WHITTIER — "There's nothing more valuable than your babies. Nothing comes close. Not money. Not boyfriends. Not jobs. Not life. When you lose your kids you're ready to blow your brains out."
Elene Humlen, mother of two children.
In early May, Elene Humlen's son, Christopher, 9, and daughter, Jennifer, 19 months, were taken from her.
A teacher spotted a bruise on Christopher's nose and redness around one eye and sent him to the school nurse. A county social worker was called in, and later sheriff's deputies were dispatched to the campus. Within an hour they had examined the boy and decided he may have been abused.
When Humlen's sister, who was baby-sitting Jennifer, went to Laurel School with the infant to find out why Christopher had not come home, deputies told her the children were being placed in protective custody.
Minutes later, Humlen's sister watched in disbelief as deputies drove away with the children.
It was eight days before the children were returned to Humlen, and another two months before a Los Angeles County Juvenile Court referee dismissed attempts by authorities to gain visitation rights to periodically inspect the children and her home.
Although never formally charged with a crime, Humlen says she has been sentenced to a "lifetime of second-guessing" by friends, business associates and strangers who will hear her story and wonder if she abused her blond, blue-eyed son.
"It would have been easier to be accused of murder," said Humlen, a longtime Whittier resident who has gone against the wishes of her attorney and friends and made her story public. "At least people would still talk to me."
Humlen, 28, believes she is one of a growing number of parents who have been caught up in a sweep by overeager authorities searching for child molesters and abusers. Triggered in recent years by tougher child abuse reporting laws and a string gf celebrated cases, Humlen believes hundreds of people are being falsely accused of assaulting children. Because of greater public awareness--and fear--about child abuse, Humlen contends suspected offenders often are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence--an ordeal that can cost thousands of dollars and leave lifelong emotional scars.
But the authorities charged with the care and welfare of children say they are under tremendous pressure to err on the side of caution. Placing a child in protective custody, even for a short period, is sometimes the only way social workers believe they can determine whether a child is in danger at home.
Teachers, doctors, preschool operators and others are also under increasing pressure to report suspected child abuse. If they fail to alert authorities, they can be fined or even jailed.
"Child abuse is the Red Scare of the '80s," said Humlen, who has become an outspoken member of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), a nationwide coalition formed a year ago to support those who have been accused of child abuse or molestation crimes.
"Everyday, normal people are getting swept up in this hysteria," she said. "They are losing their kids without a fair hearing. Supposedly, this can't happen in a free country."
Although the case against Humlen was dismissed, records and sources in the county Department of Children's Services indicate her children were appropriately detained.
When Christopher was examined at school, the sheriff's deputies observed "that both his eyes were blackened; the right eye slightly swollen with a bruise around the socket . . . the left eye swollen with a welt-like mark" on his cheek, according to court documents.
Social worker Carmen Navarro agreed in her report, saying the injuries would not normally occur "except as the result of unreasonable and neglectful acts by the minor's mother."
Humlen, who differs with authorities over the extent and nature of the injuries, said Christopher was injured while playing ball with some neighbor boys on Monday afternoon, May 6.
The boys were tossing a tennis ball against a "pitch-back," an aluminium-framed net that automatically returns the ball to the thrower. When Christopher failed to get his mitt up in time, Humlen said, the ball struck him "right between the eyes," leaving a red mark on his nose and the side of one eye.
"It didn't hurt much and there was no bleeding," Humlen said, "so instead of being a sissy in front of his friends, he did not come in to the house crying that he was hurt. I was not aware of any injury."
The mark on Christopher's cheek, Humlen said, was not a welt, but a small scratch caused by Jennifer when the two children were playing. The next day at school, Christopher's teacher saw the marks on his face.
When Navarro and the deputies questioned Christopher about his facial injuries and home life, his edgy, mumbled responses about the accident raised doubts about the boy's story. As a result, Navarro wrote in her report: