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Mother unable to ‘beat the clock’ to regain her two sons

Scott Lauck//December 1, 2020

Mother unable to ‘beat the clock’ to regain her two sons

Scott Lauck//December 1, 2020

A woman who lost one son to murder has now lost two others to the state, following a split ruling of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District. 

The panel’s majority affirmed a St. Louis County judge’s decision to terminate the woman’s parental rights to her two boys, ages 7 and 10, who came into state custody after their mother’s boyfriend fatally beat their 21-month-old brother in 2016.

Although the court said “reasonable minds can differ” on the correct outcome, the majority concluded that the mother’s mental health issues and lack of progress in developing her parental skills justified the termination of her rights.

“The case presents a story of family tragedy,” Judge Philip M. Hess wrote for the court. “We commend Mother for her efforts to try to keep her family together. We empathize with her and the Children. However, after a thorough review of the record, we are not left with a firm belief that the trial court’s decision is wrong.” Judge Michael E. Gardner concurred.

But Judge Gary M. Gaertner Jr., reviewing the same record, couldn’t have disagreed more. In an anguished dissent, he said the children came into state custody because of the actions of a “vile boyfriend,” not of the mother. She had no substance-abuse problems, no felony record, clearly loves her children and, despite her poverty, had done everything the state had asked of her, he said.

What’s more, Gaertner argued, the two boys had no prospects for adoption, condemning them to a childhood in the foster care system apart from their mother and each other.

“Our current state of the law in Missouri seems to provide a tragic and unjust all-or-nothing situation for parents like Mother. Either she must get herself into shape enough to care for her children without help within a prescribed timeline, or she will lose her children and have no further permitted contact with them,” he wrote.

“This is not in the children’s best interests here. This is not a family that is beyond hope. These are not children who should be protected from their Mother because she harms them,” he added. “This family simply has suffered unfathomable trauma. They have made progress, but they need more time and help.”

Kathleen Dubois, the managing attorney of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Parental Justice Program, who argued for the mother, said in an interview that she didn’t know if her client would seek to appeal the case further or not. Dubois said that, while the decision followed the law, it still constituted the loss of a significant right.

“The Supreme Court in a lot of cases has said parents don’t have to be perfect, and you can’t just choose a better family over the family that the child came from,” she said. “But in this case, that’s exactly what happened, although there was no better family in place for these two children.”

Two attorneys who argued on behalf of the St. Louis County juvenile office, Julie Connors Taylor and Siobhan K. Akers, didn’t return calls seeking comment. 

The case stems from the July 27, 2016, murder of John “Buddy” Wilbourn, who had been left in the care of the mother’s then-boyfriend, Vincent L. Jones Jr. Jones was convicted in 2018 of child abuse resulting in death and second-degree felony-murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison consecutive to life without parole.

In affirming Jones’ conviction earlier this year, a different panel of the Eastern District recounted that the child’s body was covered in bruises, his abdomen was full of blood from internal injuries and that he’d suffered massive bleeding around his testicles, brain and spinal cord.

The two brothers, referred to as J.G.W. and D.R.W., came into the custody of the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division in the wake of the murder. The agency began termination proceedings in 2018. St. Louis County Circuit Judge Margaret Donnelly entered judgement in 2019, finding several statutory grounds for the termination and that it was in the best interest of the children.

Among the judge’s findings: The mother takes medication for schizophrenia, though the mother argued that her symptoms stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the opinion, experts testified that she was “more like a warm observer than someone who was really engaging” with the children, leaving her ill-equipped to address their own manifestations of trauma.

They also alleged that she put her relationships with men ahead of the needs of her family, that her utilities had been shut off periodically and that she had otherwise struggled to keep a stable job and put food on the table.

Although the mother went through therapy and parenting education programs, Donnelly found that the mother “failed to make enough progress in her Court-ordered services to enable the return” of her children. 

“Despite [M]other’s love for the Child[ren], Mother reached the limit of her capabilities in services,” the Eastern District’s opinion quoted the judgment as saying. “Additional services would not move . . . [M]other beyond the point the Court-offered services already have.”

Although not cited in the opinion, a 1997 federal law drove the decision, Dubois said. The Adoption and Safe Families Act requires states to move to terminate parental rights for children who have been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months. Though intended to provide permanency for children who can’t afford years of court proceedings, Dubois said that in a case such as this the mother had to “beat the clock” to regain her children.

“Once that’s run out, you’re done,” she said. “That’s not the way things are with families, especially when you’re dealing with a case involving poverty like this.”

Gaertner reached much the same conclusion, writing that the mother “has walked through unimaginable grief, and she has been asked to heal and provide skilled emotional care for her grieving and traumatized children under a timeline that I doubt few, if any, could accomplish.” 

In 11 years on the court, he added in a footnote, “I have yet to see the termination of the parental rights of a Mother who was a resident of any tony suburb in the Eastern District.”

“Such a woman would likely have a wealth of resources available to assist with the effects of PTSD and the difficulties of parenting children through trauma,” he wrote. “Mental illness does not affect only the poor.”

Gaertner said Missouri law doesn’t provide group homes for such a family or allow open adoptions that would allow the family to maintain a relationship. 

“While we do not have these options currently, we certainly have at our disposal the ability to simply give this family more time and continue providing the services that have undoubtedly helped them to this point, as they continue to work through their grief,” Gaertner wrote. “We need not heap on more grief at this time, which is what I feel the trial court’s decision does, with no plan for a stable future for these children.”

The case is In the Interest of: J.G.W., ED108803. 

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