Did the City of Tacoma’s top advocate for domestic violence victims act responsibly to protect a woman who reached out to escape the escalating abuse of an estranged husband?
Or, did Gloria China Fortson, acting on unfounded abuse allegations, butt into a custody battle, overstep her authority and misuse city funds to help the woman break the law?
A city investigation last year found the latter, concluding that the longtime victims’ advocate broke city ethics rules in 2007 by helping a client leave the state with her children.
In the midst of a custody dispute, a judge had granted Keisha Jackson’s request to take her children to visit her ailing father in Florida with one condition: That she return within three weeks. Instead, Jackson – driving a van rented with city funds by Fortson – absconded with her children and was gone for more than seven months.
“I had no clue where they were,” said Kelvin Jackson, the ex-husband who had court-ordered visitation rights to his children. “It was the worst time in my life.”
Seven months later, after police in Florida finally caught up with Keisha Jackson, arrested her and sent her back to Washington, it was Fortson who was there to bail her out.
What’s more, after city officials received a complaint to look into Fortson’s conduct, the city’s investigator questioned why Fortson even intervened in a case that amounted to a bitter, if complicated, separation and custody battle.
Despite the findings of the city investigation, Fortson has stayed on the city payroll as she appealed – maintaining that she acted to protect a victim and her children. On Monday, a city hearing examiner is scheduled to hear the case.
The investigator reviewed court records and police reports and interviewed local cops, but found scant evidence that domestic violence alleged by Keisha Jackson actually occurred to justify Fortson’s involvement.
Although city officials have noted that criminal abuse charges are not required to receive domestic violence services – so as not to discourage victims from seeking help – the investigator concluded: “Evidence fails to substantiate that domestic violence issues regarding Mr. Jackson ever existed and further indicates Keisha Jackson’s representations of such as self-serving in the context of a custody dispute.”
The case could have broader implications for Tacoma’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Program and the way services for victims are handled in a city deeply scarred by the issue.
Fortson, 54, who goes by her middle name, China, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. She has denied wrongdoing and has criticized the findings as irresponsible.
In an affidavit last year, she characterized the city’s investigation as “full of suspicion, guesswork and assumptions,” adding that the findings are “highly prejudicial to me personally as well as to … domestic violence education efforts on the part of the City of Tacoma.”
Steve Downing, Fortson’s attorney, described his client as “an extraordinary, outstanding, nationally recognized domestic violence advocate, and I don’t want to see her portrayed as anything less than she is.”
“I’ve got to wonder, are they out to get her?” he added. “Are they out to kill the domestic violence program in the city of Tacoma?”
AUDIT FINDS PROBLEMS
Kelvin Jackson says the case exemplifies why an overhaul of the program is needed. He contends that his wife trumped up her domestic violence claims to manipulate the system and obtain free legal advocacy – and did so with Fortson’s help.
“There need to be changes,” Kelvin Jackson said, “starting with China and her supervisor.”
Some changes already have been made. A separate city audit of the program, sparked in part by Fortson’s ethics probe, found several problems with supervision and spending. It has resulted in new and improved accounting systems, policies and other corrective action, city officials say.
And if the ethics violation is upheld, more change is likely: Fortson – the only full-time domestic violence project specialist the city has known – could be fired. The decision would fall to City Manager Eric Anderson.
In the meantime, she remains working in her $61,000-per-year job. Anderson and John Briehl, Fortson’s boss and director of the city’s Human Rights and Human Services Department, could have suspended Fortson pending the appeal’s outcome. Neither would specifically comment on the case while the appeal runs its course.
“I can’t for the life of me understand how she can still be employed in the same capacity after all this,” Kelvin Jackson said.
During the course of his court battle, Jackson, who ultimately won custody of his daughter and received $29,000 from the city to settle a claim he filed over the case, repeatedly had complained to Fortson’s supervisors about her conduct in the case beginning in late 2006.
But it wasn’t until a deputy Pierce County prosecutor sent a complaint to Anderson in May 2008 that the city opened a formal ethics investigation.
Weeks earlier, Deputy Prosecutor Grant Blinn had charged Keisha Jackson with two counts of felony custodial interference after she was arrested in Florida on a warrant. She was extradited and had been booked into the Pierce County Jail – until Fortson paid the $250 bond to bail her out.
“I thought this just kind of stinks,” Blinn recently recalled. “My primary concern was taxpayers’ dollars were being used to post bail for criminal defendants.”
Blinn’s letter to Anderson also questioned whether Fortson’s perceived friendship with Keisha Jackson had crossed professional boundaries. Whether personal or strictly professional, that relationship began when the Puyallup woman walked into the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center four years ago, claiming she feared for the safety of herself and her children.
