Iraq Veteran Wins Custody of Two Surviving Kids After His Son Was Beaten to Death

When children of divorce or separation are being abused in a mother’s home and the children are taken by the state, they should be placed with their father ASAP, barring a finding of unfitness. One of the problems with the child welfare system is that this is often not the case.

In Choosing Foster Parents over Fathers (San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/11/07), family law attorney Jeff Leving and I discussed research from the Urban Institute which shows that the child welfare system usually denies fit, loving fathers the opportunity to raise their own children.

In the Gary Smith Jr. case discussed below, Smith’s ex-wife left their three kids in the care of her boyfriend while deployed overseas. The boyfriend beat one of the boys to death, yet the system still dragged its feet in granting the father custody of the surviving two children. Leving, who represented Smith in the case, told the Chicago Tribune that child-welfare officials should have moved the surviving children quickly to his client, explaining, “It’s sad that he had to hire me and go through these maneuvers to safeguard his other children.”

The article is below–congratulations to Leving for his good work in reuniting this father and his children. A news video about the case can be seen here. Smith and Leving are pictured above.

Slain boy’s father awarded custody of his 2 other kids
Iraq veteran divorces child’s mother, whose boyfriend is suspect

By Michael Higgins
Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2007

The father of a 4-year-old Calumet City boy who was beaten to death in May was granted permanent custody of his two other children under a divorce settlement approved Thursday.

Gary Smith Jr. was serving in the Army in Iraq when he learned that his son Cameron had been killed.

Unbeknownst to him, Smith said, his then-wife, Lavada Smith, had placed the couple’s children in the care of her boyfriend, who was later charged with the 4-year-old’s murder.

On Thursday, Cook County Circuit Judge Karen Shields approved the settlement, which allows Smith to take Cameron’s siblings, ages 7 and 8, to live with him in Georgia.

“I wanted my kids to be safe,” Smith said after the hearing. “I want them to be able to go to school without thinking about bad things that happened here.”

Lavada Smith is allowed visitation under the settlement. She could not be reached for comment after the hearing.

Shields praised the couple Thursday for reaching a compromise that she said put their children’s interests first. “I think you’re probably doing the best you can with a really bad situation,” Shields said.

Speaking after the hearing, Gary Smith said he still considers his former wife to be a good mother. But he said she made a terrible mistake when she was deployed to Iraq herself and left their children with Donell Parker of Calumet City.

Parker has pleaded not guilty in the boy’s death.

Gary Smith’s attorney, Jeffery Leving, said after the hearing Thursday that child-welfare officials should have moved the surviving children quickly to his client. “It’s sad that he had to hire me and go through these maneuvers to safeguard his other children,” Leving said.

Cameron was discovered lifeless in his bed. Calumet City police said the boy endured two days of being punched in the head, stomach, chest and back. He was beaten with a belt as well, police said.

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