Ayn Helms, whose unsuccessful attempt to save her nephew from an abusive home triggered a statewide movement to reform child welfare laws, has died.
Helms, 31, died Thursday at Pasadena's Huntington Memorial Hospital of complications from lupus, a disease she had been fighting since high school.
Her condition had been deteriorating since April, shortly after the 2-year-old boy she had raised almost since birth was beaten to death in a home where she had warned he would be in danger.
The death of Lance Helms caused an uproar over the county's dependency court system, which oversees the welfare of thousands of children and which did not remove the toddler from his father's home despite warnings from Ayn (pronounced Ann) Helms and social workers that the boy was being abused. (The father's girlfriend, Eve Wingfield, was charged with beating Lance Helms to death.)
Reports about the boy's death led several state legislators to consider changing laws governing the care of abused and neglected children--perhaps even opening court hearings that have been conducted in secret. The county Board of Supervisors also proposed that a special panel of attorneys be appointed to ensure that wards of the court have strong advocates when their custody is being argued.
"This case brought public attention to a problem that has been recognized in the children's rights community for a long time--returning children to abusive homes," said Robin Podolsky, an aide to Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who has proposed a law that would make it harder for proven abusers to keep their children. "We think this case makes [the law] more necessary than ever."
Family members and friends said they believed that stress from her long struggle to keep custody of her nephew Lance contributed to Ayn's death. "'Had things happened different early in the case this might have turned out another way," said Kathleen Schormann, the children's social worker who handled the Helms case.
Ayn Helms was 28 and not planning on a family when her heroin-addicted brother, David, and his girlfriend, also an addict, had a child. Ayn took custody of the child and nursed him through his inherited drug addiction. As the boy grew older, he began to call his aunt "Mommy."
But a long and painful custody struggle had begun, one in which David Helms was granted increasing access to his son. With the state's laws favoring the restoration of blood families if they are deemed to be safe, the county dependency court returned Lance Helms to his father's North Hollywood home in January.
Ayn Helms visited Lance's grave at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale virtually every day until she was hospitalized last month. She will be buried next to him.
A memorial service is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. The family asks that donations be made to the Ayn and Lance Helms Fund for the prevention of child abuse, care of the Public Counsel in Los Angeles.