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.