By Lauren Gonzalves
Note: This story was modified on August 19 to include a new statistic on the placement stability of California foster children.
An 11-year old Moses Kamin peers into the lens of his adoptive mother’s camera, clad in a bright yellow tank top, a faint smile below his dark brown buzz-cut.
“He looks so different now,” said Steve Masover, looking at the photo album. “But last time I saw him before the sentencing, his hair was the same.”
Masover turns the page of the photo album, showing me another picture of Moses alongside a smiling little girl with golden pigtails. They are playing.
“What I’m trying to figure out is who this person is,” he said, pointing to the young boy in the photo, “because none us had any clue that something like this was coming.”
Masover witnessed Moses grow up and was a long-time friend of Susan Poff and Bob Kamin, who in 2002 adopted Moses after he experienced a string of abusive foster care placements. By all accounts, they brought stability and love to the life of a boy who had never experienced either.
On Jan. 26, 2012, Moses choked Poff to death when she returned from work. He then waited until Kamin came home, and strangled him too. Moses was only 15 at the time.
Now 17, Moses may reside in his final state-ordered placement: the California correctional system. He was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murders, and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
“I know you all think of me as a monster or something else,” the young man told a judge and jury just moments before his sentence. “I’m just going to fade away. I hope none of you remember me ever again.”
As Masover relives those last moments in the Alameda County courtroom, his eyes become downcast and he shakes his head. “I’ve written to him and told him that’s not on the table, that people are not going to forget about him.”
With only their exchange of a few voicemails and letters, he remains one of few people still in contact with Moses. Kamin’s lawyer, Alameda County Public Defender Andrew Steckler, contended that Moses’ upbringing, born in squalor and bred in abuse, is at the heart of his actions. Masover is not so sure.
“There’s never a straight line,” Masover said. “There are people who go through those experiences and who don’t commit double parricide.”
Moses’ Earliest Years
Moses Kamin was born in San Jose on April 3, 1996, to Rosa Smith. According to court documents detailing his “traumatic history,” Moses visited the emergency room several times for various “accidents”, and when he was only a year old social services was called for reports of “neglect, yelling, forceful yanking, and [his] incessant crying.”
Moses was the third born to Smith but her first two children had already been removed from custody “due to neglect and abuse.”
On Sept. 10, 1999, a social worker made an unannounced visit to his mother’s home and found Moses “without any clothes on, smelling strong of urine, and found baby bottles with curdled milk.” Despite these conditions and Smith’s long history with child protective services, the three-year boy remained in his mother’s custody.
Moses was finally removed from his mother a few months later after he and his toddler brother were found unsupervised, playing in the street naked save for their diapers while their mother slept inside.
“Those first years are about forming empathic bonds…that’s when people learn empathy for others and it sounds like this woman, his birth mom, was trouble,” Masover said. “Serious drug addiction, serious mental problems.”
In court documents, it was reported that Smith had a “history of substance abuse, interpersonal abuse, domestic violence, and financial issues.” In a psychological evaluation ordered by the defense counsel, Moses’ mother stated that she “had thoughts about killing [her] own mother because [she] was so angry with her.”
These elements of his mother’s own struggles retrospectively shed a morbid light on the events that would eventually land Moses behind bars for the greater part of his adulthood.
In a court-ordered psychological evaluation by Dr. Amy Watts after the murders, Moses reported having few memories of his birth mother. During one interview, Moses remembered that he had to “fight hard in order to eat and to sleep.” One of his earliest memories involves him being outside on the street, without his mother, digging through garbage cans for food.
Moses vividly recounted to Watts finding a hot dog covered in ants and taking a bite of it before giving it to his younger brother and baby sister to share [also born to Smith]. He was three.
After his removal, Moses then lived through three years of dependency hearings, abusive foster homes, and near-adoptions before meeting his adoptive parents.
From ages three to six, Moses was placed in several different homes and the reports were mixed. The case files described one family who recounted having no troubles where another one reported Moses having “many difficult behaviors such as grabbing and stealing others’ things, hitting, kicking, not listening, and staring when confronted by the foster parents.” In Watts’ detailed psychological history of Moses, she notes him having “obsessions with food,” and even hoarding it in his bedroom, likely due to being severely neglected by his birth mother.
These details were among the several listed by his defense, who argued for Moses to be tried as a juvenile and pointed to these as contributing factors to the behavioral issues Moses would exhibit throughout his childhood and early adolescence. These horrific stories were also indicated by Watts and his defense as shaping Moses’ “lack of emotional attachment”, poor self-control, and aggressive behaviors that would follow in his teens.
Histories similar to Moses’ are not rare, and a majority of foster youth will experience multiple placements before either being permanently adopted or reunified with their birth family. Nearly two-thirds of California foster children experience more than two placements within their first 24 months in care, according to federal data.
A 2012 study out of University of California-San Diego found that foster children who have experienced placement instability are more likely than other children in foster care to show symptoms of mental health disorders and to receive outpatient mental health treatment.
“Not only is placement change associated with mental health problems, it is also a disruptive experience,” the study said. “When children change placements they must break ties with former caregivers, move to a new environment, and establish an attachment to their new families.”
In a psychological consultation report submitted to the court during Moses’ homicide case, he recalls being hit on his head by a cane while strapped into a car seat. On another occasion while in foster care, Moses recalls being locked in a basement for two weeks, in the dark. He also reported times where he was “tied up, held down, and slapped.”
During the three years Moses was in foster care, there were two failed attempts for adoption. In both cases, the potential adoptive parents changed their minds about adopting Moses due to his “behavior issues.”, according to his foster care history described in the court documents.
It would not be until 2002, and three years in foster care, that he would meet and eventually move in with the Kamins.
