Would we still fail Josh Klaver today?
So many human failings conspired to end the short, sad life of Joshua Sean Klaver nearly 30 years ago that his story still evokes tears.
Even from people who never knew him.
The tragic tale woven with humanity, insight and grace by reporter Julia Prodis Sulek in The Mercury News, East Bay Times and in popular podcasts during the past week is frustrating and painful to experience. But it’s so very important.
It shows how different incidents and elements, big and small, can build into unspeakable tragedy. And it reminds us all of our shared responsibility for one another — particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
At 10 years old, Josh Klaver was found hanging from a metal meat rail in a barn at the San Martin farm where his father and stepmother lived. The next day, he was supposed to talk to a judge in the custody struggle between his father and mother.
Josh’s death was ruled a suicide. His mother, Kathy Atkins, always believed his father, then Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriff K.W. Klaver, killed their son.
The case has been re-examined over the years by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, the state attorney general and the county coroner. None has reached a conclusion of murder, although the most recent finding listed child abuse as a contributing factor to suicide.
The failings of the Sheriff’s Department, led at the time by Sheriff Robert Winter, were legion. Deputies did not pursue serious reports of child abuse. When Josh was found dead, they might have ignored evidence calling into question whether it was suicide.
But there were other hints of trouble along the way. Josh often stayed at a friend’s house past bedtime, as if he didn’t want to go home. A child protective service worker saw he was afraid of his father. Klaver’s first wife didn’t report abuse at the time but later testified to it in court.
One judge’s factual findings of abuse never were passed along to the next judge hearing a custody case. Atkins blames herself for her years of drug abuse that allowed Klaver initially to take custody of the child.
Sheriff Laurie Smith says the failure to prosecute abuse early on was the clearest failure of the department she now runs. She says better procedures, training and stricter accountability today might not prevent officers from trying to protect a colleague, but they would be far less likely to succeed and would face serious consequences.
Responsibilities of social workers, teachers and others are clearer and more empowering today. But it’s too easy to say the system 30 years ago failed Josh. People — some of them well-meaning — failed him.
It happens still. It usually comes to light when a child has died.
This is why Sulek’s series is important. It’s a cautionary tale for us all. Nobody wants to confront the death of a child and think: “Wait — could I have prevented this?”
Sheriff Laurie Smith said the failure to prosecute abuse early on was the clearest failure of the department she now runs. She said better procedures, training and stricter accountability today might not prevent officers from trying to protect a colleague, but they would be far less likely to succeed and would face serious consequences.