, for reasons not disclosed, from Monterey Peninsula College in 2003. A Mesa police report indicated that her father died a year later. She then moved to Mesa to be close to her mother. An autopsy by the Maricopa County medical examiner revealed that Jerry had cocaine in his system at the time of his death. The examination also revealed that at 4 feet 9 inches tall, he weighed 60 pounds. During the investigation into his death, Hulsey's mother told Mesa police her daughter had not been under the care of a psychiatrist for two years and had stopped taking the medications that controlled her mental disorder. Was doing well| Robinson said it would be easy to look at that home study report and say Jerry should never have been placed with Hulsey. But the troubling information did not come to light until Jerry had already been living with her in foster care for more than a year and was progressing, according to social workers' descriptions. "All indications were that Jerry was doing well," Robinson said. The home study was written after it became clear that Jerry would not be reunited with Gribbins, and Hulsey applied to become his adoptive parent. The county did contact Jerry's biological father, but he told officials he was not in a position to care for him, according to the case file. Social workers made a judgment call, deciding that Hulsey's personal references and care of Jerry were more telling of her ability to parent than was her past, he said. Robert Taniguichi, deputy director of the Department of Employment and Social Services, said Jerry's case is a reminder that it's impossible to predict what's going to happen after an adoption is completed. There was no way to know for certain that Hulsey was going to stop taking her medications. While it would be easy to blame the foster care system for placing Jerry with Hulsey, Robinson said what angers him is that nobody called his agency to report problems when it became evident Hulsey was on the brink. "When you look at the family-to-family mission," Robinson said, "part of that is recruiting community-based foster families, but it's also recruiting communities to be involved and to look out for the welfare of children." Gribbins said she doesn't hate Hulsey for what happened to Jerry. "I just wish she would have reached out," she said. ------ About this story Monterey County Superior Court Judge Larry Hayes agreed to allow The Herald to review Jerry Hulsey's juvenile case file under certain terms to protect the boy's family and those who provided information in confidence to the Department of Employment and Social Services during the adoption process, with all information identifying those people removed. Sukhjit Purewal can be reached at 646-4494 or spurewal@montereyherald.com.

2006 Oct 15