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Juvenile Court Journal: A little lie tears a girl from her dad

One in an occasional series

Sunday, December 22, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Somewhere under his outrage, Larry Davis found the calm to assure his daughter he loved her.

Then he told Latosha, "Now they're going to take you away."

Latasha Davis, 11, gives her dad, Larry Davis, a big hug after she was returned by Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families officials in November. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Previous articles in the series.

A caseworker led the terrified honor student out of Reizenstein Middle School and into foster care, where the 11-year-old, who had never been separated from her father for more than a weekend, would remain for 38 days.

She was taken because she told Reizenstein officials her father beat her with a pipe and because Davis told a caseworker his disciplinary methods were none of her business.

Child welfare agencies were created to protect children from abusive parents, so the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families would have to decide whether Davis was one, using a standard that's not clearly defined.

Pennsylvania permits parents to enforce family rules with physical punishment -- a slap in the face, a whack on the rear. But the law says it's child abuse when parents deliberately inflict an injury that causes severe pain or seriously impairs a physical function.

Since the point of physical punishment is to produce pain, determining whether a parent has committed child abuse turns on definitions of intent, severity and impairment.

The state Supreme Court has provided some guidance. Last July it decided that for physical punishment to rise to the level of abuse, the child must suffer a serious injury from discipline inflicted in a way that would be criminally negligent. As a result, the court ruled, a Philadelphia mother did not commit child abuse when she whipped her 6-year-old daughter with a belt, even though the buckle struck the girl in the face, injuring her eye.

This decision defined abuse only for the purpose of placing parents on the state registry of child abusers.

Still unresolved is what kind of injury justifies removing a child from a parent's custody. And in the months that followed the ruling, caseworkers from CYF made widely varying determinations about what constitutes abuse.

In August, CYF placed in foster care a 12-year-old Hill District girl and her younger sister after their mother swatted the defiant adolescent one time on the leg with a stick the size of a ruler, leaving a welt.

The next month, CYF reported to a judge that a foster father, in a fit of anger at a mouthy 12-year-old, had picked the girl up and slammed her to the floor several times, as if dribbling a deflated basketball. Even though foster parents are forbidden to physically punish the abused children they're paid to care for, CYF recommended that the girl remain with the foster family.

The same month, CYF took Latosha from her father, an action he says was unwarranted because it was based only on allegations: "There is no way in the world they should be able to do this," he said.

Concealed suspension

Latosha Davis had kept a secret from her father.

About two weeks after she started sixth grade at Reizenstein, Latosha was suspended for fighting.

Steven Travanti, the vice principal, sent Latosha home with a note explaining what had happened. But she didn't give it to her father because she didn't want him to know.

They were close, and she wanted to avoid the sting of his disappointment. Davis had raised her alone since she was 2. He would get up early in the morning to style her hair before school. They went everywhere together, from parades to movies.

Still, he was a strict parent. On rare occasions, he spanked her with his belt. Then, a few months ago, he threatened to beat her with a pipe if she misbehaved again. To him, it was hyperbole. To her, it was a possibility. And it was part of the reason she didn't tell him about her suspension.

On Sept. 24, Travanti called Davis to discuss a bully on Latosha's bus and mentioned her suspension. Davis was furious. Not only had his daughter withheld the information, but also the school, which was required to tell him about it, had not done so.

He told Travanti that Latosha faced consequences for her behavior and asked him to bring her to the phone. When Travanti pulled her out of class, he accused her of concealing the suspension. Latosha feared what he'd do and what her father would do.

That's when she told Travanti she didn't want to go home because her father would beat her with a pipe.

School officials, who are required by state law to report suspected child abuse, summoned CYF. A caseworker called Davis at the Allegheny County public defender's office, where he conducts intake interviews. Davis refused to talk to her and went to the school.

He was angry, loud and uncooperative. He saw no reason for CYF to be involved. He told the CYF worker, "Young lady, your services are not needed here," and refused to answer her questions about discipline.

So the caseworker got an emergency order to seize the child. She took Latosha to Children's Hospital, where doctors found two old bruises on her leg but no evidence of abuse. Still, the caseworker placed Latosha in foster care.

Before they took her away, Davis told the school's social worker, Ellen Sandidge, that Reizenstein and CYF were interfering with his right to raise and punish his child as he saw fit.

Sandidge would concede in a juvenile court hearing later that she knew children who had used false claims of abuse to get CYF or school officials to stand between them and parents intent on implementing discipline.

It's a problem that concerns Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen, the supervising judge for juvenile court and an advocate of strong parental control over children. "There is something wrong when kids believe they can do whatever they want and call CYF," she said .

Taken away

On Sept. 27, Davis and Latosha saw each other for the first time in three days. It was in juvenile court. She was tearful and scared. He reassured her, believing the hearing would end in her being returned to him.

She had, after all, made it clear she wanted to go home and recanted all allegations of beatings.

