In what may be difficult to believe in the 21st century, a 5 year old boy and 15 year old girl were "legally kidnapped" from their mother's home as a result of numerous false abuse allegations. This disturbing child custody case reflects the shocking truth that even parties with no relationship to a child can still walk into some state courts and, with little or no substantive evidence, walk off with children who have caring and responsible parents. Self-serving officers of the court may also cause irreparable harm when left unchecked by appropriate authorities. The actual names of the parties have been changed and redacted in court documents. This is the first of three articles recounting a most disturbing child custody case and colossal failure of the justice system in two states.
Family Background and History
Joan Carter is the mother of four children, Caroline, Eric, Erica and Ethan. She has had four failed marriages, each of which consisted of a myriad of sordid emotional, physical and sexual abuse allegations, narcissistic behavior and marital infidelity (with her own marriage counselor.) Reverend John Carter met Joan while traveling on a business trip during 1986. Joan had raised her family as Catholics believing that she too was Catholic. The Reverend allegedly investigated Joan's ancestry to discover that her maiden name had ties to a different religion, the same one the Reverend happened to practice. The couple married in 1986 in the presence of a handful of Joan's family members, with little information shared about this religious claim. Joan's children were told of this change of religious direction and that Joan's household would strictly be the same religion as her new husband and his church.
The religious issue presented numerous family challenges, while the children lived with their mother and Reverend Carter in Kentucky. Caroline, the oldest daughter, had a daughter of her own through the product of a failed marriage. In the mid 1990s, the Carters moved to Colorado and Caroline likewise relocated with her daughter, Cindy, who was the jewel of the family. Caroline succumbed to significant pressure by the Carters to enroll Cindy, who was still in elementary school, in a religious school where Reverend Carter had influence and served as reverend of a large, wealthy local congregation. Caroline had mixed feelings about her religious viewpoints. The Carters were in a constant battle with Caroline regarding Cindy's upbringing, although most issues were eventually resolved amicably.
A Young Child is Saved and Virtually Adopted
In the late 1990s, Caroline took a job at a local fast food store and quickly became an assistant manager. It was there that she supervised Lydia, a troubled young woman who had responsibility issues on the job. Lydia, who is a child of Chicano and American Indian heritage, gave birth to her son, Mark, near her sixteenth birthday in 1997. For many years Lydia lived a transient lifestyle, with an unfortunate history of alcohol and drug abuse which included time spent in jail. Caroline noted that Mark, a child just a year or so old, appeared to have suffered from significant neglect, which was not surprising given his mother's preference for drugs, alcohol and a life of partying.
Unfortunately for Caroline, a bleeding heart who typically has thought of helping others before herself, she found Lydia in the practice of simply leaving baby Mark with various other employees for notable periods of time. On one occasion, Lydia simply left Mark with Caroline for an extended duration and never requested her child be returned. Despite Mark presenting a challenge to any family as a result of being afflicted with a myriad of ailments, Caroline welcomed Mark into her home permanently and provided him with loving care as one of her own children. With the assistance of court appointed Guardian Ad Litem ("GAL"), Jennifer Manson, Caroline became Mark's guardian.
Mark lived with Caroline for almost four years and only knew Caroline as his mother. The GAL called this brave act by Caroline a "life saving" measure in her own report to the Colorado family court. Reverend Carter and Caroline's mother were not exactly pleased with Caroline's foster parenting but were mostly consumed with the task of trying to raise Joan's granddaughter under their own religion. For reasons not entirely clear to me, Caroline never formally adopted Mark.
The Children are Removed from the Grandparents' Home
Caroline married her current husband, Carl Johnson, in October 1999 and gave birth to the couple's first son, David, ten months later. Carl is an officer in the Army and lived in Georgia. Caroline decided that moving to Georgia and away from her mother would have a positive effect on her family. She did allow Cindy to stay with the Carters for 7th grade during the year 2000-2001, who had become very attached to her classmates. Caroline traveled to Colorado frequently, maintaining residences in both places. Caroline became concerned about vicious fighting between the Carters, primarily due to Joan's allegations of Reverend John's alleged infidelity. In addition, Caroline was very unhappy with the lack of rules and discipline that existed in the Carter home and extreme religious schooling and rules being placed on Cindy by the Carters. As a result, Caroline removed Cindy from Colorado in June 2001 and enrolled her in school in Georgia. To say the least, the Carters were not happy.
While Cindy and Mark were allowed to visit and stay with the Carters in Colorado, there were incidents where the Carters resisted returning the children to the Johnson family. Caroline was ultimately convinced by her family psychologist, Dr. Nina Nelson, not to worry about the growing acrimony and to allow to Cindy and Mark to visit the Carters for summer break in 2002. At the time, Caroline was seven months pregnant with her second son and her husband Carl would be away at sea. During July, Caroline received a phone call from her mother informing Caroline that she would not return the children at the end of July as was prior agreed. Joan stated: (1) that the children didn't want to return to Georgia; (2) made claims that the children had mentioned abuse; and (3) demanded that Caroline agree to "mediate" this situation. The "situation" and allegations of abuse left Caroline shocked and dumbfounded.
A "kind" person offered to serve as an independent mediator between Caroline and her mother. Unbeknownst to Caroline, this mediator was actually a family law attorney and the same person who represented her mother as legal counsel after the dispute ended up in court. Caroline refused the "offer" and told her mother that she would drive out to pick up the children at the end of July, despite her being eight months pregnant and having an infant son.
Caroline arrived in Colorado in early August 2002. Cindy was now a young teenager and Mark only five years old. Given her mother's staunch refusal to return the children a week earlier, Caroline decided to enlist the assistance of Colorado police officer, Stephen Orbach, to ensure that there wasn't a dangerous confrontation. Upon her arrival, Officer Orbach reported that Mark was excited to see and be hugged by his mother. Joan Carter protested and demanded that Officer Orbach allow her to keep the children and to speak to her lawyer. The officer refused, understanding that the Carter's had no legal right to custody of the children. Caroline drove back to Georgia shortly thereafter.
Child Abduction by Court Order in August 2002
Georgia Grandparents Petition for Child CustodyThe law has traditionally not provided grandparents with liberal rights concerning their biological grandchildren. Despite this being the case, a Georgia Superior Court judge simply granted custody of the children to the Carters with no questions asked and no diligence performed. The contents of the petition revealed several shocking representations and a most unusual opening:
- The statement that "Defendant may be served at her residence" - not has or will be served - in a hearing to remove a child from the legal custody of a natural parent;
- John Carter was falsely represented to be the "maternal grandfather" of Cindy;
- The Carters claimed to be the "putative grandparents" of Mark, despite the fact that the Carters had no legal standing whatsoever with regard to Mark;
- The Carters materially misrepresented the duration that Mark and Cindy had lived with them; and
- Despite abuses and mental disorders alleged, no specific instances were described, no details provided and no documentation to support the unfounded allegations.
- Georgia Petition Granted