LANCASTER – A local family is calling for a full investigation into the practices of a juvenile court referee, whom they said was malicious and vindictive in removing a child from their home.
Palmdale business owner Kathy Keith, and her husband John Keith, are fighting for permanent custody of their 8-year-old niece. They said the child thrived in their home for three years, before she was removed without cause by juvenile court referee Valerie Skeba.
“Children are removed from their home if they are abused. What do you do when a judge abuses the child?” Kathy Keith said.
Skeba abused her power by removing the child from their home against the recommendations of the Department of Children and Family Services and a Court Appointed Special Advocate, the Keiths claim.
Backed by the local chapter of the NAACP and dozens of supporters, the Keiths held an emotional press conference Thursday outside of the Alfred J. McCourtney Juvenile Justice Center in Lancaster to call attention to the case and to demand a full investigation into Skeba’s conduct.
“We made sure that this child was well taken care of and for the judge to belittle us and make us out as unfit parents is not right,” said John Keith. “I think that justice needs to be served properly.
The Keiths said they began caring for their niece about three years ago, because her mother, who is Kathy Keith’s sister, was struggling with an addiction and headed down the wrong path.
When the child came to their home, she was asthmatic and overweight with major emotional challenges, Kathy Keith said. Over time, the child developed better eating habits, she was doing better in school and she had never missed a doctor’s appointment, Kathy Keith said. This progress prompted DCFS to recommend that the child be placed with them permanently, Kathy Keith said.
The Keiths claim they went above and beyond the court’s orders; still, Skeba accused them of being unfit guardians at their last court hearing in October.
“She belittled me, she degraded me, she humiliated me, and she lied on me…” Kathy Keith said. “She shouted out to me that the child has diabetes.”
“When she made the statement that the child has diabetes, it was like a ton of ice hit me. I froze because I had no idea that there was a document that stated that,” John Keith said.
The Keiths claim they tried to show medical paperwork that would dispute Skeba’s diabetes claim, but they were kicked out of the courtroom and dismissed for the day. Later that day, a social worker informed the Keiths that Skeba had ordered the child removed from their home within seven days with no option to be placed with any other family members. Kathy Keith said she pleaded with the child’s attorney to file paperwork to keep the child out of foster care with strangers. The child was allowed to be placed with the Keiths’ daughter and her husband.
The next day, Keith and several family members picketed the courthouse. They followed the chain of command in reporting Skeba’s conduct, but could not find a resolution, Kathy Keith said.
“I know they didn’t investigate anything, because how could a file be this thick if I’ve never followed a court order?” Kathy Keith said, waving a thick yellow folder. “How is everything in this file saying this child is 100% healthy?”
The Keiths believe that referee Skeba was referencing the wrong case file when she stated that their niece had diabetes. They believe Skeba became angry when challenged, and then removed the child from their home as an act of retaliation.
A thorough investigation into Skeba’s actions will prove their claims to be true, the Keiths said. They’re calling on the Supervising Judge of the Juvenile Dependency Court, Michael Nash, to launch the investigation. Read their letter to Judge Nash here.
The Keiths were supported by local community activists, as well as neighbors and relatives, Thursday afternoon.
“I just could not believe that somebody would turn around and say that they are unfit,” said the Keiths’ neighbor Michael Panek, adding that he’s known the family for more than 10 years. “They are one of the most loving families we’ve ever known.”
“The things that were required, they did long before the child was removed,” said the Keiths’ son, John Keith. “For somebody to treat them with such malice, it hurts me as much as it hurts them.”
“We’re just asking that this little girl, who had everything taken away from her, the only home she knows, would have the opportunity to be raised in a family that loves her,” said the Keiths’ daughter Latorra Saxton.
The local chapter of the NAACP has launched a petition calling on Judge Nash to launch an investigation into Skeba’s actions and to place the child back with the Keiths.
“We have a saying in our community that it takes a village to raise a child, and you’re looking at this village here,” said local NAACP President V. Jessie Smith. “We’re standing up for our children.”
Juvenile court referee Valerie Skeba could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday. Los Angeles Superior Court spokesperson Mary Hearn said Judge Nash was prohibited by law from speaking on the case. She said she could not confirm whether they had received the Keiths’ letter.
“Because it’s a juvenile matter, I am also prohibited from being able to discuss and provide any information about it,” Hearn said.
The Keiths say they will continue to pressure the children’s court to look into the matter. They said they are not giving up until they obtain permanent custody of their niece.
“When it’s a judge involved, people don’t want to get involved, but if we don’t fight for her and give her a chance at life, who’s going to fight for her?” Kathy Keith said.
The Keiths are due back in juvenile court in July. Supporters said they hoping to gather at least 3,000 signatures on the petition by then to submit to the court.
To sign the petition or to learn more about how to become involved in this cause, contact local NAACP Vice President Cynthia Beverly at 661-222-8144.