Lawsuit alleges 2 boys were illegally placed with foster parents before being killed

Lawsuit alleges 2 boys were illegally placed with foster parents before being killed

The birth mother of two young California boys who died in the state foster care system has filed a federal lawsuit alleging her sons were unlawfully taken from her and placed with foster parents who are now accused of killing them.

Four-year-old Classic Pettus and three-year-old Cinsere Pettus were reported missing on December 21, 2020 from their foster family’s backyard in the desert town of California City. The boys, who were black, have not been found and Kern County prosecutors said in March that an inquest found them deceased.

Ryan Dean, the birth mother of two young brothers killed in a nursing home, speaks during a news conference in San Francisco Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Port Daley/AP


The foster parents, Trezell West and Jacqueline West, have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including two counts of second-degree murder. Her criminal trial is scheduled to begin next month.

The civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit filed June 17 by the boys’ biological mother, Ryan Dean, and grandmother, Dana Moorer, names the Wests as defendants along with Kern County Human Services and the California Department of Social Services.

It is claimed the nursing home was a “state-created hazard” that eventually led to the disappearance and death of the two boys. The lawsuit seeks $40 million in damages.

“I just feel like I don’t deserve this,” an emotional dean said at a news conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. “I’m not a criminal. I don’t have a bad record.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Waukeen Q. McCoy said that with the Family First Act of 2018, Congress intended to preserve family units and reverse the assumption that foster care is better for children.

“Cinsere and Classic Pettus were murdered after being unlawfully taken from their mother under an outdated model of care that Congress has described as a perverse incentive to tear apart African-American families,” McCoy said.

McCoy said that before the 2018 law, the foster care system disproportionately exposed African American families to “traumatic child abuse investigations.”

Jana Slagle, information officer for Kern County Human Services, said the department was unable to comment on the lawsuit because a court ordered a gag. The state authority announced in an e-mail that it could not comment on legal disputes.

The older child was taken away from his birth parents after being hospitalized in 2016, according to the lawsuit. Dean had returned from work to find the 3-month-old boy “crying uncontrollably” and when she took him to the emergency room it was found that he had two broken legs, court records say. The biological father, Charles Pettus, said he gave his son two baths that day and nothing else happened, according to the lawsuit.

A hospital worker told Dean that Kern County Human Services would admit the child because “they believed he had been abused,” according to the lawsuit. According to the record, Dean had no criminal record and no allegations of abuse against her when the child was removed from her care.

After Dean gave birth to another son in June 2017, a sheriff’s deputy took him away because Human Services officials said they “like to keep siblings together,” the lawsuit said.

After spending months with a foster family, the boys were placed with the Wests in late 2018. At that point, Dean said she noticed her children were losing weight and that the younger boy had scratches on his face, the claim said.

“In November 2018, Ms Dean wrote a letter expressing concern at the lack of proper care for her children in the Wests’ foster home. No one ever replied to the letter,” the lawsuit says. Dean’s mother, Moorer, also submitted requests to have the children placed in her care, which were ignored, the filing said.

McCoy said Moorer also undertook parenting classes and a psychological assessment to have her grandchildren, but was denied.

State and county officials negligently placed the brothers in the Wests’ care “in order to directly and immediately cause the subsequent deaths of the minor children,” the lawsuit states. Officials denied the birth mother and grandmother’s request to be reunited with the children before they were killed, the filing said.

The Wests renamed the boys Orrin West and Orson West, but the lawsuit refers to them by their birth names, Classic Pettus and Cinsere Pettus.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer announced in March that investigators had presented a combination of direct and circumstantial evidence and a grand jury found the boys had died three months before the foster family reported them missing.

The grand jury heard testimonies from 50 witnesses over three months, she said.

Zimmer said that a week after the boys were reported missing, “critical information came to light” that led to the involvement of police in Bakersfield, about 60 miles west of California City.

Police and FBI agents searched a field in Bakersfield in March 2021, but the results of that effort were not disclosed. The district attorney said she could not reveal any facts about the case until the trial.

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