The KING 5 Investigators are exposing more problems in the case of "Poca," the 4-year-old child from Snohomish County who was abruptly taken from her foster parents more than a month ago. That was the only stable home the child had ever known.
In a continuing investigation, the KING 5 Investigators dig into a different problematic side of the state's child welfare system: the role of Poca's court-appointed advocate, Christopher Desmond, known as an Attorney Guardian ad Litem. He's charged with independently investigating what's going on in Poca's life and then giving his recommendations to the court on who should raise her. In essence, Desmond is the independent voice of the child in court.
Desmond has been paid by Snohomish County to be Poca's Guardian ad Litem for the last two-and-a-half years. He fought hard to get Poca removed from Dick and Amy Langley, the foster parents who raised her since the age of 4 months.
Desmond has made it clear that Poca needed to be taken away from her foster parents and stay away from them, forever.
In court last week, he told Superior Court Judge Anita Farris that he believes Poca hasn't been able to lead the best life possible with the Langleys.
"She hasn't thrived in their care, at all," said Desmond.
Poca came to the Langleys as a fragile infant who was born critically ill. She weighed just 2 pounds 4 ounces at birth. Doctors suspected she was exposed to drugs in utero, but couldn't prove it. The Langleys had a long track record of caring for special-needs and drug-affected foster children.
Over the years, Poca's been diagnosed with several special needs stemming from neurological problems.
Last month Poca was taken from the Langleys after the state and the Guardian ad Litem reported to the judge that the foster parents were unfit trouble-makers. They were accused of creating problems and false accusations about the birthparents in an effort to make sure she never went back to them.
"In my opinion, she should not go back to that environment, not in the near future or the far future," Desmond reported to the judge in open court.
When the KING 5 Investigators first spoke to Governor Christine Gregoire about the case she emphasized how pivotal this attorney was in Poca's removal.
"The independent attorney for the child (Chris Desmond) was independent in its recommendation to the court and the court, based on those facts, made its decision," said the governor.
Desmond recently lashed out at the foster parents in court. He said they must be lying or exaggerating Poca's special needs because she's doing remarkably better since being taken away.
"No (negative) behaviors are being seen," said Desmond. "I can only conclude that they are lying about her behaviors or the environment in their home is causing her behaviors."
Desmond also told the court he thinks the Langleys have lied to Poca's doctors over the years. Because of that, he said, her medical needs haven't been adequately met.
The KING 5 Investigators looked into that. If true, that would mean 11 different experts, including evaluators at Children's Hospital, therapists at Providence, and a school psychologist, who have issued detailed reports about Poca's needs, would have all misdiagnosed her.
One of those specialists is Dr. Stephen Glass, a noted pediatric neurologist who cared for Poca for 3 years. He says there is no way all those experts could have been snowed by the foster parents year after year.
"This is a very complex child who on the surface may cosmetically appear normal but at the same time her developmental needs are extensive and she has prospered because of what this family (the Langleys) has provided," said Dr. Glass.
KING 5 also found Desmond didn't call Poca's pediatrician, her pre-school teachers, or her neurologist before recommending she be taken from the Langleys. Training literature for Guardians ad Litem says child advocates should interview people with pertinent information about the child, including teachers and doctors, to make the best recommendation to the judge possible. Dr. Glass was shocked he never got a call.
"I think the process of making this decision was categorically irresponsible," said Glass.
To get a full picture of a foster child like Poca, Guardians ad Litem are trained to "meet with the child at least once a month, where practical."
The Langleys say in 30 months, Desmond visited Poca in their home just four times. He declined to comment to KING 5 about his work, citing confidentiality laws.
"He (Desmond) hasn't spent any quality time with us. He hasn't sat down with us and visited with us and talked with us about any of his concerns," said foster parent Amy Langley.
Desmond told the judge recently that even though Poca has called the Langleys mom and dad for most of her life, she's showing no problems after being taken from them. Acclaimed child attachment expert Dr. Susan Spieker from the University of Washington says that is a very unlikely scenario.
"There's no way it is not a traumatic experience," said Spieker.
Dr. Spieker also told KING 5 that based on her 30 years of research, a lack of emotion is a bad sign. It could mean the child is shutting down psychologically.
"It's inevitable that they (children removed from parent figures) would have challenging behaviors. In fact, I would say it might be a good sign (to act out). If they are so traumatized by the experience of multiple separations, that they're totally withdrawn and are not expressing negative emotions, then maybe we should be really worried," said Spieker.
Poca wasn't moved to her birthparents when taken away from the Langleys. She was put into the home of family friends of the biological parents, who are not licensed foster parents. Poca had met them just a few times before the transition.
After KING 5 started asking questions, the Department of Social and Health Services hired an outside agency to evaluate the Langleys in an "Adoption Home Study" to see if Poca should ever go back to them.
After four years, DSHS is finally pursuing the legal means to sever the parental rights of Poca's parents permanently, which would mean she would be legally free to be adopted. A court hearing to start that process was supposed to happen on Friday, but has now been postponed for two weeks.
The vast majority of Guardians ad Litem in Snohomish County are trained volunteers (VGALS), who report to a case manager. Attorney Guardians ad Litem, like Chris Desmond on the other hand, are paid with taxpayer dollars and don't report to any superior.