Who’s watching the watchers? 

In the name of protecting the abused, has the pendulum of power swung too far in favor of the state?

Angela Feeley’s nightmare began four years ago. Most days she wonders whether she’ll ever wake up from it. In 1997 Angela’s current husband, Vincent, was married to another woman. They had three young children together, and his then-wife had a 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Angela knew the teenager because the girl babysat for Angela’s own children at her home in Billings.

At some point the teenager began using drugs and dabbling in Satanism. Her stepfather, Vincent, came home one day to find the girl chanting satanic verses and scaring her three young half-siblings. Vincent demanded that she stop and threw out her satanic bibles. The teenager ran away from home and eventually turned up at the offices of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) where she accused Vincent of sexually abusing her.

The department’s Child and Family Services Division believed her and promptly removed Vincent’s three younger children from his home and placed them in foster care for their protection. The teenager was also taken from the home and placed in a group home in Billings.

Evidently, Vincent’s teenaged stepdaughter had not realized the full consequences of her accusation and soon recanted. “She didn’t think,” says Angela. “What she said [later] was that she thought they were going to take [Vincent], and that he and her mom would split up, which was what she wanted.”

But the girl’s recantation wasn’t enough to stop the wheels of a system now in motion. An investigation by DPHHS resulted in the county prosecutor in Billings filing an incest charge against Vincent, who was arrested. Vincent firmly denied the charge and agreed to the first of four polygraph tests he would take. He passed all four.

Lacking evidence, the prosecutor eventually dismissed the charge and Vincent was released from jail where he had already spent six months. Still, he was not free. “You’d think if they dismissed the charge you can walk away and your life should go on the way it was,” says Angela. “But the department said, ‘We don’t care what the state said. We believe you did this.’”

What Vincent understood at the time, Angela says, is that his then-wife would have sole custody of the three younger children if he relinquished his parental rights. Vincent agreed, but two months later the state terminated the mother’s parental rights as well, and the children, Matthew, 12, Gregory, 9, and Hannah, 6, were all adopted by a couple in Texas.

Vincent’s marriage eventually broke up and he married Angela, a single mother with three children of her own. For Angela, who had suffered violence at the hands of her ex-husband, her marriage to Vincent would not become the second chance at happiness she had hoped it would be. Vincent was still a sex offender in the eyes of the DPHHS, if not in the eyes of the law. As far as the department was concerned, Vincent’s presence put Angela’s children at risk and made Angela suspect as well for failing to protect her children from a pedophile.

“One day they knocked on my door with three cops and five social workers and they walked in and did a clean sweep” and took her kids away, Angela says. “I guess I wasn’t thinking for a minute they could take my kids from me.”

Angela and Vincent did not stand by and watch her children being whisked away. They resisted and were both arrested. As part of their punishment, both were ordered to attend sex offender treatment—at their own expense. For nine months they regularly saw a therapist in private practice in Billings, that is, until state social workers decided that they wanted the couple to see a state-sanctioned therapist associated with the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Program. Another therapist, agreeable to both the state and the Feeleys, was found—128 miles away in Lewistown.

Then in early 1999, while the couple was still in therapy, Angela discovered she was pregnant. Her pregnancy brought more unwanted attention from state social workers. “Their eyes just lit up when they heard I was having a baby,” she says. When social workers told Angela that they would seek a court order to take the baby away from her at birth, she fought back and got a restraining order from a judge prohibiting the state from doing so. Her baby boy, Xavier, was born on Oct. 16, 1999. The restraining order kept the department from taking Xavier, but on Nov. 8, when she took the baby for a visit to his three half-siblings—all still in foster care—the police arrived and took Xavier away.

Angela, still in therapy with her husband, her children living in foster care and her newborn son living with another family, returned to court seeking custody of Xavier. The judge admonished her for taking the baby to the foster home against his previous order, but sympathized with her nevertheless. “The judge said, ‘I can give your son back, but they [DPHHS] are just going to keep taking him,’” says Angela. Like his three half-siblings, Xavier was consigned to foster care.

