A short time before she was murdered, Kayla Lorrain Wood wrote a letter to her grandmother in Oregon.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get visits with any (of my) aunts,” she wrote. “I wish, hope and pray I do but I doubt it.”
Kayla was a 16-year-old foster child with a bad habit of running away from the Moreno Valley group home she’d been placed in by the San Bernardino County Department of Children’s Services. Her caretakers couldn’t physically restrain her to keep her put, so they’d taken away her privileges—use of the phone, group outings, family visits. Kayla’s letter was one of desperate loneliness. She wrote of missing her older brother, Joey, and her best friend, Amy—both far away in Oregon. Since she couldn’t be with her family, would her grandmother at least send photographs?
“Grandma can you send more pictures, please? I need to look often at you and everybody’s faces again. At least in pictures . . . I want pictures, Grandma, pictures and more pictures. If you want me to send you my allowances every week to get those pictures developed, I will. That’s only three dollars a week—that’s not much but I will, just to get pictures.”
On September 9, police found Kayla’s body inside the smoking ruin of an abandoned house at 24939 Cactus Avenue in Moreno Valley. She’d been tortured and stabbed to death, her body then set on fire along with the house around it. On September 20, five days after police arrested a man and two teens on suspicion of the crime, a city demolition crew leveled the Cactus Avenue house to the ground. With bulldozers roaring in the background, a city official told reporters that the burnt-out hovel had served only to remind people that bad things happened inside it.
Five days later, Kayla was buried in Oregon. According to her grandmother, Vivian Wamsley, a modest Pentecostal service was held to honor the short life of a girl who had done nothing—absolutely nothing—to deserve the sexual brutalization, the beatings, the virtual incarceration and the final slaughter that was her fate. Nothing fancy, just a few words and a hole in the ground for Kayla.
With Kayla’s remains disposed of, her apparent killers in custody and the house in which she died plowed under, the city of Moreno Valley soldiered on with the business of forgetting she ever existed. Media coverage of the incident slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether. The little shrine of flowers and saint candles that had sprung up at the crime scene disappeared. Reached for comment on the speed in which the city demolished 24939 Cactus Avenue, Senior Code Compliance Officer Glenn Waggoner Jr. used the opportunity to promote code compliance.
“I’m working on a neglected property case right now that’s directly across from an elementary school, but there’s no media attention because no one’s been murdered in it,” Waggoner said. “Wouldn’t (the IE Weekly) do greater benefit to the community by writing about how neglecting properties allow them to become havens of juvenile crime? Not so much about the murder of Kayla Wood, but about how these buildings are being used?”
Waggoner has a point. The story here isn’t so much about Kayla’s murder—it’s about neglect and the consequences of neglect. Just who was neglectful, and whether the consequences were a 16-year-old girl’s death, depends on whom you talk to, and whom you choose to believe.
According to Kayla’s relatives, her murder was the fault of San Bernardino County Children’s Services for refusing to let them take care of the child, and then failing to take care of her themselves. For their part, Children’s Services officials say they did everything in their power to keep Kayla safe, an argument that would resonate louder were it not for the fact she was murdered while in their care.
“IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PAPERWORK”
Kayla Wood was born in 1990 to William and Tamara Wood, a couple who by all accounts deserve a presidential Brownie Award for good parenting. According to family members, Tammy used drugs throughout her pregnancy. Kayla’s grandmother believes this resulted in a child who would always be “a little quirky.”
“She wasn’t crazy—I know some people say that and it’s just not true,” Vivian says. “She was just quirky—she had this thing where she just trusted everyone. It was like something was damaged in her brain so she couldn’t understand you can’t just trust everyone.”
