What's New/News: Vol. 3, Issue 1
Now that I am starting to combine law and disability issues together (as someone about to take the Texas Bar Exam), I thought I would share a recent case that I worked on with you. The situation makes me realize how much of an uphill battle I will be facing as an attorney for individuals with disabilities.
A father and mother went to court last Friday. The father and mother are divorced. One parent gets their darling, eight-year-old girl with learning disabilities one week and the other parent gets custody the next. We represent the father.
Last Sunday, the girl was dropped off by the mother. The father drove the child to the home of the child's tutor to work on her reading skills. At the home of the tutor, the child began to cry out in pain. The daughter of the tutor ran to the girl who was screaming that she hurt because the mother's boyfriend "hurt her where [she goes] to the bathroom." She pointed to her genital area. The tutor, father and stepmother ran over to the child. They listened to the child and then called the authorities.
The police officer who took the report promised the child that she would never have to see the molester again. The father and stepmother then called the Rape Crisis Hotline. The Hotline directed the family to the Santa Rosa Children's Hospital. The child was examined. The nurse who specializes in child sexual abuse told the parents that the little girl had, most likely, been sexually molested. The father had his lawyer get the information before a judge in the form of an emergency motion for a hearing that same week (before the child was returned to the mother). Both the father and the stepmother were overwhelmed with emotions. The father felt tremendous anger at the perpetrator. But, at least, there might be a remedy in the court system.
Now, some background before continuing this story:
The father is remarried. He has a child, a little boy, with his second wife. They own a modest three-bedroom home in a nice neighborhood. The stepmother works full time outside the home. The father works part time and stays home with the children after school. The father has a college degree. The stepmother hopes to complete a college degree in education in the next couple of years. The father tutors his children after school. The stepmother is the leader of the little girl's Girl Scout troop. The father also has a disability, nothing major, but enough so that he cannot work full time.
Both the father and stepmother are active in the PTA. They volunteer time at their children's school. They both make sure the little girl gets the extra tutoring she needs to keep up, as much as possible, with her class. Both the father and the stepmother are at home every night with the children. The children have regular bedtimes, warm meals and a large circle of family and adults to care for them.
The mother is a stripper who never completed high school. She works nights. The weeks the child is at home with the mother, the child goes from school to babysitters. The little girl never knows where she will be any evening. There is no mother to help her with homework or to read a bedtime story.
In fact, the mother has switched babysitters almost a dozen times in the past few years. The mother lives in a rented duplex. She moves often and lived in a stable for over a year. Different boyfriends visit and spend the night with the mother. One particular boyfriend, the accused child molester, often baby-sits. Then he is responsible for bathing and dressing this child.
The father has tried to get the court system to change the visitation so that, on school nights, he has his daughter so that this little girl can get the special attention she needs. In exchange, the father has offered to allow his ex-wife to have the child most weekends and when the mother is off of work. He has asked to baby-sit for the child while the mother works.
The mother is adamant about not allowing these changes. The father does not have the income to sustain a long court battle so the status of the child has remained the same.
Back to the story:
We went into court. The little girl wanted to speak to the judge. She said several times that she was scared to go home. She wanted to tell the judge why. However, the judge, Frank Montalvo, refused to speak to the little girl.
The nurse testified. She stated emphatically that she believed the child. The tutor and her daughter testified about the child's outcry. The father testified. The judge said he believed the testimony. He admonished the mother to keep the boyfriend away then ordered the child sent home on the following Sunday in compliance with the previous orders. No other stipulations were made. The mother, who had expressed disbelief in the accusations, just had to promise to keep the molester away.
So Sunday, the frightened father and stepmother spoke with me. They wanted advice on how they could protect their child. She has learning disabilities. She cannot remember long phrases. She has difficulty remembering telephone numbers. They could teach her to dial "911" but what could this little girl be taught to say to protect herself?
I called "911", asked for a supervisor, then relayed the problem. I inquired about what a child could do to obtain help. The supervisor, Randy, told me that this girl could say, "Help me. A man is causing a disturbance." "Disturbance?" I asked the child if she would repeat that word. She couldn't. We settled for, "Help me. There is a mean man here." The call would have to be traced because the child did not know her address. Then Randy brought up another problem. If the mother answered the door, which is likely, she could deny that anything was wrong. The mother could (and probably would) deny that her boyfriend was there in defiance of a court order. She could refuse to admit the police. Basically, unless the child began yelling out when she saw the police officer, she would not be helped.
The parents were horrified. The system, which should protect innocents, could not help this child protect herself. The court system failed her. The emergency system failed her. And, now, her father would betray her, by court order, and deliver one terrified child back to a situation where no one could protect her.
At the police station where this child is exchanged every week, the child tried to hide. She begged her mother to let her stay with her father. The dispatcher even asked the mother to reassure the little girl or hug her. The police officer, witnessing the scene, said he would have refused to return the child if she had been his.
|Think about it. That is the legal system at work in the year 2000.