Ultimately, Angela and Vincent did get Xavier back, and his 5-year-old half-sister, Desarie, as well, when their foster mother simply returned them to Angela one day. The state agreed to the return, but only if Angela promised to take her children and live in a shelter for battered women. Angela was at the shelter for less than two months when a pediatrician determined that Desarie was languishing in that environment. On doctor’s orders Angela returned home with her two young children, but Vincent was ordered out of the home by the state and placed on house arrest in a different home. He was away from Angela and the children for nine months. Angela’s two older children, Weston, now 10, and Chante, now 9, were given to their biological father, who lives in Idaho. (Angela doesn’t know where precisely.) She is incensed that her ex-husband was given custody of the two older children, and is especially worried about Chante. Angela claims her ex-husband beat both mother and daughter while she was married to him. According to her, when Chante was eight months old, she was beaten so badly she had to be hospitalized.

What makes this nightmarish story even more painful for Angela is that the state of Montana paid to move her ex-husband, his new wife and their children to a new town in order to protect Weston and Chante from being kidnapped by Angela and Vincent. “I haven’t seen them or talked to them since April,” she says. “I know they’re [in Idaho]. I just don’t know where.”

Angela and Vincent are still in sex offender treatment, which they hope to complete to the state’s satisfaction by March. By then, they will have been in treatment for two-and-a-half years for a crime they say they never committed and the county refused to prosecute. If they don’t complete the program, they risk losing the two children remaining to them. What did Angela learn from her experience? To keep her head down and toe the line.

“I lost two of my babies,” she says. “But in the end you have to do what they want to get your kids. If you have to be called a sex offender, or the wife of a sex offender, that’s what you have to do.”

Guilty until proven innocent?

Mention the words “family services” and steel yourself for the onslaught of stories that will follow: The nasty divorce that prompts an angry wife to make false accusations of sexual abuse against her husband out of frustration and a need for revenge. A frightened father who agrees to a “treatment plan” in order to retain contact with his children. The innocent and bewildered grandparents, caught in the crossfire, allowed to visit the grandchildren only under the watchful eyes of a social worker.

Ask how society developed such a messy system of straightening out family relationships and you’ll get plenty of theories, some legal, some political, others historical or philosophical, but all delivered with the same heat and passion.

It’s crucial to note that state law prohibits DPHHS social workers from discussing any case under their authority, a restriction that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to paint a truly balanced picture. As always, the truth is perceived differently by all those involved and is colored by anger, fear, distrust and disbelief.

“Until I got into this, I would not have believed,” says Jim Shockley, an attorney in Victor and two-term representative of House District 61 in the Montana Legislature. As an outspoken critic of the DPHHS’s child and adult protective services, Shockley has not earned the love or respect of the department. While he admits up front that DPHHS does some good and necessary work, he is also unequivocal in his contention that the department often tramples on the rights of adults in its overzealous protection of children. “When you say the word ‘children,’ adult rights go out the window,” Shockley says. “They [DPHHS] exceed their authority, and they have a lot of it. They are not accountable. I write letters and don’t get any answers.”

Shockley reels off story after story of a paternalistic agency gone awry. Some stories, like the Feeleys’, are almost impossible to believe. Others are just tales of foolish bureaucratic meddling into family affairs.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the Great Depression, says Michael Hayes, an attorney with DPHHS, the family was sacrosanct; what went on behind closed doors was deemed no one else’s business. Gradually that attitude began to change and society came to recognize that child abuse was everyone’s business. The focus now, says Hayes, is on protecting children, even when it means splitting families apart, either temporarily or permanently.

“That’s a huge intrusion on our basic rights,” Hayes acknowledges. “The law isn’t on the side of people who abuse kids.” But Shockley argues that the Legislature bears at least some of the blame for the problems inherent in state-management of these families. For instance, parents who have had their children taken away are appointed a publicly-funded attorney only at the end of the proceedings—after the parents are facing the loss of their children permanently and often after the proceedings have been underway for months.

That said, parents in Helena and Glasgow, as well as in Ravalli, Missoula and Mineral counties fare better than parents elsewhere in the state because judges in those districts appoint attorneys at the beginning of the proceedings, which helps safeguard parental rights along the way.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Shockley says he could be influential in changing the appointed-attorney law and bringing it in line with the policy in other parts of the state. Still, he’s not optimistic.

