Monday, May 16, 2011

Mom tormented that system failed murdered child--or why joint custody doesn't work (Lapeer County, Michigan)

When will we stop this foolish delusional obsession with joint custody? It's no wonder that countries that have institutionalized it as the default child custody arrangement--like Australia--are now seeing skyrocketing amounts of child abuse and increasing political pressure to end or curtail it.

Joint custody MAY work in cases where parents had a long committed relationship before they split up and are on reasonably amicable terms--assuming that BOTH PARENTS are committed to joint custody and truly want it voluntarily. In other words, nobody is pressured into it for fear of losing custody, or to reduce child support, or because it's the trendy thing for family court judges to do and we don't want to buck the judges.

Notice that this couple were never married and never had a committed relationship. The pregnancy was the result of a summer fling. They did not get along. Dad JEFFREY WOLFENBARGER lived an hour away and had already married somebody else by the time the first custody hearing came up, and at that time the baby was only 3 months old. The woman he married is now the one accused of murdering this little girl.

That this father had no real bond to the mother and no bond to the child SHOULD have made this a case where full custody was automatically awarded to the mother.

But no, the fathers rights people have forced their koolaid down the throats of all the family court judges in this country, so respect for mothers, children, and family stability is a thing of the past. Daddies must have their rights, you know. Even if it means that distressed, nursing infants are handed over every weekend to Daddy and the new hostile step in some restaurant parking lot.

And lord help the mother who is unhappy with this arrangement, or worse still, suspects that her child is being neglected or abused. The judges have been trained by the fathers rights people to hate mothers and automatically assume they are hysterical liars or manipulators. They are taught to ignore any tangible evidence of abuse that would contradict a pro-father/pro-joint custody position.

So yes, Daddy and the step are responsible for what happened to this child.

But the following court personnel also had a role in setting up this child's murder: Lapeer County Circuit Judge Michael Higgins. It is absolutely clear that his sarcastic lack of professionalism and his utter contempt for mothers contributed to this child's death.

Kudos to Laura Berman for an EXCELLENT piece. It is seldom that we see journalists look at the institutional failures that lead to a child's death, rather than simply wallow in the "tragedy" of it all.

Last Updated: May 12. 2011 11:17AM

Laura Berman

Mom tormented that system failed child

On Mother's Day, Lauren Furneaux helped friends and strangers plant roses and statuary in a memorial garden to her daughter, Lily, who will never see the roses bloom nor the 6-foot-cross with her name on it nor the stone angels dedicated to her.

For Furneaux, a 24-year-old single mother who has memorized every moment of her daughter's short life, Lily remains the center, the force that gets her out of bed on the mornings when she can. On Saturday, the day that would have been Lily Furneaux-Wolfenbarger's third birthday, Furneaux is planning a benefit to raise money for a child abuse charity.

"Justice for Lily" is her credo, the words printed on T-shirts and wristbands that she now sells for the Justice for Lily Foundation, the name of her active Facebook site.

It's a tough, sad case, like so many involving courts, lawyers, judges and families who distrust each other bound by custody laws. But it's one that raises hard questions about whether "the system" or anyone in it might have prevented Lily's death.

These facts, though, are certain: Lily died Nov. 20, 2010, a few hours after her mother handed her to her father, Jeffrey Wolfenbarger, in a restaurant parking lot in Capac.

A few hours after that, Lily was dead, naked and blue, in the living room of her father's trailer in New Haven. Lily's stepmother, Renee King, was described as kneeling by her, hysterical.

King is now behind bars in Macomb County, ordered last week to stand trial on charges of murder and child abuse. A charge of sexual abuse, supported by the medical examiner, was dismissed.

Wolfenbarger, a 28-year-old house painter, says Lily "was my best friend, my wife and step-kids' best friend. We were a happy family. It was a terrible accident. … I wouldn't stand by my wife's side if I thought she done anything."

In New Baltimore District Court, King said she fell and crushed the 2-year-old.

That explanation doesn't satisfy Furneaux, who believes her daughter's death was a murder that might have been prevented.

Looking back, she can pinpoint ways that the judge, her lawyers, and she and her parents might have intervened. At night, she sifts through the doors that opened and closed, the opportunities to make phone calls, the judgment calls made by experts that now seem like mistakes.

"I made a mistake by getting pregnant," Furneaux said, "but Lily was the best thing that ever happened to me.

"I wish I had known more about what to do. I want to help make sure that other mothers don't make the same mistake," she said at her family's home outside Lapeer. "I was intimidated, afraid I would lose custody."

