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‘Hansel and Gretel’ in LA County

The stories of children with open investigations by the Department of Children and Family Services remind me of fairy tales from another dark time.

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Illustration by Alexander Zick of Hansel and Gretel, nineteenth century

Over the last five years, I’ve studied all of the child fatalities in Los Angeles County with open Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigations. To some, this research might seem grim, but I’ve found comfort in unpacking these redacted files. The files trickle in from my public records requests, five or ten at a time. I spend hours identifying the blacked-out information. I start by checking the child’s age and date of death in one of these case files against a Los Angeles Times homicide report. Then I search the Internet for other clues, the dark boxes slowly revealing some of the facts of their story.

Doubtless, one of the things that draws me to the files is the short spell I spent in the child welfare system. It’s a club you join and never leave. There is no loneliness like the loneliness of being taken from your mother. I’m forty-three now and grieve that loss again and again.

But I’m also drawn to the data, and their blanks and gaps. The children’s lives reduced to redacted forms that tell the story from a limited point of view, a series of unreliable narrators: the social worker, the coroner, the police officer. The child is there somewhere in the traces; I search for her in the white space and behind the darkened box—where a name once was.

At dawn, the wooden floorboards are cool against my feet. In the early morning hours, the sky is pink as rose water. It’s like staying up all night playing a game of Clue—minus the fun. If I can find a match with enough details from corroborating sources, I feel I have put the child back in the story. Their stories remind me of fairy tales from another dark time.

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The tale of “Hansel and Gretel” is thought to have its origins in the Great Famine of 1315–1317. Crop failure led to starvation. This hit Europe particularly hard since food was already scarce due to climate change. As a result, some elderly people chose to starve to death in hopes that whatever meager supplies were thereby saved would allow younger people to live. Others chose cannibalism. Mothers ate their children.

In the version of the story told by the Brothers Grimm, it was a plague, not a famine, that drove Hansel and Gretel’s parents to abandon their children in the woods. On the way into the forest, Hansel left a trail of breadcrumbs to follow home, but birds ate the crumbs and so the children wandered aimlessly. The brother and sister walked through the night and all the next day, but they could not find their way out of the woods. By then, they were terribly hungry, for they had eaten only a few small berries that were growing on the ground. And because they were so tired that their legs would no longer carry them, they lay down under a tree and fell asleep. The third morning since they had left their house, they started walking again but managed only to go deeper and deeper into the woods. If help did not come soon, they would perish.

Then they came upon a cottage covered in candy.

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I often think of foster care as the darkest of fairy tales. A tale riddled with orphans and street urchins. This story begins with parens patriae, a doctrine from the time of King Edward I of England that appointed the monarch the “parent of the land.” It was an expression of the royal prerogative. According to Joseph Chitty, an English lawyer, and one of the earliest authors on English law, in A Treatise on the Law of the Prerogatives of the Crown:

The king is in legal contemplation the guardian of his people; and in that amiable capacity is entitled, (or rather it is his Majesty’s duty, in return for the allegiance paid him) to take care of his subjects, as are legally unable, on account of mental incapacity, whether it proceed from first nonage [children]: second, idiocy: or third, lunacy: to take proper care of themselves and their property. 

Talk of lords and kings reminds me of my gilded, leather-bound book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It was the shiniest thing in the apartment I shared with my mom. We’d have instant coffee with powdered milk, and then I’d take the book down off the shelf and finger the cover. “Look, it’s real gold,” I’d say, showing any visiting playmate. 

What began as a lordly duty to protect eventually extended beyond caring for the lame, beyond the untended child. In modern times, it became just one more way for someone to make a profit. It’s the present-day interpretation of parens patriae that has made possible government contracts with private corporations like Maximus Inc. that charge for services rendered in the foster care of young people. Maximus Inc., whose motto is “Helping government serve the people,” is a publicly traded company specializing in business process outsourcing for US government agencies in the fields of health and human services. It is often contracted to provide Americans with access to vital programs. Under the banner of fiscal reform, the privatization of foster care has been a longtime strategy of fiscally conservative policymakers across the country. The Child Welfare Privatization Initiatives Project, an effort of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation Office within the United States Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 2006 to assist state and local governments with privatizing public social services.

