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Molina's skid row crusade

The supervisor used a baby's homicide as a rallying cry to toughen L.A. County's stand on homeless parents. But is poverty a crime?

January 30, 2008|Jack Leonard and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles county social workers said 3-month-old Mikeal Wah-hab looked well-fed, healthy and safe when they examined him at a skid row mission.

His father had brought him to the shelter, saying that his wife had abandoned them and taken their belongings. The man appeared eager and able to care for his son.

So after interviewing him, workers drove the father and child to Monterey Park and dropped them off at a cheap motel that had a contract to temporarily house the homeless.

Nearly three weeks later, concerned that the baby's father had stopped signing the daily guest book, a hotel maintenance man used a passkey to push open the door to Room 226. On the bed in the empty room lay baby Mikeal, covered with a beige blanket. The infant's body had started to decompose.

Mikeal's death -- ruled a homicide by coroner's officials -- drew no publicity when it occurred in November 2005. But it hit hard in the office of Supervisor Gloria Molina.

In the previous year, Molina had made the plight of skid row children a personal crusade and she had persuaded the board to send teams of social workers to find families who needed help. Now this, a dead baby.

She suspected the county was at least partially responsible for Mikeal's death. She demanded to know how social workers had failed to see signs of danger. For months, she grilled county managers about what went wrong.

The more Molina learned, the more galvanized she became.

"Here was a poor child who had nothing and yet had an opportunity to live and we were at its crossroads," Molina said. "We failed this child."

She used the death as a rallying cry within county offices. Her campaigning led to sweeping changes in the way social workers deal with homeless children, including a revamped squad of officials who work skid row.

In a government noted for its rigid chain of command, she intervened personally with social workers to lay out what she expected from them. And when new rules for the workers were drawn up, she offered to teach them herself.

Now, she is pressing sheriff's detectives and prosecutors to redouble their efforts to solve Mikeal's killing. "At every single level, in order to bring justice to this child, there has to be . . . accountability," she said.

Mikeal's mother, Tanya Stepney, had grown up in Seattle and became pregnant at 15. She had three more children in quick succession. She became addicted to crack cocaine.

Despite a worsening addiction, Stepney continued having children. Washington state's social workers stepped in as newborn after newborn tested positive for cocaine. By the time Mikeal was born, at least 10 of Stepney's children had been removed from her care.

Stepney met Mikeal's father, Mikeal Abdul Wah-hab Sr., about 2001. The California native had spent long periods of his life behind bars, serving time for grand theft, drug possession for sale and robbery.

Over the years, he was prescribed medication commonly used to treat mood disorders and had a history of hearing voices and having psychotic episodes, according to a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to talk about the case.

Stepney's mother, Linda Stepney, recalled Wah-hab knocking on her apartment door one day looking for her daughter. Linda said Wah-hab grabbed her daughter. Linda shouted at him to stop. Wah-hab whirled around.

"He hit me so hard that my face was shaking and my head was ringing," Linda said. Wah-hab dragged her daughter out of the building, she said.

Stepney's next phone call home was from California. In December 2002, she gave birth in Los Angeles to a baby boy, her and Wah-hab's first child together.

The newborn tested positive for cocaine, triggering an investigation by the county's Department of Children and Family Services. County social workers removed the baby and flew him to Washington state to live with one of Stepney's sisters.

Stepney and Wah-hab spent the next 2 1/2 years bouncing between jail, temporary lodging and the streets. Stepney was caught selling cocaine; Wah-hab did a short jail stint for burglary.

The couple briefly rented a home in Lynwood but left after the landlord filed a restraining order charging that Wah-hab had drawn a knife and threatened to kill him. At other times, they spent nights in homeless shelters.

Then came their second son, Mikeal, born at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

Nearly 12 weeks later, on Nov. 1, 2005, Wah-hab carried the baby into the Midnight Mission on skid row.

A supervisor for nearly 20 years, Molina has long had firsthand experience of the squalor on skid row, a small portion of which is in her district.

The county is responsible for a variety of services for the homeless, such as providing hotel vouchers and handing out welfare checks, and the crime-plagued streets are a few blocks from the county's headquarters on Temple Street. They are even closer to the garment district, where Molina -- an avid quilter -- often hunts for bargains on fabric.

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