A scandal sixteen years in the making

Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News explains how there were warning signs about Jerry Sandusky as far back as 1995:

The earliest documented report of possible abuse at the hands of Sandusky is in 1995, when his now-legally adopted son was still a teenage foster child in his home.

The adoption file for Matt Sandusky, who had a different name at the time, contains letters of concern from his mother to children and youth officials and to a Centre County judge.

Matt’s biological mother, Debra Long, testified before the grand jury.

Matt, 33, is not one of the victims in the grand jury presentment, but he did testify before the grand jury.

Sandusky’s attorney, Joe Amendola, said Long is upset with Sandusky for helping her son and her allegations are not based in fact. Matt went to live with the Sandusky family after he was caught setting fire to a barn in 1995.

Children and Youth Services placed him with the Sandusky family at Jerry Sandusky’s request. He knew Matt through The Second Mile.

In his book, “Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story” several pages are devoted to Matt.

“He became an instant challenge for me,” Sandusky writes.

Debra Long was allowed to visit her son only one-half day per month after he went to live with the Sanduskys.

About four months after he went to live with Jerry, Matt attempted suicide with a girl who was also staying at Sandusky’s house.

“The probation department has some serious concerns about the juvenile’s safety and his current progress in placement with the Sandusky family,” wrote Terry L. Trude, a school-based probation officer, days after the suicide attempt.

The letter, addressed to Centre County Judge David Grine, also said Long was concerned about Matt’s safety and mental condition, and asked that Matt go to a different foster family.

Trude finally recommended that Matt’s placement in the Sandusky house be reviewed within two months.

The night of the suicide attempt, Matt wrote a letter to the probation officer dealing with his case.

It read, in part: “I would like to be placed back with the Sanduskys. I feel that they have supported me even when I have messed up. They are a loving caring group of people. I love both my biological family and the Sandusky family.”

The day Jerry Sandusky was arrested, Matt brought his kids over to Jerry’s house. The mother of Matt’s children almost immediately went to court to prevent future visits. A judge’s order now prevents Sandusky from having unsupervised contact or overnight visits with his grandchildren.

It gets worse. Read the whole thing, at the risk of wanting to punch holes in any nearby walls. (via @LATimesfarmer)

There’s a healthy debate about whether Penn State football coach Joe Paterno did all he was legally required to do at the time he was first informed of Sandusky’s child abuse.  In Nova Scotia, the Children and Family Services Act couldn’t be any more clear: if you come across information that a child is in need of protection, it is a criminal offence not to report it to the Department of Community Services:

Duty to report

23 (1) Every person who has information, whether or not it is confidential or privileged, indicating that a child is in need of protective services shall forthwith report that information to an agency.

(2) No action lies against a person by reason of that person reporting information pursuant to subsection (1), unless the reporting of that information is done falsely and maliciously.

(3) Every person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and upon summary conviction is liable to a fine of not more than two thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both.

(4) No proceedings shall be instituted pursuant to subsection (3) more than two years after the contravention occurred.

(5) Every person who falsely and maliciously reports information to an agency indicating that a child is in need of protective services is guilty of an offence and upon summary conviction is liable to a fine of not more than two thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both. 1990, c. 5, s. 23; 1996, c. 10, s. 2.

If this isn’t the law in Pennsylvania, it probably will be soon.

If you only read one blog post about the Penn State scandal…

…make it this one, from sci-fi author John Scalzi.  His devastating conclusion:

Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.

At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.

Via @Popehat.  Here’s a video of Penn State students making Vancouver Canucks fans look calm and reasonable:

The state doesn’t always know best

Many kids would indeed be better off in foster care.  But stories like this show why we shouldn’t be so cavalier about removing children from their homes:

A Dartmouth, N.S., foster mother pleaded guilty Thursday to aggravated assault and failing to provide the necessities of life by denying food to her two-year-old foster daughter.

Susan Elizabeth MacDonnell, 43, was first charged in June 2010 with criminal negligence causing bodily harm, as well as the other two charges after the foster child became more ill while being treated at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

Crown attorney Catherine Cogswell told the court Thursday that the little girl nearly died after being hospitalized due to malnutrition.