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Over the past three decades, many states have privatized at least part of their foster care systems; at least seven—Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—have privatized theirs completely. Proponents claim a need for increased efficiency and cost savings.

Here in Los Angeles, support services offered through a program known as Voluntary Family Maintenance are contracted out to private agencies (in this case, private nonprofits). The idea behind Voluntary Family Maintenance is to help prevent parents from losing custody of their children because of neglect driven by poverty. Instead of subjecting families to strict supervision from licensed social workers, these programs typically connect parents with support services and resources such as bus tokens or nutrition classes, which are often run by community organizations or private nonprofits.

Families are not required to participate in these programs—their involvement is voluntary—and there is often little or no oversight from licensed social workers. For the fifty-two cases involving families enrolled in the program that I have reviewed, the results have been fatal. The reason these families were pushed into the program was ostensibly poverty, yet the program meant to address child welfare is premised on cutting costs.

What was once regarded as the state’s responsibility has been outsourced, and what is in the individual’s best interest is less important than what’s in the best interest of the economy. And then there’s just plain grift: in 2007, Maximus was obliged to make $30.5 million in restitution for filing false claims, which had caused scarce Medicaid dollars to be spent for services that were never provided to foster youth in the District of Colombia. Yet, four years later, Maximus was awarded a $21 million child welfare contract to administer foster care and adoption assistance to the state of Wisconsin. The company reported $2.4 billion in revenue in 2018. If privatized foster care is the new interpretation of parens patriae, the state, in place of the king, has turned out to be a very negligent parent.

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Olivia Vanclief walking past the projected image of her daughter, Viola, after testifying for the prosecution against Kiana Barker, who faces a murder charge for the two-year-old’s death, October 10, 2010; Viola was placed with Barker after she was taken from Olivia by United Care, a private foster care agency

As I write this, August 2020, there’s been a reported uptick in domestic violence and a decrease in calls to the child abuse hotline. According to federal data, teachers were responsible for 21 percent of the 4.3 million referrals made in 2018. Even with social worker intervention, over the course of the last decade, 182 Los Angeles children who were killed by their caregivers were known to the county’s child welfare system. Yet budget restrictions to DCFS means social workers will be conducting fewer investigations. 

In June, Maximus expanded their services to include contact tracing, identifying people who may have come into contact with anyone known to be infected with Covid-19. Ideally, a public health worker, overseen by an epidemiologist, performs this work. Maximus has opened up call centers and hired people to phone bank at the minimum wage rate. Florida taxpayers will be paying Maximus more than $6.2 million before the end of the fiscal year for contact tracing. Maximus also has a $29 million contract with the state of Indiana, and a $10 million, six-month contract with Pima, Arizona, with multiple extension options in three-month increments to allow the county to reduce or expand efforts based on need.

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In one case file that has haunted me, the witch’s cottage was a corner store, Numero Uno Market at the intersection of East 23rd and South San Pedro Ave in South Los Angeles. The store’s surveillance cameras showed footage of a woman, her infant, and a young girl walking the sidewalk the evening of October 18, 2017.

The film is grainy; there’s a bright light beaming from the streetlamp. They are all three naked, covered in a white substance. The mother breastfeeding her baby, hand in hand with her daughter. She’s testing car doors to see if they’re unlocked. They already look like ghosts. I imagine them, one of them with a fever, the other two follow, in and out of the camera’s frame, like riding an escalator up and down into darkness. She tap-tap-taps on the window of the corner store. “They’re naked,” one of the guys at the counter says. This image of them—a woman and two girls, seeking shelter, the trail of powder: their breadcrumbs.

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It was 1:44 AM when someone reported to the police the sounds of a woman screaming. The LAPD showed up within the hour. The three of them, aged twenty-six, seven, and one month, were discovered in the lot behind the Numero Uno Market.