Family members describe Kayla as an exceptionally loving child. She smiled constantly, loved to give hugs, and adored physical contact of any kind. This in itself wouldn’t have been unusual were it not for the fact that her home life was so not conducive to hugs. Court records show Tamara more or less constantly in trouble for drug offenses, while William’s mother—Vivian Wamsley—describes him as an alcoholic who “could get a bit ornery” when he was drinking, which was most of the time. For most of Kayla’s young life, the family was in a constant state of flight, sometimes living with Vivian in Albany, Oregon, sometimes on their own in nearby towns, other times sleeping on couches or in the spare bedrooms of Kayla’s maternal aunts in California.
In 2001, William and his four children—Joey, Kayla, Matt and Jessie—shared a home in Lebanon, Oregon, with a distant relative named Randy Flowers. Where Tamara was at the time isn’t known. What is known is that sometime that year, Randy got it in his head to molest Kayla—all of 10 at the time—and at least one of her siblings. Flowers was arrested and convicted of the crimes and sentenced to six years in prison.
Shortly after that episode, the unemployed William and his children moved to the San Joaquin Valley town of Pixley, home of his sister, Fonda Marshall. Fonda immediately noticed a marked change in Kayla. The girl once famous for her perpetual smile and loving hugs had become the quiet, watchful child she would remain for the rest of her life.
“Right away, I could tell Kayla was having problems,” recalls Fonda, a 40-year-old teacher’s aide. “I realized my brother was abusive to the kids—verbally abusive. To Kayla, he seemed especially abusive. I noticed she would hide whenever he came into the house, so I stuck my nose in it and just kept him away from her. After that, she followed me wherever I went.”
But the visit lasted nine months, with William living in the trailer behind his sister’s home and the kids living in the house, and Fonda couldn’t keep an eye on her brother every minute. She described an incident in which William pushed Kayla down a flight of stairs while Fonda was taking a shower. Fonda reported the incident to Kayla’s school. A police officer came out, talked to Kayla and her brothers and took a report, but nothing else was done. Soon afterward, William Wood announced it was time to take the kids back to Oregon.
“Kayla freaked out—she didn’t want to leave with her father,” Fonda says. “I had promised her that I’d keep Willie away from her, so I got a hold of Tammy’s parents to find out how she was doing. They told me Tammy was off drugs and had just given birth to a new baby and was doing wonderfully. She came down with the baby’s father at Christmastime and told me she’d love to take back Kayla. She seemed fine, so Kayla went home with them to California. Kayla had always wanted to be with her mom—that was her dream in life. She was very happy.”
Just how long that happiness lasted for Kayla is unknown. It was certainly over by May 2003, when Fonda was contacted by an official with the San Bernardino County Children’s Services department and told that Tamara had been arrested on drug charges. Fonda said the official asked her if she and her husband wanted custody of Kayla, who was now a “client” of the county.
“We said yes, we absolutely did,” Fonda says.
Fonda was told that in order for Kayla to be placed in her care, she and her husband, Stoney, would first have to pass criminal background checks and their Pixley home approved as “child-safe” by San Bernardino County inspectors. The couple hurriedly made the required home improvements, such as locking up medicines and installing smoke detectors, and even bought a new bed and dresser for Kayla’s room. Their efforts were rewarded by a June 13, 2003 “Certificate of Approval” by the county, informing them that they had met all approval standards for Kayla’s placement.
And that should have been it—the end of Kayla’s time as a child of the system. According to Cathy Cimbalo, director of Children’s Services for San Bernardino County, the primary goal of her agency is to find a family member willing and able to care for the child.
“We’re mandated by law to attempt to place children with relatives and families first,” Cimbalo says. “That’s what we would like to do and would want to do, if possible. When we have to remove a child from the parent’s home, we ask them to give us some information about their relatives. Our first choice is to find a relative willing and able and approved by our inspectors to care for the child—that’s the way we like to do it.”
But as Kayla and her aunt soon discovered, liking things done a certain way can often be the same as wishing, hoping and praying for the best. Shortly after the certificate of approval was issued, Fonda received a call from Kayla’s designated county caseworker informing her she had been rejected for placement.