[…]

“The allegations of the Crown are that the child almost died as a result of being deprived of food for a lengthy period of time,” she said.

At an earlier bail hearing, the Crown said MacDonnell admitted to disconnecting the child’s feeding tube in the hospital, and to diluting a high glucose formula at least six times.

Everyone involves in the child-protection system is human, so it’s sadly inevitable that people like this will slip through.  That includes the judges:

A Texas family law judge whose daughter secretly videotaped him savagely beating her seven years ago won’t face criminal charges because too much time has elapsed, police said Thursday.

Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge William Adams likely would have been charged with causing injury to a child or other assault-related offenses for the 2004 beating of his then-16-year-old daughter, but the five-year statutes of limitations expired, Rockport Police Chief Tim Jayroe said.

[…]

Hillary Adams, now 23, posted the 8-minute clip on YouTube last week that shows her father viciously lashing her with a belt and trying to force her to bend over her bed to be beaten despite her wails and pleas to stop. The clip had received more than 2.4 million hits as of Thursday, and police began investigating Wednesday after hearing from concerned citizens.

William Adams, 51, issued a three-page statement Thursday saying his daughter posted the clip to get back at him for telling her he would be reducing the amount of financial support he gives her and taking away her Mercedes. The statement did not include an apology for the beating, but he told Corpus Christi television station KZTV on Wednesday that the video “looks worse than it is,” that he had already apologized to his daughter and that he was just disciplining his child for stealing.

Obesity and custody

When determining the best interests of a child, the number of factors to be considered is almost limitless.  And with childhood obesity the health scare of the moment, this doesn’t surprise me:

The nation’s waistline is expanding, and so too is the role of obesity in child-custody battles in the U.S.

Family-law practitioners and legal experts say mothers and fathers in custody lawsuits are increasingly hurling accusations at each other about the nutrition and obesity of their children, largely in attempts to persuade judges that their kids are getting less-than-optimal care in the hands of ex- and soon-to-be-ex-spouses.

The evidence used to support the allegations varies. In some cases, it’s a grossly overweight child. In others, it’s evidence that soft drinks and potato chips make up a disproportionate part of a child’s diet. In still others, it’s that the other parent is too obese to perform basic child-rearing functions.

“It’s come up quite a bit in the last couple of years,” said Douglas Gardner, a family-law practitioner in Tempe, Ariz. “Typically, one parent is accusing the other of putting a child at risk of developing diabetes or heart disease—or saying that the child is miserable because he’s getting made fun of at school.”

For judges in many states, the question of custody turns largely on one question: What is in the best interest of the child? Some states such as Pennsylvania recently altered their definition so that the criteria now clearly include the physical as well as the emotional well-being of the child.

I’m aware of one Nova Scotia case in which the child’s weight was a factor: Gillespie v. Patterson, 2007 NSSC 368.   Among the reasons custody was awarded to the father, the Honourable Justice Scaravelli noted that the mother “effectively sabotaged” their daughter’s obesity treatment plan.

Three days off

If this brutal assault happened on the street, the perpetrator would probably be tried as an adult. Because it happened in a school, the perpetrator got a three-day vacation:

An Ohio mother says she is filing charges with local prosecutors after her teenage son was attacked at school by a fellow student for being gay.

Rebecca Collins’ 15-year-old son, who does not wish to be identified, was brutally beaten this week by another male student in a horrifying incident that was captured on camera.

But despite video evidence she says officials at Union-Scioto High School in Chillicothe only suspended the bully for three days – and that’s not enough.

The shocking video begins with a teenage attacker, who has not been named, waiting for the gay student in a classroom.

His mother, narrating the clip in an interview with Channel 6 WSYX News, says once her son arrives, the other boy begins beating ‘the holy living crap out of him’.

Other students appear to watch the attack, which shows Ms Collins’ son appearing to walk away. But the other teen follows him, pushes him to the ground and punches him several times.

WSYX reports the student received a possible concussion and a chipped tooth.

