In March, Los Angeles County paid a $150,000 settlement to a celebrity Beverly Hills doctor after social workers lied under oath and falsified evidence to take her four kids from her, amid a thorny custody battle.
But despite the payout — and the help of top-notch private lawyers — Susan Spell, whose TV credits include Oprah, CNN, Good Morning America, and Dr. 90210, still doesn’t have her kids back and fears for their safety as they continue to live with their father who has a documented history of domestic abuse.
More than 800 pages of court transcripts, witness testimonies and subpoenaed evidence provide a window into a six-year battle so rife with scandal and salacious detail that it landed in the pages of the tabloid TMZ.
“It’s so crazy that, if I let myself, I’d just go full crazy and probably go over there and take my kids,” Spell said. “It’s a bit of chaos that I’ve learned to live with, but I’m hurting tremendously.”
This fight for her children has consumed not just Spell’s life, but her savings, too. In addition to the lawyers, Spell said she’s paid thousands of dollars to professional monitors just to have the opportunity to see her kids. In more recent proceedings, the mildly famous dermatologist has had to represent herself, no longer able to afford private lawyers, but still too affluent to qualify for free representation.
While most parents facing removal of their children have no choice but to use whatever free services are available to them — it varies from state to state — Spell’s case illustrates how taxing going toe-to-toe with child protective services is, even with the best resources at hand.
If a Harvard-trained, high-powered doctor with private legal help still hasn’t been able to get her kids back from their abusive father, what chance does a poor mom without those resources and social bona fides have under similar circumstances?
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone,” Spell said.
Custody Battle Turned Child Welfare Case
Spell and Brian Evans had been going through an ugly divorce for more than a year before the kids were taken from their mother the first time. Throughout the divorce proceedings, she had custody of all four kids; Evans had visitation rights.
Several instances of abuse occurred during these visits, some even warranting trips to the emergency room. Social workers and a number of doctors reported that the kids were in danger with Evans, according to medical records and a safety plan written by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).
Magaly Baltazar, who worked with Evans and Spell for years when they shared a joint medical practice, said she saw the kids daily, and was concerned at their reaction to visits with their father. They’d scream and cry and beg not to go, she says.
“Why do they have so much fear just to go visit their dad for a few hours?” she asked. “That told me there was something else going on.”
But each time the case went back to the kids’ DCFS caseworkers, they closed the investigation against Evans, marking the claims of abuse and risk “unfounded,” despite documented evidence and his known history of violence. He’d been arrested for seriously injuring Spell’s wrist prior to their divorce. He also once pushed his eldest son down, causing him to suffer a serious concussion, according to court transcripts and medical records.
One of the caseworkers had even drawn up an official safety plan with Spell in which she indicates abuse by Evans. But court transcripts show that the caseworkers told family court officials no such abuse had ever been found.
Baltazar, who continues to work as Spell’s office manager, said she left Evans’ employ in 2012 after he asked her to lie to the courts and declare she’d never seen him get violent with Spell or the kids. She says she witnessed such behavior just days before that request was made and, in fact, provided a statement to the court detailing Evans’ explosive outburst.
Evans, a plastic surgeon at the Grossman Burn Center, acted as an expert witness in child abuse cases for DCFS for around 10 years, Spell said. She thinks that this afforded him undue influence with some department social workers — but something else may have also been at play.
In a 2013 meeting between the family, DCFS, and County Counsel, two of the Evans kids made a shocking statement about one of their assigned caseworkers: “That’s not our social worker, that’s Brian’s girlfriend,” they said, referring to their father by his first name, according to the lawsuit that garnered the six-figure settlement with the county.
The girls said the caseworker, Tasha Beard, and Evans had shut themselves in his bedroom with the door closed for a long time on a recent visit from the social worker. When later questioned in court, Beard admitted to spending time in Evans’ bedroom behind closed doors, though she denied their relationship was romantic or sexual.
Evans did not respond to The Chronicle’s multiple requests for comment.
