After 8 Years, Judge’s Recusal Opens Door to Dad’s Custody

February 3rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
An 11-year-old boy, diagnosed with dwarfism due to neglect in his mother’s care, has nevertheless been kept there in spite of repeated requests by his father to change custody and the recommendations of experts.  Read about it here (Tulsa World, 2/3/12).

L.J. is 11 years old, but has only grown to the size of a typical seven-year-old.  That of course could be due to any number of factors, but all those have been ruled out exept one – psychosocial dwarfism.  Here’s what psychosocial dwarfism is:

Psychosocial dwarfism, or PSD, is a disorder of “growth failure and/or delayed puberty … observed in association with emotional deprivation, a pathologic psychosocial environment, or both. A disturbed relationship between child and caregiver is usually noted,” according to a 2010 medical journal article by Dr. Andrew Sirotnak, director of the University of Colorado’s Kempe Child Protection Team.

Jerry Angelo and Mekela Smith are L.J.’s parents.  They divorced in 2004 when the boy was three and his sister was two. 

The two shared custody until 2005, when Angelo had to move across the state line for a new job. He said his ex-wife had primary custody then at the home she shared in Grove with her new husband and his children.

Angelo said he stayed involved with his children’s school and extracurricular activities, and that the children spent time at his home during weekends, holidays and the summer.

But then their younger daughter, Haley, alleged abuse in her mother’s home, so Angelo sought custody.  He was stymied every step of the way by factors of which he had no knowledge at the time.  Eventually, he stopped trying to change custody, but then Haley made a second allegation of abuse, and the whole process started again, this time with several added features.

Most importantly, two separate medical specialists had diagnosed L.J. with psychosocial dwarfism and strongly recommended that he be placed in his father’s care. 

Records obtained by the Tulsa World show that two specialists in pediatric endocrinology ruled out causes of L.J.’s growth delay other than psychosocial dwarfism.

A report by Dr. Richard Sandler of Springdale, Ark., notes that L.J. was at the low end of growth charts at age 2. Since age 8, he was “way below” the third percentile “and appears to be deviating further away from the normal curve,” Sandler said in the report, written July 11, 2011.

“The possibility of psycho-social dwarfism is raised. … Rapid ‘catch-up’ growth in the father’s house would lend credence to this idea,” Sandler’s report states.

A second report by Dr. David Jelley of Tulsa, written July 14, 2011, states that he found no physical reasons for the boy’s abnormal growth pattern.

“The only way to confirm suspicions of psychosocial dwarfism is to place L.J. in a different living situation for at least six months and monitor his growth,” Jelley said in the report.

So not only did the doctors conclude that L.J. would likely benefit from being in his father’s care, but they also confirmed that doing so would serve a diagnostic purpose as well.  Into the bargain, a psychologist who examined L.J. concurred.

A third expert, psychologist Deborah Holmes, submitted a report recommending that Haley and L.J. “be primarily placed, at least temporarily, in the Angelo home.”

She noted that two pediatricians had supported a diagnosis of psychosocial dwarfism.

“L.J. does demonstrate the psychological factors related to this diagnosis,” states her report, obtained by the World.

But to judge Barry Denney, two reports of abuse by the daughter and three expert opinions saying L.J. suffers from psychosocial dwarfism weren’t enough to pry the children loose from their mother’s “care.”  As we now know, that’s at least in part due to conflicts of interest not only on Denney’s part but on that of the court-appointed guardian for the children, Christianna Lincoln Wright.

On January 23rd, some eight years after the divorce and custody proceedings began, Judge Denney finally recused himself due to unspecified conflicts of interest in the case.  The new judge, Alicia Littlefield, removed Wright from the case four days later due to her conflicts of interest.  Among other things, Wright had recommended Smith for a job with a state agency.

Wright’s conflict of interest apparently had a bearing on her discharge of her job as the children’s guardian.  Despite Haley’s complaints of abuse, the recommendations of the two pediatric endocrinologists and the psychologist, Wright decided the children were in no danger at their mother’s home.

In her final report before being removed from the case last month, Wright recommended that Smith retain sole custody of the children. Wright said she was suspicious of the diagnosis of psychosocial dwarfism and concerned about “the effect it is having on L.J.”

“I have no concerns that Haley and L.J. are being physically or emotionally abused in the homes of either of their parents,” her report states.

Denney abetted Wright’s conduct by simply refusing to rule on Angelo’s repeated motions to change custody. 

Despite the reports, Denney granted several motions for continuances in the case and made no ruling on Angelo’s motion to modify custody.

It’s astonishing to note the selective use of the concept of the “best interests of the child” in custody cases.  My guess is that it would make a fairly good law review article or master’s thesis.  My further guess is that it would offer a good education in the many ways fathers are removed from their children’s lives.  Often as not, the term seems little but a stalking horse for deprivation of children’s and fathers’ rights.

Jerry Angelo’s eight-year battle for the health and well-being of his son and daughter is a good example.  Where is the claim that keeping them in their mother’s care is in their best interests?  Where could it possibly be when all the medical and mental health experts have said that it’s not in their best interests to be there?  So the phrase, like the children, is neglected.  The judge refused to rule, so he didn’t need to make a finding of what’s in the children’s best interests.

It may be that Angelo, L.J. and Haley are on their way to a just ,and above all healthy, resolution to this case.  Judge Littlefield shows every sign of knowing what’s been going on and what needs to be done.  That will mean transferring custody to Angelo, and it can’t come a minute too soon.

In the meantime, this case will serve as a reminder of the many astonishing barriers family courts erect between children and their fathers.

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