It had been over 18 months since Keisha Jackson had lived with Kelvin, when she came to the Judson center in August 2006.
The couple had served in the Army and married in 1992, even though Keisha had yet to divorce her first husband, records show. Kelvin left the home in early 2005, and Keisha filed for separation later that year. In court, each parent sought custody of their two children – a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter Quiymani.
Meeting with a caseworker at the Judson center, Jackson alleged that her husband was abusive and that she feared him.
In a recent interview with The News Tribune, Keisha Jackson said the abuse began when the couple were still together and continued after they parted.
“He was continuously bullying me, harassing and stalking me, but the court wasn’t even much paying attention to what I was saying,” she said. “He would also be mean to my children – push them down, call them names, things like that.”
The pastor at her church suggested she go to the Judson center “because what I was experiencing was domestic violence,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even know that what I was going through was domestic violence.”
The Judson center caseworker soon called in China Fortson, records show.
Fortson, a graduate of The Evergreen State College with a long community service record, had helped to launch the city’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Program in 1998. As the city’s lone full-time victims advocate, Fortson serves about 350 people per year, providing them help with legal aid, food and shelter, among other things.
Although the city generally limits its domestic violence advocacy service to residents only, case-by-case exceptions have been made. After Tacoma Police Chief David Brame fatally shot his wife and then killed himself in 2003, the city stepped up its domestic violence resources and collaboration, including joining with the county to fund the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center, named in honor of Brame’s wife. The city’s DV program now works in concert with the center and the YWCA, serving victims across Pierce County.
“The world of domestic violence does not know limits, and therefore we provide reciprocity between jurisdictions,” Briehl is quoted as telling a city investigator in 2008. “… Sometimes we need to offer our services to nonresidents.”
As the couple’s custody case dragged on into late 2006, a new figure began to show up at hearings and visitation exchanges on behalf of Keisha Jackson.
“I was very confused,” Kelvin Jackson recently recalled of his first encounter with China Fortson. “Who was this person, and why was she involved?”
When his estranged wife brought only his daughter to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend visitation exchange in 2006, Kelvin Jackson said he confronted her: Where was his son? He claimed Keisha Jackson responded by screaming at him that the boy didn’t want to see him.
Later, Jackson said, an unknown woman called and told him his son was old enough to make his own decisions.
“I told her that’s ridiculous,” he recalled. “He was 13 years old.”
Jackson said that when he pressed the woman about who she was, China Fortson quickly told him her name, misrepresented herself as a “CPS” (Child Protective Services) worker, then became verbally abusive and hung up on him. Jackson later documented his phone conversation with Fortson in a court affidavit and in complaints to her supervisor.
Jackson and Tonya Dran, his then-girlfriend who attended the child exchange, each filed affidavits soon after, alleging Keisha Jackson had violated the court’s parenting plan by not bringing her son to the visitation exchange.
Fortson later said Kelvin Jackson had “attack(ed) my integrity” when she filed a four-page court declaration and 70 pages of exhibits to rebut his allegations and raise questions about his character.
Among the items filed was a 2004 Lakewood police report alleging Jackson had embezzled money from his former employer. Six months earlier, prosecutors had decided not to charge Jackson because of “insufficient evidence,” Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mary Robnett recently said. Fortson’s filings made no reference to the decision.
Fortson also included civil records showing Jackson and his girlfriend had delinquent tax judgments, and a state social worker’s report that opined Jackson had “played a large role in the trauma and chaos” surrounding his family.
“Mr. Jackson(’s) credibility would seem to have a few flaws in it,” Fortson wrote.
By late 2006 and into early 2007, Kelvin Jackson had filed several complaints to Fortson’s supervisor at the city’s Human Rights and Human Services Department. His e-mails complained that Fortson had lied to him, harassed him, given damaging advice to his children and abused her authority.
“I never got a single response,” he said.
At least some of the complaints were logged into the city’s complaint system, records show. Fortson responded to one in January 2007, writing to her boss that Jackson’s claims were lies. Kelvin Jackson was an abuser, Fortson wrote. It was her job to help protect his wife and kids.
And if Jackson continued to complain and “harass my supervisor,” she added, “I will be force(d) to get a anti-harassment order against him.”
VISIT TO FLORIDA
In June 2007, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Susan Serko decreed the Jacksons’ marriage invalid and issued a parenting plan. It called for daughter Quiymani to primarily live with her mom and gave liberal unsupervised visitation rights to her father. Both parents received equal authority in making major decisions.
Custody issues involving the son – who lived with his mom and hadn’t seen his father for seven months – were to be resolved later, pending counseling reports.