And Davis had brought with him dozens of friends and supporters who were prepared to testify in his behalf, tell how he'd always gone to Latosha's elementary school to assist with activities such as the annual Halloween parade, how he'd helped them with their children, how he'd volunteered for years teaching parenting skills to delinquent boys.

But CYF had Davis' witnesses evicted, and Latosha's court-appointed attorney had her removed as well. Then the caseworker told the hearing officer that a doctor at Children's had reported to her that the two old bruises on Latosha's leg could, or could not, have been caused by a beating with a pipe. And Latosha's mother, who rarely visited the girl, told the hearing officer that Davis beat her up every time she went to his house.

Davis' attorney denied this and demanded evidence -- a police report, a protection from abuse order. But at this hearing, none of that is necessary. A very low standard of evidence is permitted, and no proof required. The hearing officer, citing concerns about the allegations, ordered Latosha to remain in foster care.

Davis was devastated. When he left the courtroom, Latosha ran to him. Both cried. Latosha had no intention of letting go, but Davis told her she would have to go back to foster care with a caseworker, Shanee Chambers, of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania.

Chambers managed to get Latosha out the front door, and down a block, but then the girl told her she wasn't going to a foster home.

"She dropped to her knees in the middle of Grant Street screaming for her father," Chambers said.

Over the next month, Latosha got caught up in numerous fights at her new school with teens she describes as bullies. She was suspended several times. She was desperately unhappy.

She was be permitted to see her father two hours every other week -- a total of four hours a month.

This, Davis would contend, was a far worse punishment than the spanking he would have administered the day he'd discovered she'd kept secret her suspension.

Drawing the line

As Davis waited 35 days for the next hearing, he kept asking why no criminal charges had been filed against him if his discipline had crossed the line, if he really had beaten his daughter.

Charges were never filed.

Other parents who spank have been indicted. The Hill District woman who swatted her 12-year-old daughter on the thigh in August was charged.

She'd called the 12-year-old in at curfew one night, but the girl refused to obey. So she smacked her once on the leg. The girl went inside screaming hysterically. Police arrived, charged the mother, took her to jail and gave the girl and her sister to a CYF caseworker who put them in foster care.

Months later, after attending numerous criminal and juvenile court proceedings and delinquency hearings for the 12-year-old, who was charged with assaults twice that summer, the mother pleaded guilty to child endangerment and simple assault.

At her hearing, her attorney, Joseph Paletta, told the judge, "Thank God she didn't hit her with a wooden spoon" because so many other mothers would have to be indicted, too.

Paletta urged the woman not to plead guilty to what appeared to be overblown charges, but she told him she had to because she couldn't miss one more day of work for another hearing. The judge gave her six months' probation.

Allen will decide in February whether the mother should suffer a further punishment -- loss of legal custody of the 12-year-old -- for a one-hit spanking. The judge returned the younger child to her in November.

Allen acknowledges that many child therapists and development experts argue against spanking. She mulled their alternatives from the bench one day during a break between cases. Many experts, she said, now give children a clinical diagnosis, something like oppositional defiant disorder, which they then treat with drugs. And maybe they're right, she says.

But in her day, misbehavior merited a spanking. She was spanked and spanked her own children.

She often has told balky teenagers in her courtroom: "You should be glad she is your mother and not me." That's because if the roles were switched, Allen wouldn't be sparing the rod quite so much.

Still, Allen recognizes that raising the rod simultaneously raises the question that juvenile court judges must answer: At what point does the flailing constitute abuse that warrants removing a child?

Common Pleas Judge Bob Colville Jr. struggled with the delineation when he worked in juvenile court. "You can raise your hand, but you have to be careful," he said, "and it is different for a 2-year-old and a 12-year-old." He decided on some general rules: "Don't inflict severe pain. Don't use a tool. Don't use a clenched fist. Don't leave a mark."

The problem, then, for the mother of the 12-year-old Hill District girl was that she swatted with a tool and left a welt. By contrast, the man who threw his foster child to the ground like a basketball had used only his hands and left no mark.

Davis left no mark either. And that was always a problem for CYF. At the next hearing, on Nov. 1, Jack McVay the attorney for CYF, would tell Common Pleas Judge Kim Clark, "CYF recognizes the possibility that the allegations are not true."

It was hard to say otherwise when the agency had no evidence.

Still, McVay argued that Latosha should remain in foster care because her father was loud and contrary the day Latosha was taken and afterward continued to refuse to cooperate with CYF.

Davis' supporters returned for this hearing, and Clark listened to what they had to say.

Then she returned Latosha to her father. She told Davis she thought that the child's removal was justified and that he should have kept a cooler head. But, she said, CYF had not shown a need to continue separating father and child.

Latosha went home that night. She started studies at a new school shortly afterward and hasn't been suspended since. A therapist that CYF chose to evaluate Davis and Latosha described her as "a very happy little girl" whose relationship with her father appeared positive.

Davis appreciated that affirmation but remains angry, "I can forgive my child for being a child. But I cannot forgive these adults."

Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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