“Your chances of getting that through are pretty remote,” he says. “The department will fight it like hell. Anytime you say ‘I’m protecting children’ it’s very hard to change the agency. And it’s not just children, because you also have this elder thing. It’s a paternal thing, with the state saying, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for your family regardless.’”

Likewise, with no single, glaring flaw in the system that legislators can point to, a silver bullet will not be easy to find. “There is no heart,” Shockley says. “You’re looking for a central point, but it’s amorphous.”

While there may be no “heart” of the problem, for those who are caught in the system—rightly or wrongly—there is a common emotion: fear.

The fear factor

You might call David Cook the personification of that fear. Cook, a former pastor from Hamilton, was charged with two counts of incest in August 2000. The investigation leading up to the charges was, in Cook’s mind, based on ambiguous claims that have never been backed up with solid evidence.

Cook’s ordeal has its genesis in his youngest daughter’s kidney transplant surgery. At that time, he says, the girl was examined for signs of sexual abuse after she began acting in ways her mother found sexually inappropriate. A gynecological exam showed no evidence of sexual abuse, but by then another daughter had gone to see a therapist, where a 35-minute session resulted in a diagnosis that Cook quotes from the therapist’s report as “a behavior disorder which is always caused by the father raping the daughter before age five.”

By August 2000 another daughter had confessed to a social worker and a detective that she had been sexually molested years earlier by her father. Cook was arrested, though he says he was never questioned or interviewed by sheriff’s deputies or social workers. He was released nearly five months later when the charges were dismissed because his daughter, the alleged victim, had run away from home and could not testify against him.

While he was incarcerated in the Ravalli County Jail, Cook’s wife divorced him. Because of the accusations made against him, he lost custody of six of his seven children. The seventh, Matthew, was charged with three felony counts of sexually molesting his sister, and was placed in a special facility in Deer Lodge called the Brown School for youthful sex offenders.

Like his father, 13-year-old Matthew was never convicted of any crime. Matthew’s attorney, Dirk Beccari, agreed to a “deferred prosecution” for the Matthew. Beccari is now facing disbarment and criminal prosecution for allegedly stealing money from his clients and law partners, as well as for forging judges’ signatures on court documents.

Though it sounds Kafkaesque—agree to a punishment and/or treatment and the state will not prosecute you—deferred prosecution is not uncommon. Cook says that after six months at the Brown School, his son has confessed to molesting 31 people, the family flock of pygmy goats and the family dog. His letters to his father are couched in institutional jargon that Cook says is not his son’s way of expressing himself. The boy, says Cook, has been brainwashed into confessing crimes Cook believes he did not commit, because the system rewards confessors and punishes those who refuse to confess.

According to Cook, while assistant Ravalli County prosecutor Geoff Mahar was filing incest charges against him, Mahar was also acting as a spiritual counselor to Cook’s wife at the church they both attend. Cook’s first attorney, Bruce Hussey, was temporarily disbarred for reasons unrelated to Cook’s case, and the second attorney, Doug Anderson, died shortly after taking over for Hussey. Little wonder, then, that Cook believes the system has been stacked against him. He is now looking for a third attorney to help him get access to his children, his record expunged and compensation for the damages and suffering to his family.

Cook has spent his money on legal representation that failed him, and he has few friends or advocates to shepherd him through the system. The two friends who are helping him ask that their names not be used, so fearful are they of running afoul of the system. Cook’s strongest advocate—a woman friend—says a social worker informed her that if she allowed Cook into her home while her grandchildren were there, the social worker would take them away as well because Cook is believed to be a pedophile. The friend says she’s never told her children about this because she doesn’t want to frighten them, and worse, she doesn’t want her name used for fear of reprisal by the state.

Says Cook, “Anyone who has ever helped me has been threatened or intimidated.”

The problem in a nutshell, says Cook, is that anyone can make an accusation of child abuse, but the accused cannot know the identity of his or her accuser or the motivation behind it. “Because I’ve been accused I have to prove my innocence,” Cook says. “There is no way to exonerate the falsely accused.”

Confronting your accuser

“I think there’s a tremendous gap between people’s perception and what really happens,” says Hayes with the DPHHS. “There’s no way a person can agree to a treatment plan unless they agree that the department has a preponderance of evidence against them.”