The baby, Kamille Brewster Hickman, was found in the front of a car wrapped in a sheet. She was covered in the white powder, was pulseless, apneic, and had dried blood in her nostrils; her lips and tongue showed signs of cyanosis, the bluish discoloration that happens, usually around the lips and fingertips, because of a lack of oxygen in the blood. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene at 2:30 AM.

The mother, Jasmine, and the seven-year-old, Jaliya, were on the ground nearby; Jaliya unconscious at Jasmine’s feet. They were both transported to the hospital. There, after she came to, Jasmine made statements that her house was haunted, that dead people were screaming at her, that the children would not stop screaming, and that God said that she would go to heaven and live in a mansion. She also reported that she had swallowed a necklace, which was confirmed by an X-ray. Asked further questions, she said, “I just want to die.”

The following morning, Jaliya was pronounced dead due to organ failure. Further details of the young girls’ deaths are still unclear, but they have been charged as homicides: Jasmine Hickman was arrested for the murder of the two girls.

A hazmat crew, two men in white cotton onesies, lime rubber boots, and black armored vests, had also responded to the scene—called because of the white powder. This, they determined to be “some type of baby product.” This fact troubled me. I later learned that the substance was a mixture of baby powder and baby formula.

At the time I was reporting on another case, the murder of a young boy who was tortured and kept in a cabinet, and I asked my colleague, a reporter on the city news desk, if she’d heard about the case of the naked woman and her two daughters and the powder. She’s smart, has been at this a long time, comes to court with a paperback romance, a yellow steno pad, and a pen. Analog. At that point, I’d been counting the bodies of dead babies for two years.

“No, haven’t heard about it,” she said.

I later found out that the mother, Jasmine, had been adopted by the Hickmans, her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Darren, when she was nine years old. They already had six children of their own in the house. Darren Hickman told the press, “We didn’t have much money but we had a lot of love.” According to the Hickmans, Jasmine had a mental health diagnosis of some sort but was not taking her medication. They explained that, in the past, she would have breakthrough episodes after breakups with boyfriends. Jasmine had twice attempted suicide. “She had a lot of issues,” said Barbara Hickman, “you know, a lot of anger also, because she was dealt a bad hand.”

I imagine teenage Jasmine sent home from school for fighting or having a hard time keeping a job. Young Jasmine, unable to trust people, turning them away, unable to find anyone to love her the way she wanted them to—the demanding, needy way that children require. In photos of her at that age, despite the Hickmans’ description of her, Jasmine looks pristine and pretty, like a cheerleader: her edges perfectly laid, hair done, lips glossed, eyelashes mascaraed.

In 2010, Jasmine gave birth to a baby girl, Jaliya. Jasmine was loving, but she struggled with the responsibilities of motherhood: getting a job, going to school, providing consistent care. The Hickmans stepped in and agreed, informally, to raise Jaliya. Jasmine tried to pursue a career in cosmetology but wound up getting a job working at the Ralph’s Market, downtown.

She got pregnant again and, in September of 2017, her second child, Kamille, was born. This time, she kept custody and seemed to maintain a relationship with Kamille’s father, though it was on-again, off-again. According to one of her roommates, though, Jasmine began acting strangely very soon after Kamille was born.

On Sunday, October 15, Jasmine joined her aunt and uncle in church. The next morning, Jasmine said to them that God had told her that her time was up. She told the Hickmans to say their goodbyes and took Jaliya with her. The Hickmans called the police and begged them to intervene. They were advised that since they were not Jaliya’s legal guardians, there was nothing the police could do.

At the time, Jasmine was renting a room in a house around the corner from the Numero Uno Market. Bringing Jaliya back to her place, Jasmine demanded that everyone then living there stop smoking because Jaliya suffered from asthma. One roommate asked, “Why did you bring her here when you know we smoke?” Jasmine ignored this.

