Bred in Abuse

Moses Kamin endured a horrific childhood and then murdered his well-meaning adoptive parents, but the Oakland couple may not have fully known about his troubled history.

Clad in a bright-yellow tank top, Moses Kamin peered into the lens of his adoptive mother’s camera. A faint smile emerged below the eleven-year-old’s dark-brown buzz-cut. “He looks so different now,” said Steve Masover, looking at the photo of Moses recently. “But last time I saw him before the sentencing, his hair was the same.”

Masover turned the page of the photo album, displaying 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,” Masover said, pointing to Moses, “because none us had any clue that something like this was coming.”

Masover watched Moses grow up and was a longtime friend of Susan Poff and Bob Kamin, who adopted Moses in 2002 after he had endured severe abuse and neglect at the hands of his biological mother and several foster-care parents. By all accounts, Poff and Kamin brought stability and love to the life of a boy who had never experienced either.

The Oakland couple also appeared to have been the ideal parents for a child with a troubled past. Poff, 50, worked with homeless adults for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and Kamin, 55, was a psychologist for the city’s jails. “If anyone could help this kid, it was them,” Masover said.

But while Poff and Kamin possessed more knowledge, experience, and resources than the average prospective adoptive parents, it is unclear how detailed of a history they received when they adopted Moses. Laws and practices that keep some information about juveniles confidential may have prevented the couple from fully realizing the harmful and lasting impacts the abuse had on him.

The story of Moses and his adoptive parents also helps illustrate a burden that adoption agencies and social workers shoulder when dealing with children who have been badly abused and neglected: These kids desperately need to find stable, caring homes so as to break the cycle of abuse that is all too common in the foster-care system, but disclosing too much information about a child’s traumatic history may scare off many prospective parents. In addition, experts say that a lack of support services for adoptive parents of abused and neglected kids is a chronic problem nationwide.

On January 26, 2012, after an argument with Poff, Moses choked his adoptive mother to death. He then waited until Kamin came home and strangled him, too. Moses was fifteen at the time.

Now seventeen, Moses resides in what could be his final state-ordered placement: the California correctional system. He was charged as an adult in Alameda County Superior Court, pleaded guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder, 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 just moments before his sentencing earlier this year. “I’m just going to fade away. I hope none of you remember me ever again.”

As Masover recalled those moments in court, his eyes cast down and he shook 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,” Masover said.

With only their exchange of a few voicemails from the juvenile detention center and brief letters, Masover remains one of few people still in contact with Moses.

Moses’ attorney, Alameda County Assistant Public Defender Andrew Steckler, contended that the boy’s troubled upbringing, born in squalor and bred in abuse, led to his violent actions.

Moses was born in San Jose on April 3, 1996, to Rosa Smith. According to court records, he was only a year old when social services was called for reports of “neglect, yelling, forceful yanking, and [his] incessant crying.” Moses was the third child born to Smith; her first two children had already been removed from custody “due to neglect and abuse.”

On September 10, 1999, a social worker made an unannounced visit to Smith’s home and discovered Moses “without any clothes on, smelling strong[ly] of urine.” The social worker also found “baby bottles with curdled milk.” Despite these conditions and Smith’s long history with child protective services, the three-year-old boy remained in his mother’s custody.

Child Protective Services eventually took Moses away from his mother a few months later after he and his toddler brother were found unsupervised, playing in the street, wearing nothing but diapers while their mother slept inside her home. According to court documents, Smith had a “history of substance abuse, interpersonal abuse, domestic violence, and financial issues.” In a psychological and social history presented by Moses’ defense attorney during his criminal court case, Smith had once told psychologists that she “had thoughts about killing [her] own mother because [she] was so angry with her.”

In a court-ordered psychological evaluation by clinical psychologist Amy Watts following the murders, Moses reported having few memories of his biological mother. During one interview with Watts, Moses remembered that he had to “fight hard in order to eat and to sleep.”

