The former foster mother of a medically fragile girl in the Santa Clara County foster system is questioning why the child was removed from her care and placed in a transitional home for men with her father. Two months later, she was found unresponsive in her crib and later died at the hospital.
San Jose police responded to the halfway house in the 500 block of Glenburry Way after receiving a call that 2-year-old Kelly Nguyen wasn’t breathing at 1:15 a.m. on Feb. 28. She was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The coroner has not released the cause of death and the San Jose Police Department has not launched a criminal investigation.
Now, Kelly’s former foster mom is speaking out, saying she thinks her death could have been prevented. Shellie Nichol says she expressed serious concerns to the Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children’s about the agency’s decision to place the girl with her biological father, who Nichol said has a history of drug use.
“We were gravely concerned you would take a non-verbal girl to a men’s halfway house overnight to begin with,” Nichol said. “We didn’t understand how that was being allowed. It seemed crazy to us.”
Nichol has been a foster parent for 15 years and says she and her husband were asked by social workers if they would be willing to adopt Kelly because it appeared she was unlikely to be reunited with her parents. They agreed.
"She was a ray of light," Nichol said. The mother of six said she's dedicated her life to being a foster parent and had become incredibly close to the girl who lived in her home for six months.
“She couldn’t be angry,” Nichol said. “She was always kissing and hugging and smiling and giggling.”
But Nichol said her family’s life was turned upside down last December when the agency informed her they would be removing Kelly from their home. Nichol said she never got a straight answer from social workers and was given conflicting reasons for Kelly’s removal, from not providing adequate medical care to taking too much control over the child’s medical care.
Yet a December 2015 letter obtained by NBC Bay Area from Kelly’s doctor to the social worker in charge of Kelly’s case expressed concerns about the girl’s placement with her father. The doctor also informed the agency that Kelly’s foster parents were providing "diligent" care for the girl.
"As you know, Kelly is a 1-year old little girl in foster care, who has been shown to have an unusual genetic abnormality,” the letter stated. “As it is planned that she return to her father’s care, I wanted to provide you with this medical summary of her condition and the concerns held by her medical providers. She is a complicated little girl who will require intense attention from her caregivers to achieve her best outcome.”
Nichol said she was never given notice of Kelly’s removal or the opportunity to fight the removal in person.
“There was absolutely no reason to remove Kiki [Nichol’s nickname for Kelly] from our home,” Nichol said. “She was illegally removed. We are supposed to be given a seven day written notice. We are supposed to have a meeting and discuss the removal of this child.”
The Santa Clara County Department of Social Services provided a statement regarding Kelly’s death, but said they could not provide answers to specific questions from NBC Bay Area by deadline, such as why the child was placed in a transitional home for men or if that was a common practice for the agency.
“We grieve the passing of a child at such a young age,” the agency said in a written statement. “Our thoughts are with the child’s family. Confidentiality laws prevent us from commenting about a specific child or case. Information regarding the cause of death will be released through the Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office.”
Nichol said Kelly’s removal devastated the family and they worried about her safety.
“My kids didn’t get to say goodbye,” Nichol said. “We didn’t know that would be the last time we’d see her alive. There’s this agony inside of us. Unless you’ve lost someone you love you wouldn’t understand. We lay in bed at night and we cannot sleep.”
Nichol said she fought the agency’s decision as hard as she could, even writing the director of the Department of Family and Children’s Services Lori Medina. Medina wrote back saying their primary focus was on Kelly.
“I have been meeting with a variety of the staff involved with Kelly,” Medina’s email said. “I really regret that you feel you and Kelly do not matter, and nothing could be further from the truth. At this point, our primary focus is on Kelly, and I will have the manager follow-up with her new caregiver regarding her transition. Thank you for all that you have done, and take care.”
In fact, Nichol first contacted NBC Bay Area before Kelly died, after she saw these reports in October about the foster system in Santa Clara County. At the time, Nichol said the girl had been removed illegally from her home and she was worried about the agency’s decision to place Kelly with her father.
After Kelly’s death, Nichol wrote Medina again. Medina responded in an email saying, “We are actively reviewing this and are saddened by her passing.”
Despite her dedication to helping kids in the foster system, Nichol said she turned in her foster license to the county after Kelly was removed from her home. But Nichol says she will fight for reforms at the agency, such as reducing the heavy caseloads burdening social workers.
“If you’re going to allow something this outrageous and disgusting to happen, we can’t hang our hat with you,” Nichol said.