“The caseworker said she was concerned that my husband and son would be in jeopardy if Kayla was placed here, since Kayla had already accused some males of molestation,” Fonda says. “She actually said she was trying to protect us by not having Kayla stay in our home.
“We tried everything to get her to change her mind. We made repeated daily phone calls to try to get Kayla back. The caseworker would just let us talk and then say, ‘Now that I’ve let you vent . . .’ She finally said there was no way she’d let us have Kayla, that we could just forget about her. Eventually she just stopped taking our calls.”
Neither Cimbalo nor anyone at San Bernardino County Children’s Services would comment on Fonda’s story or reveal the name of Kayla’s caseworker, citing privacy concerns. Children’s Services did confirm, however, that after Marshall was rejected as caretaker, Kayla Wood was placed in a group home in Hesperia. She was now officially one of an estimated 800,000 children in the U.S. foster care system.
Coincidentally, Hesperia is also home to another of Kayla’s paternal aunts, Ann Wood. Despite Children’s Services’ mandate to first seek out willing and able relatives for placement, Ann—who says she would have been willing to take Kayla in—insists she was never notified that her niece was in foster care (let alone in town) until after the girl was removed from the group home.
“That’s how the foster-care system works in California,” says Ann. “It’s all mostly about the paperwork, and paperwork takes six to eight months to process anything.”
Just why Kayla was removed from the Hesperia group home isn’t clear. Fonda says she had called the home and was told by the woman who operated it that Kayla was no longer living there because she had been flirting too much with the woman’s son. Carol Sittig, child welfare services manager for San Bernardino County Children’s Services, says Kayla was removed after getting into a fight with another girl in the home.
Ann says prosecutors handling the case against Kayla’s alleged killers told her that a man named “McCoy” raped Kayla in the summer of 2003. San Bernardino court records show that a man with that name was charged in August 2003 with raping a girl with the same birth date as Kayla’s. The charge was dropped, but the man—who was not connected with the Hesperia group home—was ultimately convicted of similar crimes and is currently in prison.
With Kayla again in custodial limbo, her father—back in Vivian Wamsley’s Albany, Oregon home with his other children—made a tentative effort to get her back by taking a county-mandated family training class. It was his last chance to be reunited with his oldest daughter, and he promptly blew it by getting arrested on DUI charges.
At this point, Vivian stepped in. She petitioned the county for custody, showing her sincerity by kicking William out of her house. In June 2004, San Bernardino County Children’s Services awarded her custody. After more than a year in the foster care system, Kayla was reunited with her siblings.
SOMEONE ELSE’S PROBLEM
Again, that should have been it. Now 14, Kayla finally began living the life of a normal teenager. She attended North Albany Middle School, rode bikes with her brother Joey, hung out at the local skate park with her best friend, Amy Miller. She talked endlessly about her dream of becoming a model. She developed an interest in rap music and had a real talent for drawing. Amy and others spoke of being amazed by her artwork, mostly pencil drawings of natural objects such as roses. It was, Vivian says, as if the previous years had never happened.
But they had happened, and Kayla was clearly damaged by them.
“She talks about her dad a lot, about how he’d get drunk and violent,” Amy says. Interviewed a week after her friend’s death, the 14-year-old alternated between speaking of Kayla in the present and past tense. “And about how her mother abandoned her and that’s how she wound up in the system. I used to tell her it wasn’t a good idea, going down to the skate park, because it was dangerous. But she said she loved going there because there were a lot of cute boys. She wanted to do—things—with them a lot.”
While living in Oregon with her grandmother, Kayla was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed at least two psychotropic drugs. Amy says the illness would manifest in paranoia.
“She was always very aware of her surroundings and other people,” says Amy. “She’d just sit and watch people very quietly.”
Kayla’s grandmother Vivian, 58 and disabled, was a strict disciplinarian who forbade her to have boyfriends or date. For Kayla, already “sexualized” (a term frequently used to describe juvenile rape survivors) from at least two separate assaults, these rules were unbearable. She began sneaking out of Vivian’s house at night to be with boys. Every time she did, Vivian called Children’s Services to report the incident.