One of his earliest memories involved him being outside on the street, without his mother, digging through garbage cans for food. Moses also vividly recounted finding a hot dog covered in ants and taking a bite of it before giving it to his younger brother and baby sister (also born to Smith) to share. He was three at the time.

After Child Protective Services (CPS) removed him from Smith’s care, Moses lived through three years of dependency hearings, abusive foster homes, and near-adoptions before finally meeting his adoptive parents. From ages three to six, he was placed in several different homes. The case files described one family that recounted having no troubles, but 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 noted him having “obsessions with food,” and even hoarding it in his bedroom, likely as a result of being neglected by his birth mother.

These details were among numerous others presented to the judge by Steckler, who argued for Moses to be tried as a juvenile, contending that he was damaged by the system. Watts and Steckler also contended that the horrible experiences of Moses’ early life shaped his lack of emotional attachment and led to poor self-control and aggressive behavior that would follow into his teens.

Troubled childhood histories similar to the one that Moses experienced are not rare, and a majority of foster youth experience multiple placements before either being permanently adopted or reunited with their birth family. According to UC Berkeley’s Child Welfare Database, nearly two-thirds of California foster children experience two placements or more by their second birthday, and 20 percent of those children experience more than two placements.

A 2012 UC San Diego study 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 stated. “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’ criminal case, he recalled being hit on his head by a cane while strapped into a car seat. On another occasion while in foster care, Moses remembered being locked in a basement for two weeks, in the dark. He also reported times in which he was “tied up, held down, and slapped.”

A 1999 United Kingdom study examined why children in out-of-home placements are especially susceptible to repeated abuse. It found that “certain children are more vulnerable [particularly] young children, children with disabilities, and children with behavioral and emotional difficulties.” The study also found that boys were twice as likely as girls to be physically abused by foster care providers.

“Many kids entering foster care have already been harmed psychologically and emotionally and have developed difficult behaviors experienced as dysfunctional to new [caregivers],” the study said. These experiences make children decidedly more at risk for repeated maltreatment.

During the three years Moses was in foster care, there were two failed adoption attempts. In both cases, the potential adoptive parents changed their minds about adopting Moses due to his “behavior issues,” according to his foster care history as detailed in court records.

It would not be until 2002, and three years in foster care, that he would meet and eventually move in with Susan Poff and Bob Kamin.

Historically, adoption agencies and social workers kept prospective adoptive parents in the dark about a child’s history of abuse and neglect. Since the 1980s, however, laws have required them to provide detailed histories. “The earlier and traditional practice [when adopting a child] had been ‘the less you know, the better,'” said Joan Hollinger, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Law and a leading scholar on adoption law and practice. “[But now] there are supposed to be these disclosure meetings and I think these meetings do occur.”

The disclosure meetings to which Hollinger referred are meant to inform the prospective adoption parents of birth records, medical history, and any involvement with CPS. But the process is far from perfect. “As children enter foster care, there is information that goes with them, but there is a lot that slips through the cracks. … And although it is now an obligation to disclose what is in the record, there remains this gap with neglect and abuse cases,” Hollinger said.

Hollinger explained that confidentiality rules block adoption agencies and social workers from disclosing everything. For example, they typically will not disclose allegations of abuse that were never proven.

Some of the psychological evaluations that detailed Moses’ traumatic history were presented in court after the teen had killed his adoptive parents. As such, exactly what Poff and Kamin knew about Moses’ childhood may never be fully known. For example, it’s not clear whether they knew of Moses being hit on the head with a cane while in foster care.

Hollinger also said that adoption agencies and social workers do not have an obligation to warn prospective parents about connections between child abuse and violent behavior later on.

At the same time, child social workers have an ethical responsibility to help abused and neglected kids find permanent homes and not keep them dangling in the foster care system. “You’re a caseworker trying to complete and finalize a placement for a kid who certainly needs permanency, and you’re committed to having this file be closed in what seems a positive way,” Hollinger explained. “So how can you then sit there across the table from the prospective parents and say, ‘There are 99 red flags there and let’s talk about how serious this is.'”

So, what’s the answer? What can be changed systemically to create a more transparent adoption process?

