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.
Like Abbott, Diamond notified the proper authorities. For eight months she received virtually no assistance from the state in terms of protection or counseling for her hearing-impaired son. Desperate to find aid for him, Diamond finally surrendered the child to the state after a DCF caseworker convinced her that her son would be best served if the state held custody and that the duration of his stay wouldn't stretch past a few weeks.
"I didn't know what else to do. From day one [Kearney] was biased. You could tell in her demeanor," Diamond says. She further wonders how Kearney could have ignored four separate psychiatric recommendations that urged the court to reunite mother and son.
"All these professionals were saying, 'Send this child home, this woman's perfectly competent,'" says Diamond. "But she wouldn't."
Fred Goldstein, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represented Diamond last year, points to a system biased against parents as the culprit in his client's struggles.
"You've got the attorney general, the guardian ad litem, the foster group, and the DCF. As soon as one of them makes a decision, everybody goosesteps behind it, and then that's it. It's insane; the whole system's insane," he says. Goldstein agreed to do six months of pro bono work for Diamond after learning of her battles with the DCF and with Kearney, who presided over the case for approximately ten months.
Although Goldstein didn't represent Diamond during this time, he learned through fact-gathering that Kearney had taken the same stance with Abbott as she did with his client.
"From what I understand, it was a back of the hand, 'I don't want to hear from you people.' She knew when that case came up what she was going to do. There wasn't going to be a hearing. I don't think [Diamond] ever had a hearing until I represented her," says Goldstein.
Like Abbott's daughter, Diamond's son was placed in the custody of Children's Home Society. During the 19 months that her child remained in foster care, Diamond claims that she couldn't hold a job while attending court dates and mandated evaluations and therapy. One court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. L. Dennison Reed, charged her $25,000 for his evaluation. Diamond pulled a second mortgage on her house, and after shelling out $18,500, she was tapped out. She petitioned the court to provide her with an attorney.
"Kearney wouldn't appoint me anybody. She said that I wasn't indigent when she knew damn well that I was. Kearney appointed Reed and made me pay for the whole thing," says Diamond.
Reed was recently written about by daily newspapers for his outlandish fees, and although a Kearney spokesperson stated at the time that the judge was unaware of his high-priced services, Diamond still keeps a copy of a motion filed where the psychiatrist's fees are clearly stated. The motion was read, denied, and signed by Kearney.
With the help of Goldstein and others, Diamond has finally recovered her son from the system, but she remains outraged at the number of families that still endure its failings. Abbott's fight continues. Both parents believe that the courts and state agencies send a frightening dispatch to parents seeking to protect their children.
"If you believe your child is being abused, the message from the state is to keep your mouth shut. Don't call them for help, because you'll end up losing your child," says Diamond.
Next month a report compiled by the NCCPR will focus on Kearney's policies as DCF secretary and the harm the agency believes her policies have inflicted upon children. The report will include the observation that, while Kearney worked as a judge in Broward County, there was an unusually high rate of child removal in the county.
And last week a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the DCF by the Youth Law Center on behalf of 1400 Broward County foster children avoided trial by settling out of court. Lauded by Kearney as key in reforming the system, the settlement intends to create a dialogue between the Youth Law Center and Broward County's DCF. But the agreement draws sharp criticism from some civil-litigation lawyers and child-advocacy groups. As executive director for the NCCPR, Wexler is outraged at the settlement's use of vague wordings like "make a good faith effort" and "continue to try" when referring to foster care.
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"What it amounts to is that this organization gets to talk with the DCF. That's it. There's no enforcement; there isn't even an independent monitor appointed. The DCF gets to monitor itself," vents Wexler, referring to the agency's newfound responsibility to gauge and report on its own progress. A DCF spokesperson cited the best interests of the state's children as the key motivator behind the terms of the settlement.
Wexler has a different take. "This settlement has not one word about preventing the needless removal of children. This is a surrender to the DCF. It's a betrayal of Broward's most vulnerable children and families."