“Her social worker at one point told me to nail her bedroom window shut, which I did,” Vivian recalls. “She just pulled the nails out. She was a very clever little girl.”
On May 25, 2005, one day after Kayla’s 15th birthday, workers from San Bernardino County Children’s Services removed her from her grandmother’s Oregon home. Sittig later told reporters the removal came after her grandmother reported that she couldn’t control the child. When asked about this, Vivian’s voice rises to a high pitch.
“I did not ask them to take her from me!” she says. “We asked them for assistance. Kayla would take off for a couple or three hours without permission, but she’d always come home—it wasn’t like she’d run away and be gone for days.
“The only reason I reported it when she left without permission was because, as her foster parent, I was required to or risk her being taken from me. They’re saying I asked them to remove Kayla. But I didn’t even know they were taking her until they showed up at the door.”
San Bernardino County Children’s Services officials refused to comment on Vivian’s claim, saying they didn’t want to get into a “he said/she said” with the family. But Director Cimbalo did say it would be “very unusual” for a child to be removed from a home without the foster parent’s advance knowledge.
“Caretakers are supposed to give us seven days notice that we need to move a child, and we in turn have to give seven days notice that we intend to move a child,” says Cimbalo. “There are a lot of arrangements to be made for a child to be moved. How could we logistically plan the move when we haven’t notified the caretaker? Would the child be home? Would the child even be packed?”
At any rate, Kayla was once again a child of the system. And her troubles were just beginning.
Of all the problems with America’s overburdened, under-funded and understaffed foster care system, perhaps the biggest is that there’s no such thing as government moms or dads. The government doesn’t do parenting—it farms it out. In San Bernardino County, the work of caring for the estimated 5,500 foster care children is farmed out to 525 county-licensed, privately run foster homes. In Kayla’s case, that home after she was taken from her grandmother was Abby’s Adolescent Development Center on Thunderbird Drive in Moreno Valley—one of four Riverside County group homes owned by Abby’s Adolescent Development, Inc.
California foster homes are rated by the state according to the level of care provided. A Level 1 home—the lowest on the scale—is for children with no known psychological or behavioral problems, while a Level 14 home—the highest—is for the really hardcore cases. Abby’s is a Level 12 home, a six-bed facility for girls ages 12 to 17 with severe psychological, social and behavioral difficulties.
Children in Level 12 homes generally are considered threats to themselves and others. They are—or are supposed to be—closely monitored, restricted in movement. While not a lock-down facility, a Level 12 home has heightened security and far stricter rules of conduct than in standard homes. Literature on Level 12 homes repeatedly refer to them as “last alternatives”—places to be avoided, if at all possible. Children don’t so much go to a Level 12 home as wind up in a Level 12 home.
Why Kayla was placed in such a restrictive facility—let alone one 65 miles away from her nearest relative—is a matter of conjecture. Children’s Services won’t comment on it, and officials at the home didn’t return repeated calls from IE Weekly. Kayla had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but according to Vivian, she had improved significantly with medication. She had no prior criminal record. Except for the disputed fight at the Hesperia group home, nothing in her past behavior suggested she was prone to physical violence. So why, then, was Kayla deemed such a threat?
The answer may be as disturbingly simple as the fact that Kayla was known to leave her grandmother’s home without permission and have sex with boys. According to Cimbalo, chronic runaway behavior combined with sexual activity present an enormous risk to both the child and the people who care for her.
“The combination is hugely difficult to deal with for any parent or group-home setting,” Cimbalo says. “These are two areas that are extremely dangerous and expose kids to dangerous conditions. It’s also a very difficult condition for parental figures to control, change, make an impact, because once kids start doing them, it’s unlikely they’ll stop.”
