Father of Murdered Child: ‘I was doing everything I could and nobody listened’

You know the saying about closing the barn door after the horse is out.  Well, read this story and see if that doesn’t occur to you (St. Cloud Times, 5/1/11).

Two Sudanese natives, Gatluak Jerweng and Nyachuol Puoch met in 2005 and lived for a time in Iowa and for a time in Minnesota.  Eventually, they had four children together, but never married.  Their relationship was always conflicted and that was exacerbated by the fact that the mother of the children, Puoch, was mentally unstable bordering on psychotic.

Unstated in the article is for just how long that was occurring.  Among other things, she had two children by another man who lived in Melbourne, Iowa.  He had custody and when she tried to regain custody for herself, she was denied.  That alone suggests a mother with serious problems going back to when an Iowa court originally gave the father sole custody of their children.

Indeed, the attorney for her first two children in her divorce case now says that at the time she had apparent mental health issues as well as parenting problems.  That of course would explain why Dad got custody. 

By the time she’d had children with Jerweng, Puoch was barricading herself in the bathroom with the children and hanging blankets over the windows because she believed people were trying to kill her.  She was also abusing the children who were malnourished and showed signs of having been beaten.

Throughout all of this, Jerweng repeatedly called Iowa Department of Human Services trying to alert them to the danger his children faced at the hands of their mother.  He reported her abuse four times and talked personally to caseworkers far more often.  All to no avail.   

Court records obtained from Minnesota show Iowa DHS confirmed abuse twice in 2009, but no one requested that the children be removed from Puoch”s home, despite Jerweng”s growing concerns about Puoch”s mental health…

A court order from Marshall County in January 2009 shows a psychiatrist evaluated Puoch and determined she needed placement at an Iowa Falls hospital for her own safety for “depression and psychotic features.’ But another doctor, Dr. Robert Stern, evaluated Puoch the same day, and determined she was mentally ill but could make her own decisions about her care, according to Iowa court documents. The commitment case was dismissed.

Because of that, she wouldn’t be committed to a mental institution, but what about her care of the children?  DHS didn’t seem much concerned despite the fact that one month later caseworkers confirmed another instance of abuse.  Nor did it do anything when, two months later, it received still another complaint of abandonment by Puoch and paranoid behavior.

Yet a few months later, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital, but after only three days there, the same doctor said he found no reason to keep her there and released her.

Again, the question arises, “what about the kids?”  Or, stated another way, “what does it take to get DHS to see what’s obvious to everyone else?”

Well, there’s an answer to that question.  It took murder.

On April 12, 2010, Puoch beat the couple’s 22-month-old son Duach to death.  He had broken bones and internal bleeding and was dead by the time he arrived at the nearest emergency room.  Puoch was found guilty of murder and recently sentenced to 12 years in prison last month.

Their other children were found to be in the lowest 25% for height and weight, indicating malnourishment.

So what we have is a mother whose ability to parent was found insufficient during her marriage to allow her any contact with her first two children.  For the children she had with Jerweng, there were multiple complaints to DHS as well as two findings of psychosis requiring hospitalization.  Into the bargain, there was a father who repeatedly complained that his children were suffering abuse at the hand of their mother.  Finally there was clear, objective evidence of violence toward Duach that far preceded his death plus the malnourishment of the others.

Somehow none of that added up to enough to take the children from the mother.  Somehow a concerned and fully capable father was ignored, not only when he called DHS to urge action, but as the most obvious choice to have custody of his children.

After all, child welfare agencies are supposed to look first to fathers and other relatives when it’s deemed necessary to take children from a mother.  Indeed, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families has a handy 107-page booklet instructing caseworkers about the value of fathers to children and how to transfer custody to them.

But of course that wasn’t done and a toddler was killed because it wasn’t.

That paternal placement was an option completely ignored should come as no surprise.  The Urban Institute has studied the matter and found that in over half of the cases in which the father is known, caseworkers make no effort to contact him about placement for children taken from their mother.

Eventually Jerweng got fed up with waiting for DHS to do its job, so he tried to do it for them.  Before his son’s death, he filed suit to get custody of his children, but – irony of ironies – that only made matters worse.

She was pregnant with their fourth child by the time he eventually filed for custody of their children in Marshalltown…

Meyer, the attorney, said he believes the custody battle contributed to social workers” reluctance to take action.

“They could have been placed with him. That would have protected them,’ he said. “The problem is once an agency finds out there is a civil custody battle, they tend not to want to do anything too dramatic.’

Right.  Who’d want to do anything dramatic like save a child’s life?  Particularly when it’s your job to do exactly that.

What attorney Meyer misses though is the fact that Jerweng’s lawsuit isn’t the reason he didn’t get custody.  DHS hadn’t given him custody before the suit and it didn’t give him custody afterward.  Suit or no suit, the result was the same.

Still, reread that lawyer’s statement.  Yes, what he’s saying is that DHS failed to do what it clearly should have done months or even years before because doing so would have helped a father get his children from a mother who was unquestionably unable to parent them properly.  DHS knew that taking the children would put its finger on the scales of justice in favor of the dad, so it did nothing.

Now that one child is dead, and the mother in prison, the remaining children are finally in Jerweng’s custody and doing well.

Shan Wang, the assistant Stearns County attorney who prosecuted the Puoch case, said authorities there filed a child-abuse petition after Duach”s death to protect the then 2- and 3-year-old sisters, Bahn and Savannah.

Those girls and Liah, an infant born to Puoch in July, were eventually placed in their father”s care.

The three children now live with Jerweng in Owatonna.

Santiago DeFord, another prosecutor, said the children have gained weight and were thriving as of a hearing last month.

Meanwhile, Jerweng understandably is not a happy camper.

Jerweng has told numerous authorities the death could have been avoided if human services workers in Iowa took seriously his attempts to report Puoch”s alleged abuse of the children and alleged history of depression, psychosis and paranoia.

“He repeatedly said to us, ‘I was doing everything I could in Iowa, and nobody listened,” ‘ said Heidi Santiago DeFord, an assistant Stearns County attorney.

Welcome to fatherhood as it’s practiced in the U.S.

I would encourage him to find a good lawyer and sue DHS.  I expect he’ll figure that out soon enough and good luck to him.  But lawyers can only do what they can do.  They don’t put horses back in barns.

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