A report from Humboldt Last Week (audio story starts at 12:28 in the player below and here)
[Warning: Some details in the story are disturbing. – MC]
In recent months a local mom has been sitting in the Humboldt County Correctional Facility, accused of killing her 17-year-old son about a month before local stay-at-home orders were enacted due to COVID-19.
The Eureka Police Department noted on the evening of Tuesday, February 18 they responded to a family disturbance and found a 17-year-old boy shot. The teenager then took an ambulance to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Based on their investigation, officers arrested 38-year old Pamela Faye Millsap for involuntary manslaughter as well as child abuse of the teen and a 10-year-old girl.
In a court document, EPD wrote that Millsap said she and the victim were in an argument which resulted in the unarmed teenager making death threats, so she loaded a shotgun in her bedroom and brandished it at him in the living room. Allegedly while her 10-year-old daughter watched, Millsap said she and the teen tussled over the weapon and it went off accidentally leaving a large bullet hole through his midsection. When officers arrived he was found unresponsive.
The child abuse charges in relation to the 10-year-old girl stem from the child witnessing the event, according to the document.
During interviews with friends of the teenage victim, Brooke Hansen, Mai Conway, and an anonymous subject provided woeful details about his life. In their comments they alleged he was held back a grade in elementary school due to instability at home, that his mom abused drugs and alcohol throughout his lifespan, that his mom abused him and his sister, that his mom molested him, that in middle school he was placed into foster care due to these instabilities, and that recently he wound up in juvenile detention for a stint.
An effort is underway to unseal records to corroborate some of these claims, but that process has been delayed due to the pandemic.
Those interviewed also noted it was a surprise the teen’s mom was able to regain custody of him following his stints in foster care and juvenile detention, and that any form of violence that may have landed him in juvenile detention was learned from his mom and in response to her actions as well as other family members.
They said the victim, who would’ve recently celebrated his 18th birthday, was misunderstood, ambitious, and on a pathway to success. They agreed the seemingly goal-oriented high school senior, who was on the cusp of moving out, had no business being placed back under the deadly supervision of his mom.
“He was a really good kid despite what he had been going through,” Hansen said. “We met some of his teachers and they were telling us about how after he was going to graduate he was on the path to go to the (California Conservation Corps) in Fortuna, and he had a pretty good future ahead of him.”
“(His mom) put him through a lot that he didn’t deserve,” Conway said. “He is really misunderstood and he was really mistreated…”
In the audio version of this story below, at 14:57 you can hear additional comments from Hansen and Conway.
Millsap’s attorney, Humboldt County Conflict Counsel April Van Dyke, said she could not comment because the information she has received is confidential.
Officials determined a fire at the scene of the homicide the next morning was unrelated to the shooting. The fire department indicated hoarding conditions may have worsened the blaze, which they believe was caused by combustibles too close to a floor furnace.
“The materials that were found near the floor furnace were typical household types of materials,” said Humboldt Bay Fire Battalion Chief Chris Emmons. “There were cardboard boxes, plastic containers, clothing, furniture items, etcetera. When I say ‘hoarding’ conditions, that is in reference to the volume or quantity of materials. Meaning, it was difficult for fire personnel to move due to the accumulation of personal belongings within the residence. There were areas that had to have materials moved to access rooms. There were doors that could not be opened completely. Essentially, there was what we refer to as, ‘high fuel loading,’ with fuel being combustible materials.”
[Pamela Faye Millsap is not to be confused with Pamlyn Millsap, a local woman and retired EPD employee. -MC]
A broader view of at-risk youth in Humboldt County today
[Most of the agencies mentioned below are currently prohibited from speaking about Millsap’s case. Their comments here are generalized. -MC]
“The loss of the life of one of our students is incredibly sad and disheartening,” Hartley said. “However, our resolve to support the development and resiliency of our children and community is more deliberate than ever.”
Speaking generally, Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson chatted a bit about the increasing attention being given to ACEs — adverse childhood experiences — and trauma-informed care. It’s a notion you see often about how the less childhood trauma one suffers, the better chances they have to succeed.
Humboldt County’s Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman noted his agency’s work helping at-risk youth and keeping the community safe, ranging from efforts such as therapy and family-centered case planning to juvenile detention. They work closely with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services who provide additional services. When Brenneman was interviewed in March, 94 kids were being overseen by the probation department and 53 were wards of the government. For some recent historical perspective, in the early 2000s, Humboldt County’s juvenile probation population peaked at over 300 kids.
“The challenges that face youth and families involved in juvenile probation are similar to those that face our community as a whole,” Brenneman said. “Many of these families struggle with obtaining safe and stable housing, finding employment that provides a living wage, and accessing health care. There are many things we can do to improve programs and build efficiencies in service delivery, but they will be overshadowed by those larger issues. I am hopeful that as the state continues to grapple with these problems, outcomes for youth on probation will improve.”
