After the child was placed with strangers, his family fought the system on two fronts
Shortly before Christmas of 2019, Cheryl Beaver loaded her 6-year-old grandson Keyon onto the school bus, as she did each weekday morning. Beaver, who had cared for the first-grader since he was a baby, was leaving Seattle to attend a niece’s graduation. In her place, she had arranged for her adult son to pick Keyon up from his after-school program.
But when the boy’s uncle arrived later that day, Keyon was gone. In a panic, Beaver and his mom, Salina Simpson, made frantic calls to try and find him.
It was hours before they were able to confirm that Keyon was safe, but had been taken into foster care.
“I felt like they kidnapped my son,” Simpson said. “I didn’t know what was going on — they just snatched him up.”
Over the next three weeks, as Beaver tried to regain custody of her grandson, Keyon cycled through three foster homes, finally landing with a white family. Keyon, who is Black, had his braids cut off along the way, and he didn’t make it home for Christmas.
It was nearly a year before Keyon left foster care, due to a rare and unexpected ruling in his mother’s case before the dependency courts. Simpson had lost all custody rights after she was found to have neglected Keyon due to her drug addiction. But she successfully overturned her “termination of parent rights” order, undoing the “civil death penalty” of child welfare cases.
The young boy’s ordeal last year is now on review before the Washington Supreme Court, whose ruling legal advocates say could be critical to the future of relative’s rights in foster care placement decisions, and address racial bias in the child welfare system.
Vivek Sankaran, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who reviewed the case said it could be “persuasive” on these important matters. “Child welfare law is still overall in its infancy and I think states are looking at other states for guidance,” he said.
Keyon’s lawyer Jennifer Winkler wrote in her petition for the high court review on its significance for racial equity: “The circumstances in this case are troubling, and they are part of a larger pattern of fragmentation of Black families.”
The Washington Supreme Court did not indicate a reason for accepting the case, after the appeals court for the Seattle area denied to hear it. But the highest state court hears cases when they present substantial public interest issues that are likely to reoccur, even if the underlying issues are moot. In Keyon’s case, his mom regained custody rights and he has gone home to live with her.
Last summer’s protests over racial injustice may have played a role in the court’s rare acceptance of a case the lower courts had not heard, some observers said. In June, the state Supreme Court issued a letter in response to George Floyd’s killing that recognized institutions are responsible for continued racism and that “the legal community must recognize that we all bear responsibility.”
After that letter was sent, “we’ve noticed an uptick in cases that bring race to the forefront,” said Ali Hohman, director of legal services at the Washington Defender Association.
Keyon’s case involves a child removed from Black relatives, in a dependency case where social workers were trying to place him for adoption with a prospective white family, and race has been specifically addressed in the proceedings.
According to publicly available King County court records, Keyon’s involvement in the child welfare system began several years ago because his mother struggled with cocaine addiction. Simpson has a large, close-knit family though, so when Keyon was 1, he was placed in her cousin Beaver’s care while she entered an in-patient drug treatment program. Beaver is an early childhood educator at Wellspring Family Services, where she’s worked for nearly two decades. Keyon calls her “Grandma.”
Beaver’s adult son, whose daughter is the same age and bonded to Keyon, was also frequently around to help. Keyon’s great aunt Barbara Hobson, who is state-licensed to provide health care to vulnerable adults and had previously passed several background checks, lives nearby and also helped care for him. Hobson’s grandson, who is the same age as Keyon, lives with her and she had obtained a favorable home study to bring him into her home.
In March 2019, Simpson’s attorney had advised her that she was unlikely to be successful in a trial, and if she fought back in court, risked losing all rights to ever see her child again. Fearing that outcome, Simpson waived her right to a trial. She opted instead to have her parental rights terminated, and would have ongoing contact with her son through an open adoption agreement with Beaver.
The decision was tough for her, she said, but she was glad, “he’d still be in the family.”
Keyon had thrived in his extended family’s care for nearly six years, his lawyers said, before the Department of Children Youth and Families took him into foster care in December 2019. The state and the boy’s court appointed special advocate initially justified Keyon’s removal because they believed Beaver would be gone for six days when she left for the graduation, leaving him to be “cared for by unapproved persons for an extended period of time,” according to court documents.
Now that Keyon had been removed from his grandmother’s custody, the terms of the agreement with Simpson — that she had lost custody but could still visit — were no longer valid.
Lawyers who represented the boy’s court-appointed advocate declined to be interviewed, as did the department’s lawyers, citing pending litigation. Keyon’s lawyer also declined to be interviewed.
After Keyon was removed from Beaver’s home, his lawyer and his family asked a trial court to allow him to return. But they faced opposition at a Dec. 24, 2019, hearing, where the state presented additional arguments that Beaver and Hobson’s homes were unsafe because of people they associated with.
The child welfare agency also said that Keyon had been communicating and visiting with Simpson, who they argued had lost the right to visit or speak to him.
At the Christmas Eve hearing, the state maintained that Keyon needed “permanency and stability” but that an adoptive placement couldn’t be found among his family members. Beaver’s actions, lawyers for the child welfare agency argued, left Keyon in legal limbo because she didn’t follow through, changed her mind, or withdrew applications for the adoption, prompting the need to focus on finding the boy a “forever home.” Social workers had identified two licensed foster families interested in adoption.