District Judge John Larson of Missoula, however, is a bit more circumspect in his assessment of the department’s methods, and acknowledges that people are often intimidated by the proceedings.

“What may appear to be voluntary from the department’s standpoint may appear to be coercive from the family’s standpoint,” he says. Larson, like Hayes, believes that most cases are best resolved in court.

“For someone to feel they’re at a disadvantage, they’re right,” says Larson. “That’s why they’re better off in court. There are some horror stories out there and I’m not saying there aren’t horror stories in court. But they’re still better off in court.”

In Hayes’s world, there are no accusations, only “referrals.” And there are no accusers, only “referrants,” a bit of bureaucratese that masks the chill that someone is accusing you of abusing a child or an elderly parent.

Some professionals, such as teachers, are mandated by law to report child abuse when they see evidence of it. But unless a judge orders the identity of the accuser, or referrant, the person making the accusation may remain anonymous. Naming names, argues Hayes, would have a chilling effect on a system that relies on—and some say encourages—observant neighbors, friends and others to identify abusers.

While the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the accused the right to confront witnesses against him in criminal proceedings, that guarantee isn’t clear-cut in accusations of child abuse. When those accusations are made, a case can remain with the department and may never result in criminal charges. As civil cases, the accused does not have the right to confront his accuser. But even if the department’s investigation yields criminal charges, it remains unclear what rights the defendant has to confront his accuser.

Judge Larson says the accuser is not typically named in cases that end up in criminal court, and the constitutionality of this issue has not yet come before the Montana Supreme Court. But even if the accuser is never identified, he adds, “I don’t know that your rights would automatically be violated.”

“I’d be a fool to say there couldn’t be abuses of the system,” says Hayes. “But I think Montana law has a tremendous amount of safeguards to protect the rights of both parents and the system.”

Not just the children

Edgar Campbell’s rights may not have been violated when, at the department’s urging, a judge slapped him with a restraining order, but his life was certainly thrown into turmoil. Campbell, 87, lives in Stevensville. His lady was 85-year-old Eloise Barenz, also of Stevensville.

“We were going to get married,” says Edgar, who aided in Eloise’s recovery after her heart surgery. “I was with her every day, walking her to get her back to health. Well, they [DPHHS] thought I was after her money.”

Court documents filed by a DPHHS social worker say that Edgar was upsetting Eloise (who is afflicted with dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s) by insisting that her three stepchildren were trying to get her money. DPHHS filed an order of protection keeping Edgar away. In February 2000 Eloise wrote a letter to the judge who had granted the restraining order, asking that Edgar be allowed unsupervised visits. Her request was denied.

Then, according to Edgar, “the awfulest thing” happened. With the restraining order still in effect, Edgar, at Eloise’s request, came to her house to turn on her irrigation pump, which was in a locked pumphouse. Since the key could not be found, Edgar called a locksmith to get it opened. For this, he was charged with violating his restraining order.

Lynda Lane, a certified nursing assistant who nursed Eloise through her illness, witnessed the locksmith incident and confirms Edgar’s account. Shortly thereafter, she left her job as a CNA because she had landed a new job with Ravalli Services of Hamilton. But when she arrived for her first day of work, she was told that she had lost the job because DPHHS was now accusing her of elder abuse. Lane was shocked. “I said, I’ve never even squeezed a flea in my life.”

When Lane inquired into the cause of the complaint, she found that she was being accused of driving Edgar to Eloise’s home, in defiance of his restraining order. But by then a judge had exonerated Edgar and lifted the order. Though Edgar was now free to visit Eloise, Lane first checked with the sheriff’s department to make sure she was not violating a judge’s order. Even then, she says, she declined to drive Edgar, and in the end he drove himself.

Eloise was eventually placed in a nursing home in Spokane, and Lane found another job as a CNA, but says the department blackened her name and reputation. The department, she says, “is making me pay and pay and pay.”

In Shockley’s view, the details of each individual case, whether true or shaded, perhaps don’t matter as much as the larger fact that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of protecting children, with individual rights being sacrificed along the way. “A lot of what the DFS does is right and necessary, but a lot of what they do is wrong. I’m not saying the [department] always does wrong. But they probably do just as much harm as good.”

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s the worst system there is, except for all the rest. As Hayes puts it, “Think of the alternative.”

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