Experts in child abuse cases say the system can be perilous, but urge anyone who suspects abuse to contact authorities.

"The system tends to feel that these mothers are overreacting," said Deborah Pascoe, the chief operating officer of the Child Abuse Center of Lapeer County.

Path to joint custody

Wolfenbarger and Furneaux never married: Theirs was a summer romance that lasted only a few months in 2007, after a chance meeting in a campground near Lapeer.

"He said all the right things and I believed him," said Furneaux, a churchgoing Catholic who dreaded telling her parents she was pregnant.

A few months later, the couple split up. By the first custody hearing in July 2008, when Lily was 3 months old, Wolfenbarger had married King, a woman he'd known since high school.

Lapeer Circuit Judge Michael Higgins made it clear that he believed in joint custody and intended to award it.

"I believe in it too," said Sally Ann Miller, the attorney who represented Furneaux in a second hearing in October 2008. "But in this case, the child was too young, we had two experts that said so, (the parents) didn't get along and lived an hour apart. She spent every moment with the child. He left her with his parents."

Transcripts of the two custody hearings show that Higgins discounted expert testimony and treated both parties sarcastically. But no suggestions of child abuse were raised in court.

Higgins called Furneaux "obsessed" with her daughter and rebuked her for calling the father's home, objected to her interest in sole custody and suggested she drop out of Central Michigan University, according to transcripts.

"You should have adopted a baby without a dad, that's what you should have done," Higgins said. "You had a baby with this man. And you're devastated?"

"I'm sorry but that's too bad. Get used to it," the judge said, referring to joint custody.

"It's a tragic, tragic, tragic story," Higgins said in his Lapeer courtroom on Monday. "But the (custody) case was so long ago, I don't remember many of the details." He declined further comment.

Rising suspicions

Uncomfortable with the joint custody arrangement from the start, Furneaux and her parents, Frederick "Chico" and Lynette Furneaux, became suspicious in spring 2010 that Lily was being physically abused.

A mark on Lily's neck that looked like a burn and a black eye were explained away by King and Wolfenbarger.

The family hired an investigator, documented Lily's bruises and remained in contact with the lawyer, at one point asking Miller: "When will we have enough evidence? When she's lying in a casket?" But in the end, Furneaux never called authorities.

Her brush with the judicial system had been painful, and she believed her lawyer's concerns that the judge might retaliate, might even take away Lily, if she couldn't substantiate charges.

"I wanted to call the authorities," said Furneaux. "I was afraid that I would lose my daughter."

A bevy of regrets

Furneaux catalogues the regrets that keep her awake at night, even as she takes comfort from knowing she spent every minute she had with Lily, never hiring a sitter or even leaving her with her parents.

She moved back home from Mount Pleasant, took online courses and finished her liberal arts degree last spring, dressing Lily in a cap and gown to celebrate. Her employers at two jobs she worked while in school allowed her to bring Lily to work.

Lapeer County Prosecutor Byron Konschuh, who recently reviewed the case file, is sympathetic to her situation — and her attorney's quandary.

"If you can't show cause, unless you know there's abuse and can prove it, there's risk. Bumps and bruises can be explained away," Konschuh said.

After learning of Lily's death, Furneaux's custody attorney Sally Miller said she lost days of sleep. The possibility of Lily dying had never entered her mind.

"It was hard to know what was going on in (the Wolfenbarger-King) house," Miller said. "You don't just go to court with hearsay and speculation."

In this sad story, many are left with regrets and what-ifs. If only the judge had listened to expert testimony that Lily was too young to spend three days at a time with her father. If only Sally Miller had urged the family to call authorities.

If only the Furneaux family had swallowed their fears and dialed 911.

On Friday, Nov. 19, Lauren Furneaux was ready to move forward, to call her doctor, to face whatever risks "the system" might pose.

That Friday, the pediatrician's office was closed. She decided to wait until Monday, the Monday that never came for Lily.

The Furneaux family living room is filled with auction items for Saturday night's latest "Justice for Lily" benefit to raise money for Oakland County's Care House, a child abuse prevention center that works with the prosecutor's office.

Like most county centers, Care House typically deploys a team to evaluate any instance of child abuse referred by authorities.

If this grieving family — if anyone — had made that call, they might have unleashed a living, bureaucratic hell that could have ruined two families' lives.

Then again, Lily might well be alive — laughing, dancing, bouncing on the bed — to celebrate her third birthday.