Hollinger said she doesn’t think additional legislation will solve the problem. Instead, the adoption process involving abused and neglected children should be reformed to become more pragmatic and child-focused. Right now, Hollinger said there’s not much time devoted to how “you get a troubled kid through a week or a day.”

Poff and Kamin adopted Moses when he was six years old. When they first brought him home “he thought everyone was his mom,” Masover said. Moses also repeatedly asked Poff if he was “going to be sent away again,” Masover said.

Yet despite the early traumas, Moses “was a pretty affectionate kid when he was little,” Masover said. “He was a little shy around all these adults but then he would come out.”

From the earliest years with his adoptive parents, Moses was surrounded with a warm community of friends and family close to Poff and Kamin, Masover added. “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.”

Masover said Poff and Kamin “knew some stories” about the abuse Moses endured. “He was starting with all the cards stacked against him and Bob and Susan knew that,” Masover said. The couple also understood 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 Poff and Kamin “spent a lot of time teaching him and helping him to catch up in school.” They assessed him for special education but he did not qualify at the time. They made sure he saw a therapist at school everyday.

But 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 Moses’ lawyers in court 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 the other boy’s nose.

As Moses grew older, his behavioral problems also appeared to take a toll on his adoptive parents who reportedly became impatient with him. In an interview by an investigator from the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, the brother of Moses’ adoptive father, Bruce Kamin, 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 Poff reportedly had a conflict-laden relationship. They often engaged in yelling matches at home. Moses also told Watts that he did not have a good relationship with Kamin either.

Despite these problems, 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.”

On January 26, 2012, after he murdered Poff and Kamin, Moses told police that he had had an argument with his mother over being suspended from school for using marijuana. Authorities confirmed that he was facing expulsion for the infraction.

“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 authorities, he “clicked off.”

Moses choked Poff to death. He then waited for Kamin to return, fearful of his adoptive father’s reaction to killing Poff, and then strangled him to death as well. He then put their bodies in the family car parked on the street, and attempted to set it on fire.

He got in the car with them, hoping to kill himself, too. When no explosion came, he returned to the house, leaving the bodies of his adoptive parents in the vehicle.

Steckler, Moses’ lawyer, wrote in a letter asking for Moses to be tried in juvenile court (rather than adult criminal court), “Moses is a deeply psychologically troubled child. But by no stretch of the imagination is he evil.”

Masover told me that “Drew [Steckler] tried any 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.”

Steckler wanted Moses to be judged in the eyes of the law as a broken child rather than cold-blooded murderer.

Although it may be impossible to know what Poff and Kamin knew about Moses’ troubled upbringing, it’s clear that parents who adopt abused and neglected children are not well-supported and not always well-informed.

And neither are social workers. Jane Troglia, a former adoption social worker and CPS worker in Sacramento County, said social workers simply don’t “always have all the information or have the whole picture” about a child’s past.

The former CPS worker said that it can be difficult at times to substantiate allegations of abuse because of the lack of physical evidence, children changing their story, and social workers taking too long to reach foster children after an accusation has been made. “I had a kid who told me, ‘my bruises faded by the time my social worker made it out to investigate,'” Troglia said.

And according to a recent University of South Carolina, Columbia, study, child abuse is far more common than reports would indicate. The study concluded that the official rates of substantiated child maltreatment and even the referral rates for alleged maltreatment “likely represent only the tip of the iceberg” of all abuse cases. Using local hospitalization and emergency department records of children brought in for injuries, the researchers found that the prevalence of child maltreatment was much greater than official statistics stated based on CPS records alone.

Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley and a prominent scholar on child welfare policy in the United States, agrees with Hollinger that the US needs better post-adoption services, particularly for abused and neglected children. “There is not a systematic path in place to get those kids the services they need … because there is zero federal funding assigned to post-adoption services and there are very few other dollars available to counties,” she said.

After Moses’ sentencing hearing, I asked Masover if he believes Moses is broken. He took 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, however, 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 said.

He wondered 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.”


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