Dubious DCFS Dealings
Things took a sharp turn in October 2013 when Spell arrived at her kids’ school to pick them up, but was told they’d been detained by DCFS and were going with her ex-husband. No social workers were present, Spell says, but they’d called the school and said the kids were not to leave with her, so school administrators forcibly put the kids into Evans’ car.
What Spell didn’t know then was that this removal happened without court approval. Five days after taking the kids from school, DCFS submitted the warrant to remove, but it was denied, Spell says. When Spell followed up with DCFS, she was told that the department had not ordered the children to be removed from their mother.
“Dr. Evans is acting on his own accord,” reads an Oct. 10, 2013 email from Deputy County Counsel Micheline Ruben.
Nevertheless, a DCFS social worker returned the children to Spell at a sheriff’s station shortly thereafter. In a video of the exchange, the DFCS employee threatens to take the kids back unless the camera is shut off.
Around this same time, two different social workers, Barbara Smith and Nnenna Okeke, began separately investigating the new allegations against Evans, according to the suit. They both determined the children weren’t safe with Evans. An emergency restraining order was filed protecting Spell and the kids against Evans and remanding the children back to their mother.
Within days of taking on the case, though, Smith and Okeke were both instructed to stop contacting the family. The original case supervisor, Adrian Hawkins, cancelled the order for the kids to be placed back with Spell, and closed the new abuse referral against Evans. Pages of Smith’s notes about the case and misconduct by her fellow social workers went missing from court records, according to records of text messages between Smith and Spell that Spell saved as evidence.
At the direction of legal counsel, DCFS declined to comment for this story.
Family court is responsible for divorce and custody proceedings, while the juvenile dependency court handles child abuse cases. Spell’s family was going through the two systems simultaneously.
In late October 2013, just weeks after the botched removal, the family court formally switched custody for the three youngest children to Brian Evans. The eldest son, Nick, was kept in Spell’s custody. Judge David Cunningham, III, who had granted custody to Spell just months earlier, now said he was changing the orders because of missed visitations, and because DCFS had informed him that the multiple abuse allegations against Evans were unfounded.
Incidentally, in 2012, Cunningham disclosed a conflict of interest in this case. One of Evans’ witnesses was a longtime friend, and the judge said he’d have a hard time believing anyone who tried to “impeach” her reputation or statements, court transcripts show. Cunningham suggested recusal, but that witness testimony was removed, so he stayed on the case despite Spell’s objections.
Two weeks later, in November 2013, juvenile dependency court Judge Carlos E. Vasquez granted custody of all four kids to Evans after the DCFS caseworkers submitted documents alleging abuse by Spell.
According to DCFS documents, Spell’s alleged abuse included subjecting the children to the custody battle between she and Evans, making false abuse allegations against him, and talking poorly about him in front of the kids.
But in May 2014, Vasquez turned around and dropped the abuse case against Spell “in the interest of justice,” according court records. DCFS filed an appeal almost immediately, and custody orders were stayed during the appeal — a nearly yearlong process during which time the kids remained with Evans.
DCFS won the appeal in April of 2015, Spell says, in large part because her court-appointed attorney — at this point in the process, Spell was no longer able to afford private counsel — failed to file the proper paperwork when Vasquez dismissed this case. The appellate court ordered the abuse case to be reopened.
During the new trial, DCFS levied a number of abuse allegations against Spell. But upon the close of trial arguments, juvenile dependency court Judge Natalie Stone told the social workers she wouldn’t be able to sustain the allegations because they didn’t indicate physical harm, transcripts show.
Stone gave the social workers a chance to amend their petition to “conform to proof,” which gave them a chance to add previously dropped allegations. Since these were added after trial proceedings had ended, Spell was unable to defend against these newly included allegations and lost the case.
Payouts and Prescriptions
In October 2015, Spell filed suit against the county, alleging that her children were improperly removed from her care without a warrant or threat of physical harm and that the social workers on her case committed perjury and concealed and falsified evidence. In March of 2018, the county, on behalf of DCFS and the named social workers, agreed to settle for $150,000.
But the story doesn’t end there. Despite the payout, Spell still didn’t get her kids back. Just last month, Evans agreed to let the eldest child, Nick, live with his mom after tensions between father and son continued to fester, but the youngest three remain in Evans’ custody to this day.