Beaver and Hobson, a military veteran and bus driver for King County Metro who worked early mornings, were initially reluctant to adopt Keyon because of their work situations. Also, they hoped his biological mother would recover so that she could regain custody. But their work situations changed, and at the Dec. 24 hearing, Hobson told the court she wanted to make adoption work and had already met many of the requirements, aside from a home study.
At the time of the hearing, Keyon had been moved from a “respite” foster home, to his first prospective family. That family quickly decided it wasn’t an appropriate fit, and lawyers told the court that the foster parents wanted Keyon to leave their home.
With the trial judge’s backing, the state then placed Keyon with the second foster family they’d vetted for his adoption. That family was Keyon’s third household since his removal. He spent Christmas with strangers.
“Everything has always been about family, all the holidays,” said Beaver, who goes by Cheryl though her legal name in court documents is Merrion. “It was so sad for all of us.”
Although the children’s services department prioritizes placing children with family members and reuniting them with their parents, Shrounda Selivanoff, the Children’s Home Society of Washington’s director of public policy, said that in her recent experience the agency pushed adoption rather than permanent guardianship with relatives.
“A parent may not be doing well today, but they may be doing well in five or 10 years down the line,” she said. “Why should we close the door to that?”
The beginning of 2020 was rough for Keyon and his family. He had regularly attended the Martin Luther King Jr. march in Central Seattle every January, but while in foster care he was not permitted to attend, his lawyer reported to the court. His seventh birthday was in February and Beaver tried to organize a party, but social workers insisted it take place in a government office. The child welfare agency did not invite his mother, though Beaver told her about the event anyway and she attended.
In March, Keyon and his family suffered an additional setback. The trial court judge again denied his motion to be returned to either Beaver or Hobson’s care, both of whom at that point sought to adopt him and had taken steps toward meeting the legal requirements. At issue for the judge, who sided with the state, was Keyon’s stability and his family’s lack of a state-conducted home study.
Hobson was going through the home study evaluation with the children’s services department, but the process was maddeningly slow. Beaver had hired an independent evaluator to ready her home, but it had not passed muster and she couldn’t get a state home study until Hobson’s was completed. Beaver said it seemed like “they were playing games.”
Meanwhile, the trial court judge warned that if Keyon went back to either Beaver or Hobson and their subsequent adoptive home studies had a problem, "Keyon would have to move again.”
Frustrated, Keyon’s lawyers turned to the court of appeals for relief. A group of legal rights organizations, including the Washington Defender Association, the NAACP, and the ACLU, filed a friend of the court brief that summer, addressing the case's racial aspects.
"Forced family separation — of which the foster care system is the most recent iteration — is a relic of slavery, wherein the State used the courts to rip Black families apart and ignored their pleas of reunification," the brief stated.
The lawyers argued that the trial court erred by failing to follow the state's laws granting a preference for children to remain with extended family above all other placements. They also said the decision substantially altered the status quo "because placement of K.W. into licensed care instead of with his loving Black family reflects anti-Black bias and constitutes an impermissible disregard for the life of this young Black child and his right to be raised within his own family."
The Defender Association's Hohman said what happened to Keyon is “a travesty.” The department moved "a child without an immediate safety threat, and we know race played a role."
Ultimately, the appeals court denied the motion for review, prompting the petition to the Washington State Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Keyon's mother, Simpson, had sought to have her termination of parental rights decision overturned — the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary. Birth parents who’ve lost children to foster care so rarely succeed in such efforts that the Home Society’s Selivanoff said in 10 years of practice, she'd never seen or heard of a parent succeeding.
But Simpson had beaten her addiction and, now 36, has remained so for more than two years. She earned a high school diploma with the help of a tutor, and went through a training program that helps other parents who have open dependency cases.
In August 2020, the judge ruled in Simpson's favor, saying her lawyer failed to provide effective assistance. The judge found Simpson, who had learning disabilities and had dropped out of school in 10th grade, "truly did not know the effect of the Relinquishment of Custody document when she signed it."
“I cried,” Simpson said of that ruling. “I was happy and so excited. I got on my knees and prayed.”
In September, Keyon was reunited with his mother and his sisters. Simpson’s custody case is nearly closed, so the Supreme Court's consideration won't have any effect on Keyon's future placement — he's staying with his mom.
But the Supreme Court will now examine if the trial court committed an error in taking Keyon away from his relative, in favor of what lawyers described as "a white, two-parent licensed foster care placement."
Secretary Ross Hunter, the head of the Department of Children Youth and Families, has recognized the structural racism that has afflicted his agency and led to the overrepresentation of children of color in foster care. Keyon's lawyer's brief quotes Hunter as saying, "We have to call this problem out and focus on our everyday actions that perpetuate it."
The repercussions of a stint in foster care are not easily overcome. These days, Simpson says Keyon is mostly doing well, and is happy to be back with his family. A typical 8-year-old, he likes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, math, and his mother's baked chicken.
But Simpson said Keyon is also clingier than he used to be, and doesn't like to stay long at other people's houses. Sometimes he gets stomach aches from anxiety and worries that he'll be forced to leave home again.
The year-long process took a toll on the 57-year-old Beaver as well. "I lost over 100 pounds," she said. "I have bad dreams and I'm nervous."
Nevertheless, she's looking forward to a family celebration picnic at their usual spot in a Central District park. She expects around 30 people to gather, eat soul food, pray together, and "sit around and talk, reminiscing about the past and planning for the future."