Ms Collins says the attack was a hate crime. Her son told the network just two days before the incident the attacker posted anti-gay remarks on the his Facebook page, including one remark that read: ‘Check out the definition of a faggot’.

Video footage of the incident was also later posted to Facebook.

According to Ms Collins, the attacker received three days suspension; but she isn’t satisfied with the punishment and is pursuing the case with the prosecutors office. The sherriff’s department handling the case did not respond to requests for comment on what charges would be filed.

For reasons outlined by the great Ken at Popehat (and despite my own hellish experiences in junior high) I’ve been a bit uneasy about the “anti-bullying” campaign playing out in the media these past few weeks.  Public outcries rarely result in well thought-out legislation.

But this?  This incident shames not just the guy who did it, but everyone – students, teachers and staff – who stood by and watched.

Smoke some weed, lose your kids

That’s the situation for some parents in NYC, at least, where The New York Times reports that the child-welfare system has become “an alternate system of justice” for people who possess miniscule amounts of marijuana:

The police found about 10 grams of marijuana, or about a third of an ounce, when they searched Penelope Harris’s apartment in the Bronx last year. The amount was below the legal threshold for even a misdemeanor, and prosecutors declined to charge her. But Ms. Harris, a mother whose son and niece were home when she was briefly in custody, could hardly rest easy.

The police had reported her arrest to the state’s child welfare hot line, and city caseworkers quickly arrived and took the children away.

Her son, then 10, spent more than a week in foster care. Her niece, who was 8 and living with her as a foster child, was placed in another home and not returned by the foster care agency for more than a year. Ms. Harris, 31, had to weather a lengthy child neglect inquiry, though she had no criminal record and had never before been investigated by the child welfare authorities, Ms. Harris and her lawyer said.

“I felt like less of a parent, like I had failed my children,” Ms. Harris said. “It tore me up.”

Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.

[…]

Michael Fagan, a spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services, said the defense lawyers were offering a simplistic portrayal of these cases.

“Drug use itself is not child abuse or neglect, but it can put children in danger of neglect or abuse,” Mr. Fagan said. “We think the argument that use of cocaine, heroin or marijuana by a parent of young children should not be looked into or should simply be ignored is just plain wrong.”

Mr. Fagan said most of the cases involved additional forms of neglect, like a child who is not going to school or who has been left unattended.

“In other times, we find that admitted marijuana use masks other substance abuse,” Mr. Fagan said.

But lawyers for parents countered that the agency often brought neglect charges based solely on recreational marijuana use, then searched later for other grounds to bolster cases.

“In some cases, there are other allegations, but we think they are add-ons,” said Susan Jacobs, executive director of the Center for Family Representation, which works in Manhattan and Queens. “The reason the person is being brought into Family Court is the marijuana use.”

A parent’s chronic drug use (no pun intended) may be grounds for government intervention, but this story combines two of my least favorite things: overzealous action by the state, and paranoia about the demon weed.

(hat tip: @MikeRiggs)

Access to a “severely disabled” mother

A very sad family law case, from the Los Angeles Times:

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that a paraplegic woman who communicates by blinking has the right to see her 4-year-old triplets.

In a tentative 10-page ruling, Judge Frederick C. Shaller said that Abbie Dorn, 34, can see her daughter, Esti, and sons Reuvi and Yossi, for a five-day visit each year pending a trial in the acrimonious custody case. She also entitled to a monthly online Skype visit. A trial date has yet to be set.

“We are thrilled,” said Felicia Meyers, one of Dorn’s attorneys.

Although “there is no compelling evidence that the visitations by the children will have any benefit to Abby,” Shaller wrote, “…there is no compelling evidence that visitation with Abby will be detrimental to the children.”

Dorn was healthy until June 20, 2006, when she gave birth to the children at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. During delivery, a string of medical errors starved her brain of oxygen, and she is in a minimally conscious state, according to the neurologist who examined her during legal proceedings.

