Losing Mom to Domestic Femicide

Not my usual adoption related story but adoption does come in at the end. Definitely a “Missing Mom” story. It isn’t a blog I really feel good about writing and yet, I believe this cautionary tale is important. Andy Borowitz, who generally writes satire, brought my attention to this story his wife has been investigating – The Murderer’s Little Boy by Olivia Gentile. <– You can read the sad details at this link. As a woman (as I am sure is not unusual for many women), I have been afraid at times due to some response by my romantic partner or spouse (I’ve been married more than once). It is a dangerous world and very dangerous for women, who have been described as the “weaker” sex and not without reason. I grew up in Texas and I apologize for feeling at this point like I have to say – “because Texas”. The state seems to me today to hate women in general – to be very misogynistic.

Losing a mother to domestic femicide is “the most horrific trauma that children can experience,” said Peter Jaffe, the child psychologist. Afterward, they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, dissociation, attachment difficulties, behavioral problems, and many other issues. To heal, Jaffe said, they need a caregiver who engages with them appropriately and truthfully about the murder, helps them mourn and honor their mother, and enrolls them in long-term trauma therapy. 

This is very much like the trauma and behavioral impacts that a lot of adoptees suffer from.

Far more children whose fathers kill their mothers are placed with maternal than with paternal kin, research suggests, though exact numbers aren’t known. No laws specify which side of the family is preferable, but in all custody cases, judges are supposed to address the child’s “best interest.” Paternal relatives must be carefully screened, Jaffe said. Since abuse is often intergenerational, the family’s entire history should be reviewed. Furthermore, anyone who enabled the killer’s abuse, remains aligned with him, intends to keep him in the child’s life, or “tries to wipe out the maternal family in the same way the perpetrator wiped out the mother” is presumptively unfit.

His maternal grandmother was forced to file a lawsuit to get visitation rights from the paternal side. Filed on March 15, 2017, she argued that as R.’s grandmother, she had standing to seek custody because the child’s present circumstances could “significantly impair” his emotional development. Her suit failed but she appealed.

Finally, in April 2018, 15 months after she last saw R., a panel from the First Court of Appeals convened a hearing on the maternal grandmother’s pleas. In their questions, the three judges seemed to convey concern for the boy’s welfare. Wasn’t it potentially harmful for R. to be raised by a man whose son had confessed to killing his mother? Wasn’t it worrisome that his father could see R. whenever the grandfather allowed him to? 

The judges ordered the parties into mediation, specifying that the mediator be from Houston, not Galveston County where the paternal kin were prominent. The resulting agreement, signed in July 2018, affirmed the maternal grandmother’s standing to pursue custody and gave her two mornings a month with R. as the case continued. Yet the deal stipulated that the visits be supervised by the paternal grandfather or by someone he chose, and it barred the grandmother from discussing R.’s mother or half-brother with him or showing him their pictures. 

Fearing an acquittal due to complicating circumstances, prosecutors made a deal with the murderer. At trial, he would have faced up to 99 years in prison for murder. Under his plea agreement, signed on November 25, 2019, he received 30 years for murder and 20 for tampering, with the sentences running concurrently. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2033.

The custody trial was scheduled for April 2020. But in a new twist to this story, in March, the paternal grandfather obtained another delay: he wanted to adopt R. and had obtained his murderer son’s willingness to cede his own parental rights. The maternal grandmother asked the court to stop the adoption. Her luck now was that there is a new Judge Kerri Foley. She appointed an attorney, Genevieve McGarvey, as a neutral assistant in the adoption case. Later, Foley added McGarvey to the custody case, too. For the first time in four years, an official was tasked with helping the court advance R.’s best interest. 

At a hearing in September 2020, McGarvey testified that R. wasn’t in trauma therapy and needed it “desperately.” She added, “[H]e’s got to talk about his mother more.” And he appeared to miss his half-brother profoundly. “The first thing he ever says when I see him is, ‘How’s J.?’ ‘Do you know J.?’”

Foley halted the adoption case until after the custody trial. But the trial has been repeatedly delayed and won’t happen until this summer at the earliest. Tired of waiting, his maternal grandmother filed a motion on February 2 demanding temporary joint custody in the meantime. A hearing is scheduled for March 21.

Judge Foley recently granted the grandmother longer visits with R., and she’s now allowed to bring his half-brother. But she wants the standard access granted to Texans who don’t reside with their kids: two to three weekends per month, alternating holidays and school breaks, and 30 days in summer.

Understandably the grandmother wants to protect R. She wants to get him into trauma therapy, and she wants to participate in decisions about his medical care and education. Recently, he has bounced from school to school and struggled. She wants to talk freely with him about his mother, whom he remembers and misses. And she wants to terminate his father’s rights and bar him from contacting R.—either from prison or upon his release. 

Even if the grandmother prevails at trial, her struggle won’t be over, since joint custody could be meaningless if the paternal grandfather’s adoption goes through. The grandmother is determined to continue to fight for her grandson.  “R. has never wavered in his desire to see us or just surrendered to the horror of circumstances,” she said. If he won’t give up, how could she? 

Some organizations with links also mentioned in the article –

National Safe Parents Coalition who advocates for evidence-based policies which put child safety and risks at the forefront of child custody decisions.

Kayden’s Law – requires an evidentiary hearing during child custody proceedings to vet allegations—new or old—of abuse. Though ACLU opposed it but it has now been included in the Federal Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act which President Joe Biden signed on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.

Respond Against Violence providing “The Strangulation Supplement,” a tool for first responders and investigators to better guide them in investigations and to help capture cases involving strangulation that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. These tools are available upon request to law enforcement, forensic nurses, and EMS, as well as tools for pediatric cases and bathtub fatality cases.

A Good Faith Desire

This time a mother is making a lot of noise.  Sadly, it really isn’t a rare situation.

In the Washington Post today is the story of Kathleen Chafin.  As a young woman attending St Louis University she conceived a son out of wedlock.  It does not appear there was ever any informed consent but rather she was told what would happen, she never agreed to it.

Her parents and the local priest conspired to force her child away from her.  She was isolated away with another Catholic family until she went into labor.  She was drugged during her delivery, so she has no memory of giving birth.  That happened to me too in 1973, when I gave birth to my daughter, but what happened to Kathleen didn’t happen to me because I was married.

She wasn’t even allowed to see her son.  The priest took him away and placed him in an adoptive family.  He seems to have fared well.  But Kathleen did not.  Many women were chastised and shunned for having children out of wedlock. Experts estimate that more than 1.5 million unmarried women in the United States were forced to give up their babies for adoption during that period from the end of WWII until Roe v Wade.

It has been estimated that 95 percent of women in Canada who gave birth at maternity homes in the postwar period gave their children up for adoption.  And similarly, many women in England and Australia, oh all over the European population it seems.

What makes Kathleen different is – she is making a loud noise.  After years of depression and considerable effort to locate her son, they did have a reunion and remain close, visiting one another at least once a year.

Kathleen pushed the Catholic Church to investigate but not content with their findings that the priest acted from a good faith desire to alleviate that pressure (from her parents) by helping her find a good home for her baby, she is suing the church.  So far, her case has been dismissed at the County District Court and State Appeals Court level.  Not content to be brushed aside, she has taken her case to Federal Court in hopes of advocating for other women who were pressured into giving up their children.