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Putting children's safety first

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By Jeff Rogers

A father kidnaps his child and takes him out of the country in an attempt to thwart a custody decision and hide him from the court's jurisdiction. The child is recovered, but the man continues to act obsessively, stalking his ex-wife and other women and forcing them to obtain restraining orders against him.

Years later, his behavior again deteriorates, forcing his ex-wife to obtain another restraining order that also precludes him from contact with another child, his 10-year-old son. Five days later, however, a judge ignores the ex-wife's protests and modifies the order to allow the father unsupervised 'parenting time' with his son.

The father then uses that time to kill himself and his son, a clear statement to his ex-wife, the court, and the rest of society of who really had the power all along.

Hearing this terrible story, I wondered what happened to common sense in a situation where the proper legal decision, placing the safety of the child above all other considerations, seemed so frighteningly clear. Did the judge actually believe that the benefits of a few hours of 'parenting' outweighed the risks to the child that the mother tried so desperately to point out?

I suppose I would feel better if I actually believed common sense played some part in the judge's ill-fated decision. And I would worry less if I believed decisions like this one are an anomaly. But my own experience in the mental health field tells me that rational thought often takes a back seat to convenience and the cold detachment of legal precedent in many proceedings, even those where the safety of children is part of the equation. I also know that the system often fails parents when they need it the most.

On a Monday morning prior to this terrible crime, I listened on the phone while another mother who feared for her own safety and the safety of her children begged me to help her have her husband arrested for violating a restraining order 14 times over the preceding weekend.

Like the mother of the child who was killed, her husband had already taken one child out of her home without permission. The child was recovered, but no legal action was taken. Then, even after she obtained and served him with a restraining order, he contacted her multiple times and bragged openly to her that the court had no real jurisdiction over him or his rights to see his children.

By the time she called me, she had already contacted the police and a number of other agencies. Every call brought a different excuse for why nothing could be done. Each excuse was clearly either a bureaucratic snag or actual misinformation. But each had the same message - Sorry, but you're on your own…and so are your children.

One call to the district attorney's office and a quick conversation with a female assistant DA resulted in the husband being arrested within less than an hour. But I wondered how many other women had simply given up after the second or third phone call, or hadn't had the luck of calling someone who knew how to get around the bureaucracy and find someone who was actually willing to take immediate action.

I don't know how the mother whose son is now dead felt. I can only imagine her fear growing as her concerns were dismissed. But I know what desperation sounds like. I heard it in that mother's voice on the phone when everyone else decided that acting to keep her children safe was something that could wait.

I don't think we should ever be so busy. And I can only hope that, in the future, our judges take the time to recognize that they are the final line between a child's safety and a tragic fate. And that public trust in our system of justice is easily shattered by a single rushed or ill-considered decision gone terribly wrong.

Jeff Rogers is a South County Spotlight columnist