The father is being savaged in the paper’s comment section, with Times readers saying that the mother has a right to see her children.  But if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment: access is a right for the child, not the parent, and while it is rare for a parent to be denied any access to his or her children, it does happen (when the parent has a criminal history involving offences against the children, for example).

In this case, is the father being malicious in seeking to deny access to the mother?  Maybe, but arguing that it would be traumatic for the children to see their mother in this condition doesn’t sound like a patently unreasonable position.

(via Woods Family Law Blog)

Talking to your children about divorce

A very useful piece from Georgia’s Northeast Cobb Patch:

When it comes to telling the children there are several things to consider.  Since your children are very young, you’re going to want to keep it simple and focused on the concrete elements of this process in how it relates to them and their world. They simply don’t have the cognitive capability yet to understand an abstract concept of “divorce” per se. What they need to see and feel is that while their family is going to make some changes, Mommy and Daddy are both there for them and will continue to be there for them. Here are some specific recommendations…

[…]

3.  Be sure you are united and well rehearsed in what you’re going to say as a team when you sit the kids down.  Take care of your own emotional needs with your own counselor or a supportive friend before you have this talk. It’s okay to show a little normal sadness but if you are too emotional to have the talk with them, wait until you are feeling clearer and stronger. You don’t want to alarm the children.

4. Focus on the simple concepts of how the family is going to change: Mommy and Daddy are going to live in two different homes and you are going to spend time with Mommy and Daddy. Reassure them about their school, friends, routine and make sure you both tell them that you both love them and are going to both be there for them.

5. Answer their questions with simple answers. Don’t make it complicated. Your three-year-old might want to know if Daddy will have a stool to reach the sink at the new house like she has at the house she is in now.  Your five-year-old might want to know if she can have her own room and what color the walls will be.  Don’t turn these questions into openings for abstract discussion.  Just reassure them on the concrete details.

It’s not funny anymore

Charlie Sheen has dominated the news this week – now, there’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing in 2011 – but a backlash is brewing.  New Republic article savaging the TV networks for enabling Sheen’s increasingly erratic behavior is getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere, and people who eagerly signed up to follow Sheen’s twitter account (including me) have been disappointed.

I’ll admit it: I’ve been enjoying Sheen’s antics these past few days.  But the latest news, involving his children, is a reality check:

Charlie Sheen’s estranged wife Brooke Mueller obtained a restraining order to keep the actor away from her and their sons because she was afraid of threatening statements the actor had made in recent days, including stabbing her in the eye with a pen knife.

The order prompted police to take the twins from Sheen’s Hollywood Hills home on Tuesday night and return them to Mueller’s care.

She told the court in a filing that the “Two and a Half Men” star had also refused to return the boys to her. The order, filed Tuesday and obtained by The Associated Press, requires Sheen to stay 100 yards away from Mueller and their twin sons, Max and Bob.

According to a sworn declaration filed in the case, Mueller said Sheen told her in a phone call Sunday night, “I will cut your head off, put it in a box and send it to your mom!”

She also claimed that Sheen threatened to stab her in the eye with a pen knife, and that he spit on her feet and punched her on the arm during a recent trip to the Bahamas.

[…]

Sheen has rarely seen the boys in the past year, but took the boys on Saturday and refused to return them, she wrote.

“I am in great fear that he will find me and attack me and I am in great fear for the children’s safety while in his care,” Mueller wrote.

Text messages sent to Sheen Wednesday morning for comment were not immediately returned. A phone message left for Sheen’s divorce attorney, Mark Gross, was not immediately returned. A hearing on the order is scheduled for March 22.

Sheen has always had a history of domestic violence and disturbing behavior, helpfully recapped by What Would Tyler Durden Do:

…here’s a few of the times Charlie Sheen has been accused of hitting a woman.