Notations in the final order signed by the judge also showed that Serko wasn’t convinced by Keisha Jackson’s domestic violence claims. Under the “Parental Conduct” and “Other Factors” sections of the plan’s form – areas that trigger restrictions on parental rights if domestic violence is found to exist – the order reads: “Does Not Apply.”
Less than two months later, Keisha Jackson returned to court, seeking permission to take her children to visit her cancer-stricken father in Florida. If allowed, the trip meant Quiymani would miss at least one scheduled visitation with her dad.
Kelvin Jackson argued against his ex-wife’s request.
“I don’t trust the fact that she’s going to go to Florida and come back,” he told Serko, according to hearing transcripts.
Jackson said he feared that once there, Keisha would file paperwork to make her three-week trip permanent.
Serko decided to allow the trip – with one condition.
“Keisha Jackson shall return to the state of Washington with the children no later than September 3rd, 2007,” she ordered.
But by Sept. 5, Keisha Jackson still hadn’t left Washington.
“The day we were supposed to leave, all the transmission fluid from my car conveniently disappeared,” Jackson recently said, implying her ex-husband was to blame.
Records show she did not contact the court to seek to modify the judge’s order. She did call Fortson for help.
Fortson paid $204 to put Keisha and her children up for two nights in a SeaTac hotel and paid $267 to rent a van for Jackson to drive to Florida, records show. She later claimed reimbursements from the city for “victim relocation.”
Both women have since claimed that Kelvin Jackson was making threats that were escalating, requiring Fortson to take action.
On Sept. 7 – four days after the judge’s deadline for returning – Keisha Jackson left in the van rented by Fortson. Joining her was her daughter, Quiymani, and a 14-year-old disabled niece in her care. The son and Keisha’s 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage separately took a bus.
Jackson initially stopped in Mississippi, where she enrolled Quiymani in school, records show. Later, she took the children to Florida, where they stayed variously with their grandfather and a neighbor, records show.
By late January 2008, it was clear Keisha Jackson intended to make her stay permanent. She filed papers in a Florida court seeking child support, custody and a protection order against Kelvin Jackson.
In March 2008, Blinn, the deputy prosecutor, obtained a warrant for Keisha Jackson and habeas corpus writs to return the Jackson children to Washington.
On March 28, 2008, after Keisha Jackson appeared in a Florida court for a protection order hearing, deputies arrested her for suspicion of felony custodial interference. She was extradited to Washington three weeks later, and booked into the Pierce County Jail.
Meantime, Kelvin Jackson still couldn’t find his children. “I knew they were in Florida,” he said, “but I didn’t know where.”
In fact, his son was living at his grandfather’s home while Quiymani lived with a neighbor.
“My mom didn’t want us to talk to our dad,” Quiymani recalled. “I was afraid to call.”
But with her mother jailed in April 2008, Quiymani finally asked the woman she lived with to call her dad.
“I missed him.”
Soon, the girl was on a flight bound for Sea-Tac Airport.
Blinn recalls speaking with Fortson on the phone shortly after Keisha Jackson’s arrest. Fortson seemed “irritated and unprofessional” when telling him that Kelvin Jackson had an extensive history of abuse against Keisha Jackson and others, Blinn said.
“I repeatedly reminded her it wasn’t my job to decide blame, but Ms. Jackson had violated a court order,” Blinn said he told her. “She didn’t seem satisfied with my explanation.”
Kelvin Jackson later informed Blinn that Fortson had bailed out his ex-wife. Blinn later raised the issue to Jacqueline Strong-Moss, one of Fortson’s supervisors.
“I told her I’m hearing rumors that China had posted her own funds for Ms. Jackson’s bail,” Blinn recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh no, It wasn’t her personal funds. It was (taxpayer) funds.’”
“My reaction was, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ And her’s was, ‘Well, yeah, this is not that uncommon.’”
Blinn sent a formal complaint to Tacoma’s city manager.
In late May 2008, the city assigned risk analyst Tracy Storwick to investigate.
Meanwhile, prosecutors considered charging Fortson with custodial interference for helping Keisha Jackson violate the court order. But after Jackson agreed to plead to a reduced contempt of court charge, they opted not to charge Fortson.
“There was something that potentially could have been charged,” said Brian Wasankari, a deputy prosecutor who reviewed the case. “But given that the person (who Fortson) helped had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor instead of a felony, it didn’t seem just to charge (Fortson) with a felony.”
On Dec. 22, 2008, Storwick issued her findings to city officials, determining that evidence “strongly suggested” Fortson had abused her authority and misused city funds to benefit Jackson.