Life After Adoption
Poff and Kamin adopted Moses when he was six. Poff, 50, worked with homeless adults for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Kamin, 55, was a psychologist for the city’s jails.
On paper, they were the ideal parents for a boy with a troubled past.
“If anyone could help this kid, it was them,” Masover said. “Given that humanity’s timber is crooked, you couldn’t have picked a more beneficial, supportive situation to come into out of the hell that he had after his first six years.”
When Moses was first adopted, Masover said, “he thought everyone was his mom.” He’d repeatedly ask Susan Poff if he was “going to be sent away again. He was a pretty affectionate kid when he was little…he was a little shy around all these adults but then he would come out.”
From the earliest years with his adoptive parents, Masover said, Moses was surrounded with a warm community of friends and family close to the Kamins. “Occasionally we would get together with other families and Moses seemed to get along with the other kids really well. …I’ve seen it in person, I’ve seen it in pictures.”
Despite Masover’s fond retellings of the normalcy first displayed by six-year old Moses, he also knew there were problems. And so did the Kamins. “I knew all along…Susan was always talking about Moses…because she was his mom,” Masover said when referring to the behavioral issues which did not take long to surface.
Even after reviewing court documents, it is still unclear just how privy the Kamins were to Moses’ dark past.
“He was starting with all the cards stacked against him and Bob and Susan knew that,” Masover said. “They would have had access to some of his records [at the time of the adoption]. They knew some stories.”
Even with sealed records, Poff and Kamin comprehended enough about their new son’s past to start Moses in therapy from the moment they adopted him. He would remain with the same therapist until just one week before the murders.
According to a psychological evaluation conducted the year Poff and Kamin adopted Moses, his behavioral issues included trouble sleeping, poor attention, aggression, cruelty to animals, and difficulty relating to other children. He tended to engage in fantasy play with violent themes.
The psychologist diagnosed Moses with Attention Deficit Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Borderline Intellectual Functioning.
In kindergarten, Moses was academically behind and it was reported that Bob and Susan “spent a lot of time teaching him and helping him to catch up in school.” They assessed him for special education but, at the time, he did not qualify. They made sure he saw a therapist at school everyday.
In middle and high school, his problems continued. Moses often had a difficult time
getting along with teachers and was reported to have “cussed them out.” An evaluation used by the defense also noted that he “had a hard time getting along with others.” and once even “head-butted another student” after the student had made a comment about his adoptive mother and aunt. Moses broke his nose.
As Moses continued to grow up, behavioral issues in school and at home only exacerbated.
In an interview by an investigator from the Alameda Public Defender’s Office, the brother of Moses’ adoptive father (Bruce) stated that Susan was “strict with Moses.” It was reported that she “often yelled at Moses for getting into trouble and not doing well in school.”
Moses and Susan reportedly had a conflict-laden relationship. They often engaged in yelling matches at home. Moses stated, in an interview with a Watts , that he did not have a good relationship with his adoptive father.
Despite these challenges, Poff and Kamin refused to send Moses away, a notion suggested more than once by those close to the family, Masover said. “Susan was one of the most morally driven and committed people I’ve ever know in my life and one of the things that was a cornerstone of her life’s commitment was that she was never sending Moses back anywhere.”
When being evaluated by Watts, during court proceedings, Moses stated that his adoptive mother “slapped [him] once.” Moses explained that he did “not like when people hit or touched him on the head. When people made contact with [his] head, it reminded him of the times when he was abused by his birth mother and while he was in foster care.”
Moses referred to his reaction to being touched on the head as “clicking off.”
January 26, 2013
On the day of the killings, Moses told police that he had an argument with his mother over being suspended from school for using marijuana. Authorities confirmed that he was facing expulsion for the infraction.
In Watts’ evaluation detailing Moses’ account of what happened the night of the
murders, she wrote that, “according to Moses, his adoptive mother started yelling at him. She hit him on the top of his head” out of frustration.
At that moment, Moses told Watts, he “clicked off.”
What is known is that Moses choked the life out of his adoptive mother. He then waited for his father to return, fearful of his adoptive father’s reaction to killing Poff, and strangled him to death as well. When they were both dead, he placed them in the family car parked on the street, and attempted to set it on fire.
He got in the car with them, hoping it would explode. When no explosion came, Moses returned to the house, leaving the bodies of his adoptive parents in the car.
Steckler, Kamin’s lawyer, wrote in a letter asking for Moses to be tried in juvenile court, rather than adult criminal court, that “Moses is a deeply psychologically troubled child. But by no stretch of the imagination is he evil”.
Masover explained that, “Drew [Steckler] tried many number of times to get the case remanded to juvenile court” and that he “wanted the support of the [Kamin] family to have the case remanded. It didn’t work out.”
A 2012 Harvard University literature review, examining the recidivism rates of juveniles who commit homicide and, specifically, parricide, offered an analysis which indicated that juvenile parricide offenders recidivate less than juvenile homicide offenders in general.
But Dr. Marieke Liem, the author of the review, concluded it was difficult to predict such an outcome given the limited data available and pointed to a need for further research on this rare population.
After the Sentencing
I ask Masover if he believes Moses is broken. He takes a moment before responding.
“One of the difficulties for me is, a person murdering another person in any other terms other than broken…that’s by definition broken, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Moses had written him from juvenile hall to say that he was, “finally ready to tell [him] what happened that night.” Masover does not seem ready for that conversation just yet.
“I would like to see that he could grow into a person where one of the ways he can restore the damage he has caused to the world is by continuing the work of the people he took out of this world.”
Masover wonders aloud if his wish is too unrealistic or all too poetic for such a tragic story.
“The best closure that I can imagine for this situation,” he said, “is that Moses can turn his life around and do good work for other people in prison…whether or not he gets out. But that won’t bring Susan and Bob back.”
Lauren Gonzalves is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.