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Paul Scott Abbott exhibits remarkable composure when discussing his four-year-old daughter, Ashleigh. Smartly dressed in a pressed shirt and tweedy sports jacket, he crosses one leg loosely over the other and places an open-palmed hand on his right knee. Only the occasional wavering of his voice reveals the strain of a battle he's fought for almost two years to reclaim Ashleigh from the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), a seizure he often refers to as "kidnapping."
And he essentially holds one woman liable for Ashleigh's 22-month stay at an emergency shelter: Kathleen Kearney, secretary and top dog of the DCF. According to Abbott, Judge Kathleen Kearney, while presiding over his daughter's dependency hearings, refused to grant him the opportunity to present evidence that would benefit his defense and prematurely and unjustly yanked his child from his care and placed her in Children's Home Society, where the girl still languishes.
"[Kearney] is unequivocally the one who is responsible for the destruction of my daughter," says Abbott, a freelance journalist and lay pastor at the Peace Lutheran Church in Hollywood. He credits his faith as the fuel behind his ability to cope with a bureaucratic morass that began in March 1998, when his then two-year-old daughter returned from a visit with his ex-wife with a swollen lip. Abbott recounts that he immediately notified the police, who informed him that they would call the state's abuse registry and report the incident.
After his divorce Abbott was awarded custody of Ashleigh but was required to make her available to her mother for visits purportedly supervised by a court appointee. He assumed that a subsequent inquiry by a DCF caseworker and a trip to Hollywood's DCF office would ensure his daughter's safety. It didn't.
Instead, after five weeks of silence, a DCF caseworker requested that Abbott find a responsible party with whom Ashleigh could stay until a shelter hearing was held.The hearing would determine whether or not there was probable cause for the state to hold Ashleigh in its care. Abbott wasn't accused of any wrongdoing at that time, and removing Ashleigh until the April 1998 hearing was a standard procedure. Abbott turned to his friend Dennis Wise, a veteran law-enforcement officer with the Broward Sheriff's Office, who readily agreed to help Abbott by allowing Ashleigh to remain with him until the hearing.
At the early-morning hearing that followed and in the eight months that Judge Kearney presided over the case, Wise attempted to speak on behalf of Abbott but was never allowed to do so. Abbott claims he was never afforded the chance to present testimony in his defense, and neither was anyone else. Abbott still keeps count of dozens of letters, crammed within file folders and shoeboxes brimming with related documents, written by friends, colleagues, and community leaders asking DCF and Kearney to reconsider Ashleigh's placement at the shelter.
"She refused to look at anything or talk to anybody," a still-bewildered Abbott says of Kearney. He states that, based solely upon a petition filed by a DCF caseworker after the brief March visit with Ashleigh, Kearney decided that the child would be held at the Children's Home Society indefinitely.
"That's where she's been for half of her life now. She's had ringworm and impetigo, [but] they claimed she had chicken pox. In fact they took away my right to see her for a number of months because I got her medical treatment. They said I was demonstrating oppositional behavior," says Abbott.
Ashleigh Abbott's bouts with illness and her father's onerous fight to reclaim her fail to surprise Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition For Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), a child-advocacy group devoted to reforming the child-protection system.
"We think there's no place worse to be a foster child than in Florida. We think that Kearney is responsible for that. Her performance at DCF has been abysmal; her entire approach is take the child and run," says Wexler. Kearney was unavailable for comment.
Wexler notes that the system is now consumed with "foster-care panic" and that courts and DCF caseworkers rashly pluck children from their homes because both fear news media and public wrath if their decisions to leave families intact result in abuse or death. He contends that Kearney's carried her better-safe-than-sorry philosophy from the bench to the state agency she now heads.
The outcome? According to Wexler, further crowding of already overcapacity foster-care facilities, the sometimes subsequent abuse endured in shelters, and the disintegration of families.
Abbott wholeheartedly agrees, and he's compiled more than a dozen testimonies from Broward parents who feel they too were victimized by a judge and a system more committed to substantiating the possibility of abuse than to a careful, impartial evaluation of facts. Abbott, who's informally dubbed files S.O.C.K. (Save Our Children From Kate), keeps an almost daily dialogue with Mary Ann Diamond, another parent who lost her child for 19 months to the foster-care system.
Diamond's and Abbott's cases follow similar paths. After returning from a visit with her ex-husband's family, Diamond witnessed her son grabbing older men's penises and other sexually inappropriate acts. The child had never acted out before, and Diamond feared he learned the behavior from a family member.