Wyatt Garcia was born in April 2009. Nine months later, he was shot and killed by his father, who then turned the gun on himself.
It might have turned out differently—if a family-court judge had listened to Wyatt’s mother.
Stephen Garcia, 25, a Pinon Hills, California, contractor, had been allowed unsupervised visits with his son only a few days earlier by San Bernardino County Superior Judge Robert Lemkau, who was adjudicating a bitter custody battle between Garcia and the boy’s mother, Katie Tagle. The judge had refused to take seriously her repeated warnings of her ex-boyfriend’s violent and abusive behavior.
“Courts assume mothers are orchestrating misinformation, instead of trying to protect their children.”
Shortly after Wyatt was born, she left Garcia after he hit her so hard during an argument about his videogame addiction that “he knocked me out,” Tagle said. After she moved home to her parents’, her ex-boyfriend began harassing her and her family when he learned she was dating again, and he filed a motion for custody of little Wyatt. In turn, she filed three motions for an order of protection against Garcia, which were ignored. In the last motion, she charged that he had threatened to kill her and their baby.
Judge Lemkau, however, chose to believe her former boyfriend’s denials rather than the evidence she supplied of Garcia’s threats, including emails, text messages, and voice messages. Although no extenuating circumstances were raised in court transcripts of the case, the judge simply accused Tagle of lying, and ordered that she turn Wyatt over to his father—with fatal results.
Tagle, 23, says the odds against her and Wyatt were stacked the moment her case entered the emotional, chaotic world of the family-court system.
“I was treated like a criminal, like a complaining woman,” she says.
The story of baby Wyatt Garcia is, sadly, not unusual.
In the ten months between June 2009 and April 2010, 75 children were killed by fathers involved in volatile custody battles with their former partners, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a court advocacy organization that has been tracking news articles of such deaths around the U.S.
Some recent examples from the dockets of family courts around the country:
• Teigan Peters Brown (3 years old), shot to death by his father during a court-ordered visit. (Arizona, June 2009)
• Bekm Bacon (8 months old), killed by father, who then killed himself during overnight visitation. (Idaho, February 2010)
• Janiyah Nicole Hale (1 year old), father is charged with her death during an overnight visitation. He is a registered sex offender. (Alabama, July 2009)
How did a system set up to protect families and children allow this to happen?
Such tragedies are the consequences of family-court procedures that allow abusive spouses to manipulate the system and leave at-risk children at the mercy of prolonged, expensive court battles over custody. These battles end all too often with a parent forced to share unsupervised custody with an abusive spouse.
The problems have been complicated by systemic flaws in the nation’s family courts that have gone unaddressed far too long.
Lawyers, judges, psychologists, and representatives of women’s groups describe a broken family-court system that is already burdened with a heavy caseload and too few judges—many of whom are forced to rotate between cases—and in which serious criminal allegations of domestic or sexual abuse are routinely ignored. The crushing financial costs of pursuing long custody battles is an additional burden on indigent mothers, who get little or no legal support. The odds are particularly stacked against children at risk when the court battle revolves over “he said, she said” arguments.
The system has particularly failed parents―usually mothers―whose efforts to protect their children collide with an approach to custody issues that is based on narrow legal concepts of balance and fair treatment rather than psychological or medical evidence. “Courts assume mothers are orchestrating misinformation, instead of trying to protect their children,” said Kathleen Russell, director of the Center for Judicial Excellence.
“The problem is that family court is not set up to protect children,” says Joyanna Silberg, executive vice president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence. “It is set up with the intent of equitable division for families. And this presents an overwhelming paradigm: How can you equitably divide a child?”
The Leadership Council, an independent scientific organization, estimates that each year more than 58,000 children are ordered by family courts into unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents following divorce in the United States. Experts say abusers use the court system to exercise control over their former partner’s lives, manipulating the players and risking the safety and well-being of the children’s lives the courts are sworn to protect.
“Family courts are trained to look for cooperative behavior,” says Rob (Roberta) Valente, general counsel for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which is based in Washington, D.C. “When someone raises an abuse allegation, the court sees it as uncooperative behavior.” The result, advocates say, is that the abuser is able to manipulate the court, while a child’s safety and well-being is placed at risk. Many judges are likely to view abuse complaints as a tactic to win custody battles. What the courts have failed to take into account, but research has clearly shown time and time again, is that most of the cases that make it to trial in family court are high-risk abuse cases.
“Historically, allegations of abuse and incest are [met] with a great deal of suspicion, and there is a tremendous resistance to hearing these types of allegations,” said Eileen King, director of Justice for Children, a national nonprofit that works to protect children involved in contested custody cases.
Such resistance has already cost Deborah Hicks, 46, a former New York City television editor, six years of pain. In 2003, she filed for sole custody of her son, then 3 years old, when he came home from a visit to his father with suspicious signs of sexual abuse. There was reason to be worried. Her ex-partner had already been convicted of molesting a 2-year-old boy in Florida for which he served eight years in prison, and he was a registered sex offender in New York City. Despite her ex-boyfriend’s record, the judges who heard the case (there have been two), decided they had to give a fair hearing to his denials.
She has already spent almost $100,000 on the case, with no end in sight. Nevertheless, she still shares custody with her ex, and says, “I am not about to give up on my child.”
Even when the evidence of risk to their children seems impossible to deny, the family-court system that has proven incapable of treating these high-conflict cases with the serious attention and professionalism they require.
Tears fill Amy Leichtenberg’s voice as she recounts the horrible months before her two young boys, Duncan and Jack Connolly, ages 9 and 7, were killed by their father last March. “I felt like I did everything right, I sat there, I didn’t speak out of turn,” she said of her courtroom experience. After a 20-year abusive relationship with her ex-husband, Michael Connolly, she finally gathered the strength to leave him. But he wouldn’t let her go. Each time she moved her address, he showed up at her house. She got numerous orders of protection; he violated them repeatedly.
Every six or seven weeks, the couple was back in court, following a motion filed by Connolly for one reason or another. Representing himself, he would badger Leichtenberg on the stand. Yet despite his behavior, the court allowed him unsupervised access to his young sons.
“The ball was dropped in so many places,” said Leichtenberg. “Court was just one of them.”
“For the moment, abused mothers who are trying to protect their children through the overworked family-court system have the cards stacked against them,” says Silberg of the Leadership Council.
“I did everything right, and my children are in a cemetery now right now,” said Leichtenberg, who founded “In Loving Memory” in order to lobby for changes in legislation relating to the response of family courts and law enforcement to abuse cases. “I have a lot of ‘what could have, what should haves’ every day. But with my last breath, I will make sure they did not die in vain.”
A longer version of this story can be read at TheCrimeReport.org by clicking here.
Cara Tabachnick is the news editor of thecrimereport.org, an online criminal justice news service, and the deputy director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. As a police and crime reporter, she has freelanced for Newsday in New York City and Long Island, and has written for the New York Post, UPI, AM New York, Atlanta Magazine, and Newsweek International among others. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.