Early on October 18, Jasmine and Kamille’s father were spotted shopping at the Empire Liquor store. Sunny Chung, the owner, said that the father told her that he was going to look for an apartment. He said he was going to move out of the neighborhood.  

Jasmine also spoke to Chung, introducing Jaliya as her daughter. Jasmine returned to the store that evening, looking disheveled. She was barefoot and said she was upset with Jaliya, who had been up all night crying. Chung said Jasmine told her, “She drive me crazy.” Chung went on to describe her appearance that night: “She don’t even comb her hair.” This was strange, Chung felt, considering that Jasmine was always so put together.

Later that same day, someone called the county’s Department of Children and Family Services child abuse hotline to report that Jasmine was opening doors and slamming them shut for no apparent reason and stomping around the house. The caller reported that Jasmine had brought Jaliya to the residence even though she did not normally care for her. The caller said they were concerned for the welfare of both children, but especially Kamille because of her young age.

DCFS did not follow up on this call. The report stated that the allegations did not meet the criteria for an investigation. The report was recorded at 9:52 PM on October 18.

Minutes earlier, at 9:45 PM, a call was made reporting an assault with a deadly weapon. When police arrived at Jasmine’s place, they found her room empty but covered in the white powdery substance. There has been speculation that there had been a domestic dispute with her boyfriend, from which she had fled.

Four hours later, their bodies were discovered behind the Numero Uno Market.

Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Numero Uno Market in South Los Angeles, April 24, 2012

Googling Jaliya Hickman, I found a GoFundMe for her funeral. The appeal has raised $2,308 of its $20,000 goal. Jasmine Hickman’s next hearing is set for October 1, 2020. She awaits her court date at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, California; a place of women who fashion makeup out of the black ink on newspapers, women who exercise by pacing back and forth in their cells, women who line up for pills and showers and food, women who write home or kite notes to one another inside, and women who weave blankets out of scraps of fabric. For a time, the inmates there formed a choir; Bunny and Flaca and Baby Girl and Giggles and Majesty and Asia all at once sounding like angels. This is also the place of women who, nine months pregnant, are driven to the local county hospital, where they push hard, let go, and return to their unit. And this is the place of women who sit in their cells by themselves and think about dying.

Things just trigger her,” said Barbara Hickman about Jasmine’s fragile mental health. “If Jasmine would have come and talked with me, or even just brought the baby over, if it was all too much, she could have just left Kamille. She could have left the baby with me.” Jaliya’s room sits empty, a constant, unbearable reminder.

*

In “Hansel and Gretel,” the witch intends to fatten the children with her candy-coated cottage before eating them. But the girl outwits the villain and kills her. The brother and sister then escape with their lives and return home with a treasure. The mother (in later versions, the evil stepmother) dies at the same moment the children kill the witch, suggesting that they are in fact the same woman. As with the child welfare system, the thing sent to save us becomes our demise.

My files weave their tales into a tapestry that shows how child death has become a normal consequence of abuse in this city. If I were a sorcerer with a sword, I would use it to cut down the king in the castle, and the stepmother, and the witch in the cottage, and that negligent caseworker. I would cut this world free from the broken system of bad rules and high demands and people who profit off sorrow. I would return us to the ending of “Hansel and Gretel”:

Now all their cares were at an end, and they lived happily together. My tale is done, A mouse has run. And whoever catches it can make for himself from it a large, large fur cap.

The fairy-tale version of this story is that the police would have responded to the Hickmans’ call. Or even better, the county would have been trained in how to deal with mental illness, and Jasmine would have received affordable mental healthcare. In the fairy-tale version, the DCFS would have responded to the roommate’s call, and social workers would have returned Jaliya and her sister to the Hickmans. In the fairy tale, mothers everywhere would have access to universal childcare. In the fairy tale, law enforcement and DCFS workers would have the training and resources to enable them to actually uphold the safety and well-being of children at risk. In the fairy tale, Jaliya and Kamille would be sound asleep, snuggled in bed.

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