Brenneman said one idea they’re working on is improving extended-family finding and engagement to widen the net for youth to connect with family members they may be out of touch with, or old friends: “Those connections lead to better outcomes in the form of emotional support, preventing feelings of isolation and hopelessness, and sometimes alternative housing.”
So what about the challenge of kids in the delinquency system who may meet the criteria for foster care or alternative housing, but are resistant to placement?
“Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is difficult when everything is going well,” Brenneman said. “When other things are not going well, such as family dysfunction, homelessness, substance use, abuse, etcetera, it becomes particularly challenging. Youth deal with it in different ways. Some of those ways are challenging, but understandable. It is all about assisting them to navigate their predicament and helping them develop behaviors and thinking that supports positive change. For youth in the delinquency system, it is often necessary to balance their needs with community safety considerations as some of their behaviors put others in the community at risk.”
Amber Cosetti is a detective with the Eureka Police Department who among other things handles child abuse and sex crime cases. She said Child Welfare Services has been working harder and more thoroughly since the Attorney General investigation, and they’ve also been applying a new tool (the Commercial Sexual Exploitation Identification Tool, or CSE-IT) to evaluate and help kids potentially impacted by sex trafficking.
“I believe CWS and other agencies are doing what they can in order to assist at-risk youth in our county,” Cosetti said. “We have limited resources yet I know the (District Attorney’s) Office and other agencies have been trying to find ways — and money — to increase our abilities to provide more resources and services.”
Seven years ago Savanah McCarty founded the local non-profit Wild Souls Ranch, which includes a state-funded family-centered program she said was created partially in response to the failures of Child Welfare Services and the division’s continued reluctance to collaborate on the behalf of at-risk youth. She thinks drastic changes are needed at CWS from the top down such as more training, more staffing, and more community collaboration.
“I believe that CWS solely focuses on family reunification which can work for most situations, but not all,” McCarty said. “There needs to be a balance of child’s rights, and if it is actually safe for the child to be reunified to the home that they were removed from. This is why organizations like CASA are absolutely crucial in today’s county system, a pair of unbiased eyes that can advocate in court for the best interest of the child. But there are currently not enough CASA volunteers to ensure that every foster child has someone to advocate for their best interest, and that is concerning on many levels.”
“The county works with the community, including tribes, partner agencies, extended family and other natural family supports, to assess current safety and risk of future harm for children who come to the attention of Child Welfare Services,” said CWS Deputy Director Jeri Scardina. “When a child is assessed as unsafe and requiring alternative placement, the county follows federal, state and local licensing and placement regulations, policies and procedures to ensure placement standards and requirements are met. The Child Welfare Services Task Force was initiated in 2018, and has facilitated Child Welfare Services’ enhanced transparency and resulted in increased community input and involvement.”
Locals may remember in 2015 there was a State Attorney General investigation into Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services and their Child Welfare Services (CWS) along with the Sheriff’s Office following claims the agencies were falling behind investigating and communicating about cases of child abuse and neglect. That seems to be improving.
As of May 1, CWS had five investigations open more than 30 days, according to Humboldt County Department of Health & Human Services Public Education Officer Christine Messinger. That’s down from a roughly 300-case backlog peak in 2019.
On February 28 there were 407 children under the age of 18 in placement locally. As of May 2, there are 340 local children in out-of-home care, according to Messinger.
When stay-at-home orders were initiated due to COVID-19, many feared a possible uptick in domestic violence and child abuse calls with heightened stressors and time together.
“It all just adds stress on top of stress,” a doctor recently told PBS.“Any time there’s increased stress increases the risk of abuse on children.”
Humboldt County’s 24-Hour Child Welfare Crisis Line phone number is (707) 445-6180.
Millsap’s next court date
As court proceedings continue we’ll likely learn more details about how a seemingly at-risk youth had recently returned to a seemingly at-risk household.
Again, Millsap faces one count of involuntary manslaughter for shooting and killing her son with a shotgun and two felony counts of child abuse, the victims being her son and a 10-year-old girl.
Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 8.
She has pleaded “not guilty.”
Episode 169 of Humboldt Last Week, the audio version this story starts at 12:28 and includes more comments from friends of the victim
Also in episode 169 of Humboldt Last Week, find out how the following topics get mentioned: The COVID era, John Krasinski, the Green Bay Packers, NBC, beaches, questions about respect, a love story, unpopular protests, and Rolling Stone.
Humboldt Last Week episode partners: North Coast Co-op, STIL, Brick & Fire Bistro, Bongo Boy Studio, Trinidad Vacation Rental, North Coast Journal, Photography by Shi, Redheaded Blackbelt, 99.1 KISS FM
[Thank you to regular listeners of Humboldt Last Week. It’s available via Apple, Spotify, major podcast networks, and humboldtlastweek.com -MC]