The investigation didn’t prove Fortson had used public money to bail out Jackson. Fortson claimed the money came from outside sources – a local consortium that helps victims. The investigator determined that the bail was paid from funds in a Tapco Credit Union account in Fortson’s name but couldn’t substantiate where the funds in the account came from.
But the investigation also found that Fortson previously had used taxpayer funds to bail out at least one jailed client. That case involved paying $175 for a woman taken into custody for driving with a suspended license, records show.
In her written response to the case last year, Fortson denied using city funds for Keisha Jackson’s bail, but acknowledged “several times in the past I have bailed out clients and was reimbursed by the City of Tacoma.”
Evidence also suggested that Fortson misspent public funds for her own “personal and private convenience,” the report said, including paying off $250 in traffic tickets and fines on her husband’s car. Fortson said the fines – mostly for parking tickets – were legitimate city expenses incurred while she was attending court hearings on official business.
The report also found that Fortson likely overstepped her authority by intervening in the Jacksons’ civil case because no “clear nexus to domestic violence” existed.
Still, Storwick could not prove Fortson had broken any ethics rules, in part because her supervisors, including Briehl and Strong-Moss, knew of or authorized her actions.
Storwick “strongly recommended” the city implement better oversight of Fortson’s position. She added that the ethics probe should be reopened if new information emerged.
In early 2009, the city manager’s office remanded the case for further investigation. About a month later, after Storwick re-interviewed Fortson, she issued a supplemental report.
It found Fortson had “knowingly misused her official city position and city funds” by aiding Keisha Jackson’s illegal trip to Florida.
Storwick noted that at times Fortson changed her story and “repeatedly offered conflicting rationales” when asked who had paid for Keisha Jackson’s hotel room and rental van. Fortson also gave Storwick the wrong documentation when asked to support claims that outside state funds had covered those expenses, the report said.
Based on the evidence, Storwick reasoned that Fortson either knowingly had helped Jackson make the trip, or she had misrepresented the reason for renting the van to obtain funds for unauthorized purposes. Either way, the report found that Fortson had violated the city’s ethics code.
FORTSON FIRES BACK
In March 2009, Fortson criticized both reports as “defective” in an 18-page response.
She denied ever being Keisha Jackson’s friend, said she hadn’t misused city funds, and disputed the finding that she’d violated any ethics rules.
Fortson also denied knowing details of the court order requiring Jackson’s return to Washington. Then, she blasted Blinn and Storwick for acting irresponsibly.
“Domestic violence is not always documented,” Fortson wrote. “It would seem incredulous to me that anyone who has been through the David Brame and John Mummhoud (sic) incident and/or the efforts made by the City of Tacoma to educate its employees regarding domestic violence would end up making such bold and ridiculous statements in any official report about ‘undocumented’ allegations of domestic violence.”
Downing, Fortson’s lawyer, added that his client’s actions were within the scope of her job and noted that no one from the city even interviewed Keisha Jackson.
“How can you investigate this without talking to one of the primary people involved?” he asked.
Keisha Jackson, 40, recently insisted her abuse claims are true.
“From what I understand, it was her job to work with me the way she did,” she said. “Haven’t you seen all the women out there who complain and complain about domestic violence, and no one ever does anything and they end up dead?”
‘TIRED OF FIGHTING’
Inside an airy rambler home on a quiet Lakewood street, Quiymani Jackson, now 13, slouched into a dark sofa and recalled a city advocate who, as a 9-year-old kid, she called “Ms. China.”
“Sometimes I thought of her as a friend, sometimes as just a (case)worker,” she said.
The woman made her a flower girl in her wedding, even once bought her a pet turtle.
“I liked her,” Quiymani said.
Mani, as she likes to be called, then described her life’s upheaval three years ago, when her mom packed her and a disabled cousin into a van and headed south. She missed a lot of school, she said. She talked to a lot of counselors. Her mom coached her on what to say, she said.
“I used to have nightmares with my mom,” she said. “I always woke up crying, in the fetal position.”
Mani Jackson said her life is much better now since she came to live here, with her father, his new wife and the wife’s son. Finally, she addressed a lingering question: “My dad doesn’t beat me.”
After a second trial in late 2008, Kelvin Jackson won custody of Mani and granted his ex-wife supervised visitation.
Jackson’s son, now 17, still lives with his mom. After losing contact with his son for two years, Kelvin Jackson chose not seek custody. He said he hopes to reconnect when his son turns 18.
Earlier this year, the City of Tacoma paid Jackson $29,000 to settle a $1 million claim he brought based on Fortson’s conduct. Jackson, who removes asbestos for a living, said he isn’t happy with the city’s settlement.
“I was just tired of fighting,” he said. “No amount of money is going to take away the pain of what we’ve gone through.”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542