Dozens of subpoenaed prescriptions show that Evans prescribed drugs to treat ADHD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in increasingly high doses for three of the four kids. In court, Evans said he only wrote prescriptions to refill what the kids’ doctors had ordered when they ran out, but pharmacy records show otherwise.
According to the American Medical Association, “Except in emergencies, it is not appropriate for physicians to write prescriptions for controlled substances for themselves or immediate family members.”
Evans also signed a release to allow Nick, at 15, to obtain a medical marijuana license. The form that Evans signed disclosed that Nick was already smoking multiple times per week and thought he needed much more.
As a result of these revelations, in July of 2017, family court Judge Mark Juhas ordered joint custody to be phased in over the period of several months, records show. But according to Spell, one month later, Evans filed a report with the court alleging new abuse by Spell. She says it was never reported to or investigated by DCFS, but nevertheless, the joint custody order was cancelled and Spell was required to continue with monitored visits.
Spell reported the prescriptions and marijuana use to DCFS, but they closed the referral based on the legality of medical marijuana in California. Now Spell is filing a federal injunction against Evans. She’s hoping the conflicting national marijuana policy will work in her favor.
“I think the settlement is a statement,” she said. “The mere fact that they’re willing to give $150,000 just for us not to take it to court implies that something happened — you did something wrong. I wish along with that, we could do something that makes them act right.”
All the Money in the World
While the fight to reunite with her kids continues to consume Spell’s life, she recognizes that others dealing with the child welfare system often face it without the financial resources and legal defense she has had.
The vast majority of people going through child welfare proceedings belong to a different tax bracket than Spell and her husband. Most are poor enough to qualify for free appointed representation according to Kenneth Krekorian, executive director of Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, Inc. — if that’s even made available to them. While the right to counsel in dependency cases is guaranteed in 46 states and Washington, D.C., parents may be forced to go without representation in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and New Jersey.
In California, depending on a person’s income, they may be required to reimburse the state for some or all of the fees incurred with appointed counsel, who work for much lower hourly rates than most private practice attorneys. Folks are exempt from any cost if they receive certain federal benefits, such as food stamps or Medicare, or if their monthly income is 125 percent or less of the current poverty guidelines. With her doctor’s salary, Spell will likely have to pay back the state for some if not all of the appointed counsel services she received.
L.A. county residents are fortunate that the county will provide representation through each step of the process. But people facing the potential of losing their kids permanently don’t need just any lawyer — they need a great one.
“In my view, these are if not the most challenging, certainly among the most challenging cases in the civic arena, and perhaps in all cases,” said Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel for The Public Defender Agency of Massachusetts.
Appointed lawyers have the same schooling and have passed the same bar exams as big firm attorneys, but they often don’t have access to the same resources, which can make a big difference. And given the high demand for appointed counsel in dependency cases, these lawyers are often buried under mountainous caseloads.
“There’s a wide array of tasks that lawyers are responsible for, and when the caseloads go up it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to do all the things you need to do to represent a client effectively,” Dsida said, adding that the complexity and high stakes of child welfare cases makes them even more time consuming than the average case.
Michael Nash, who served as the presiding judge for L.A.’s juvenile court for 14 years, added that high turnover among appointed counsel — resulting in a pool of newer, less experienced lawyers — also impacts the quality of counsel provided to indigent clients.
Nash cautions, though, against the assumption that private lawyers are simply better than appointed counsel. He says dependency court proceedings are so specialized that unless a private lawyer has significant experience in this area, they might actually be at a disadvantage.
“All the money in the world doesn’t guarantee you a good result,” Nash said.
Spell, for her part, says she’ll attend the weekly Monday morning meetings of the Commission on Children and Families to continue lobbying for her kids’ return. As a high-powered doctor, Spell can do this without worrying that she’ll lose her job or fail to make rent that month. Parents who have to work an hourly job — or two, or three — to make ends meet almost certainly couldn’t make the same commitment.
Though her status and resources didn’t buy Spell a win in court, they do afford her the priceless opportunity to keep on fighting.