– He shot Kelly Preston. (imdb)
– He hit a UCLA co-ed in the back of the head after she refused to sleep with him. (people)
– He flung Brittany Ashland to the ground, which split open her lip and would require 7 stitches. (e!)
– He held a knife to the throat of his wife Brooke Mueller. (daily mail)
– He threatened to kill Denise Richards and Capri Anderson. (peoplenydn)

And then there’s the alleged antisemitism, 9/11 conspiracy stuff, and his friendship with lunatic radio host Alex Jones (who believes every conspiracy theory, even the ones that contradict the others).  This guy isn’t just eccentric: he’s deeply disturbed, and a potentially danger to himself and his family.  That makes it hard to laugh with or at him, and I suspect the backlash is only going to get bigger over the next few days.

The Rodgers case

The seizure of two young children from a Western Newfoundland couple is getting a lot of media attention in my home province, mainly because of the heartbroken mother’s allegation that intelligence testing was used to determine that she and her husband cannot adequately care for the children:

Neighbours of a southwestern Newfoundland couple whose children were placed in foster care are raising money to help the family mount a legal challenge.

Dorothy, 31, and Bobby Rodgers, 34, of Port aux Basques, said the decision to put their children in foster care was unfair. They said authorities used their scores on intelligence tests to justify keeping their son and daughter out of their home.

“So many people knows me and Bobby, he’s such a good father to those kids, I’m a good mother,” said Dorothy Rodgers.

The couple plans to go to court to fight for the return of their children.

[…]

Dozens of supporters have called open line radio shows and more than 150 people have joined a Facebook support page.

A lawyer hired by the couple told CBC News that he has concerns about paperwork done by social workers about the Rodgers.

Lawyer Adam Crocker said it contains hearsay allegations and judgmental language.

The CBC’s sympathetic video report can be viewed here.  The “intelligence tests” were part of a Parental Capacity Assessment, which is regularly ordered in child-protection matters:

What is a parenting assessment?

A parenting assessment gathers information from a number of different sources about:

  • the needs of the child or children
  • the parent’s ability to meet those needs
  • the skills and strengths of the parent
  • the relative skills and strengths of parties proposed as caretakers
  • the quality of the parent child relationship
  • supports available to the family

This information is analysed to form recommendations promoting the best interests of the child. Recommendations may include:

  • placement options for the child
  • long-term planning suggestions
  • treatment suggestions
  • services that may help the parent address problem areas

Why get a parenting assessment?

Children’s Aid, therapists, the court, or lawyers may need to understand how someone approaches parenting, including strengths and weaknesses.

Often certain problems in a parent’s behaviour, or problems between a parent and child, need to be addressed before making any decisions on behalf of the child.

Areas to consider when assesing a person’s ability to parent can include:

  • depression or grief
  • anger control/management
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • issues of child abuse or neglect
  • criminal activity
  • mental/emotional health issues

I’ve worked on many child-welfare matters in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and I’ve seen several cases where, in my opinion, officials went too far in removing children from the care of their parents.  That is the ultimate violation of family integrity by the state, and if a government agency is going to separate children from their mothers and fathers, it had better be only way to ensure their safety.

That said, social workers and child-protection officials are in a no-win situation, where they may be savaged for their inaction if they don’t intervene – especially after the Shirley Turner fiasco just a few years ago.  And even Ms. Rodgers admits that there is more to this case than her test results:

…She says social services took her children based on a set of lies she admits to telling while in a transition house seeking help from her abusive past; lies which Dorothy says had nothing to do with the quality of care for her kids and which she believes social services are holding against her.

She also feels that her missing a doctor’s appointment for one of her kids because of bad weather is being held against her. She explains that they struck bad weather in Port aux Basques on the day of the first appointment and there was no way she was going to risk her or her children’s lives by driving through the Wreckhouse at that time. She says she missed her rescheduled appointment too, but assures that her child eventually saw their family doctor and that at no point was her child in any grave medical danger.

Rodgers believes there are flaws in the Parent Capacity Skills Test, which the department made her take. She says the test is designed to identify familial strengths and weaknesses so that families can focus on the strengths while improving upon the weakness. In her case, however, she says only her family’s weaknesses received any attention.

Is this family being victimized by an unfeeling, intrusive government bureaucracy?  Maybe, but unless I have all the information available to the lawyers, the social workers and the Judge before me, I cannot say for sure.  Which is precisely my point.