The notion that sexually active teenagers like Kayla are unlikely to stop their offensive behavior hints at another problem with the foster care system, which is cynicism in the face of staggeringly depressing statistics. According to a national study conducted eight years ago by the University of Wisconsin, 50 percent of foster care children were unemployed 18 months after leaving the system, 37 percent hadn’t finished high school, 33 percent were on some form of government assistance, and 19 percent of females had given birth to children.
Confronted by these grim numbers every day, Children’s Services officials were unlikely to look upon Kayla Wood’s promiscuous, flighty behavior as anything other than a sign of worse things to come. Reunification with the family had failed, and adoption was a practical impossibility. Given the situation, the agency was no longer housing Kayla until they could find something better for her—they were warehousing her in as tightly sealed a container as possible until she turned 18 and became someone else’s problem.
At this point in her life, Kayla was a sullen, angry and depressed teen. Her letters to Amy seethed with resentment. She hated the Moreno Valley home, which she described as a prison, and she disliked the other girls in it. She missed her freedom and she missed her family. So she ran away, was reported to authorities, found and returned to the home. Then she ran away again. Every time she ran—records show more than 10 instances in the last month of her life alone—Kayla was returned to the Moreno Valley home that was so clearly incapable of controlling her.
“LOVE YOU, GRANDMA”
The remaining days of Kayla’s life unfolded with the inevitability of a fall from a great height. On the streets of Moreno Valley, a shaky town with neighborhoods filled with drug addicts and predators, the quirky teen with the trusting personality was an easy target. She was seized upon by a self-styled pimp named “Yogi,” a man who—she confided in a letter to Amy—picked her up in front of the Thunderbird Drive home in July, drove her to Arizona, and promptly abandoned her in a park. She was eventually arrested in Arizona on suspicion of prostitution and returned to the Moreno Valley home.
Kayla ran away for the last time on August 31. Seven days later, a neighbor spotted the blond, blue-eyed girl entering an abandoned house at 24939 Cactus Avenue with a group of boys. The neighbor, who asked not to be identified, says the sight made her feel sick inside.
“She just looked like a little girl who’d fallen in with some bad-ass boys,” she says.
Sometime after midnight on September 9, Fonda Marshall woke with a start, turned to her husband, and said she’d just had a terrible dream.
“I dreamt that I had went into this house, looked through a door, and saw a man who had a little girl on a dolly, and he was pushing her on it,” Fonda says. “It looked like her ankles to the bottom of her knees were burned. I told her, I told the little girl, ‘You have to run, you have to scream,’ and then I woke up.”
A few hours later, Fonda received a call from her sister, Ann Wood, telling her that Kayla’s body had been discovered that morning. The only thing authorities had found on the 16-year-old’s charred body by way of identification was a piece of paper with Ann’s phone number on it.
On September 22, officials from Riverside and San Bernardino counties pulled their clients from all four Abby’s Adolescent Development Center homes. Sittig described the move as “standard practice whenever a critical incident happens involving a foster home.”
For her aunt, Ann Wood, it was too little, too late. Wood says she plans to sue San Bernardino County for wrongful death. If the county knew Kayla was a runaway, she asks, why didn’t they just send her home?
Wood’s words become a wail.
“We don’t know how long it took her to die! We don’t how long they tortured her!”
In Albany, Oregon, Kayla’s grandmother Vivian says she comforts herself by continuing to care for Kayla’s siblings, who she describes as “devastated beyond words,” and by reading Kayla’s letters. In one of the letters, written August 1, Kayla writes of a plan she thought up to convince her caseworker to send her home. The plan, as good as anything the county had come up with, involved assuring the caseworker that Kayla was good, and that her family wanted her. It ends on a hopeful note:
“I’ll tell her I’m sorry for what I did. I keep saying I won’t do it and I end up doing it and I’m really sorry. I just want to go home. So by the middle of September, can I, if I’m good, can I maybe go home, because everybody wants me home? I’ll tell her something like that and I’ll tell you what she says. From there, just hope, wait and pray for everything to go OK. Love you, Grandma. Love always, your granddaughter Kayla.”