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When the bough breaks: A mother of five, a parent to none

First in a series

Sunday, December 12, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two women, the mother and the adoptive mother, hugged and cried and prayed as the little children they shared looked on one day last July.

 
  Leanore Weigner says goodbye to her daughter, Mary, in Brady's Run Park in July. Mary and her brother, Charles, were leaving the next day with their adoptive parents for Texas and Weigner didn't know when she would see them again. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

The adoptive mother, Betsy Lee, was moving the next day from Beaver to Texas, half a country away. The mother, Leanore Weigner, was losing her children for a second time. The first time, Beaver County Children and Youth Services had taken them from her.

Lee held Weigner a long time, trying to comfort her.

Then the little ones, Mary, 6, and Charles, 5, hugged their mother goodbye, climbed into Lee's Jeep and left.

Weigner was alone. Again.

Her face crumpled in agony. She wanted her children back -- not just Mary and Charles, but three others who were living with a foster family that intended to adopt them.

Betsy Lee and her husband, Dr. John Lee, had been willing to relinquish Mary and Charles if that's what Weigner had wanted and if an appeal had allowed it because, Betsy Lee said, "It is a terrible injustice what happened to her."

But Weigner wouldn't appeal. She didn't want the children moved again and hurt again, not, she said, after CYS had put them "through heck and back."

All she wanted was for someone to stop CYS from doing what it had done to her.

CYS had terminated her parental rights to five children.

It had the legal authority to do that, but the way CYS, the Beaver County courts and even Weigner 's court-appointed attorney behaved during that painful procedure appears to have violated Weigner's rights to due process, as well as state and federal regulations regarding abused and neglected children.

And Weigner's story is not an anomaly in Beaver County.

A troubled beginning

Her saga began long before she moved to Beaver County or met a CYS caseworker. It goes back to her hometown of Carnegie on the last weekend of October 1983, just days after Weigner's 11th birthday.

 
    When the bough breaks - Part One

When the bough breaks: Introduction

Mother finally gives up long battle to adopt her 'heart's daughter'


Part Two: Beaver County moves faster than average to sever parents' legal rights to their children

Part Three: Mother asks CYS for help; it takes her children

Part Four: CYS fights family's adoption, then opposes benefits


About the authors

 
 

That's when her stepfather sexually molested her. Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families placed Weigner and her sister, Dawn Conrad, in foster care. When Dawn turned 18 and left foster care, Weigner, a mildly retarded girl, lost her sister's support.

She ran away almost immediately. It was 1987. She was 15 and living like a nomad, sometimes with her sister, sometimes with other relatives. She attended school for a time but dropped out after 8th grade. She never made it to high school.

A few months after running away, she met Alvin Shriver, a violent 16-year-old, who, unfortunately, took a fancy to her. Except for the four beautiful children they produced, nothing good came of their relationship.

They traveled from one city to the next in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They were in Steubenville, Ohio, when Weigner became pregnant with their first child. She said she was eight months along when Alvin Shriver knocked out her front teeth. Later, he would smack the second child across the face with a hot spatula because he was crying for eggs.

The first baby, J.S., a girl, was born on June 15, 1990, when Weigner was 17. Within four years, there were three more -- D.S., a boy, in 1991, Mary in 1993, and Charles in 1994, six days after Weigner's 22nd birthday.

At that point, she was an unskilled, undereducated mother of four, economically dependent on a violent man.

That's when she began her second fateful relationship.

Shriver had introduced her to his cousin, James Boyce, and Boyce was appalled by what he saw going on in their household. He told Weigner it wasn't right. He encouraged her to leave.

When Weigner finally got the courage to tell Shriver she was going, he savaged the apartment, smashing, among other things, the children's fish tank, then forcing them to watch their pets suffocate. The Beaver Falls police arrived, and Weigner and the children escaped.

But then her trouble with CYS started. She traces it back to a jealous Shriver, who couldn't stand the idea of her and Boyce being together.

Not long after she and Shriver had split up, he was convicted of setting his aunt's home on fire while she, Boyce, and Shriver's grandfather slept inside. They escaped unharmed. Shriver was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison for arson and reckless endangerment.

Before he set the fire, Weigner believes Shriver told CYS about his cousin's juvenile criminal record.

Boyce said he didn't really do anything. According to his account, he and another boy were baby-sitting, and the other boy sexually assaulted the child while Boyce was out of the house. Boyce was charged in the case, and while he doesn't remember exactly what crime he was accused of, he knows that he was given probation and never spent time in a juvenile detention center.

Boyce's story has some credence, because if he had been convicted of a serious sexual assault, his juvenile record would be public information -- and it isn't.

CYS wasn't willing to take any chances, though. Weigner said a caseworker told her in the fall of 1995 that she was never to leave the children alone with Boyce.

Weigner was unfazed by the demand, because, she said, she never left her children alone, not even with a baby-sitter. Although she did not believe Boyce had committed a sexual assault as a juvenile, Weigner would never let him or anyone else touch her children. She'd been a victim; she was determined not to let it happen to her children.

A few months later, as she and Boyce's mother, JoAnn Boyer, were fixing dinner for the children at Boyer's home in Freedom, a CYS caseworker arrived.

A final meal

It was Dec. 4, 1995. That was the last day Weigner ever cooked for her children.

CYS accused Weigner of leaving the children alone with Boyce. They took the children away from her and parceled them out to different foster homes. Mary, who was 2, and Charles, who was 1, were put in one home, while D.S., who was 4, and J.S., who was 5, were placed in another.

Weigner's sister tried to rescue them. Dawn Conrad called CYS and asked that her nieces and nephews be placed with her. She felt the children should be together and remain with family, and they knew her and her husband because Weigner had spent a month with them earlier that year.

But, she said, CYS wouldn't even consider her, telling her it would be impossible to place the children outside Pennsylvania. Conrad and her husband own a home in Wintersville, Ohio, 18 miles from the Pennsylvania line. Both state and federal law permit placement across state lines. Beaver County CYS has placed children outside Pennsylvania in other cases. But it refused this time.

In addition, both state and federal law require agencies to consider placement with relatives before strangers. Yet CYS wrote on Weigner's court papers, "At the time of placement, there were no appropriate relatives to care for the children."

CYS Director Victor Colonna said state law bars him from discussing specific cases, but he said CYS must have had a reason if it did not place children with a relative.

Betsy Lee, the adoptive mother of Mary and Charles, was furious when she found out the agency refused to place children with Conrad. Much as she loves Mary and Charles, she believes they belonged with family first. "It breaks my heart. All five kids could have been together in a stable home four years ago."

The CYS decision to reject the Conrads was particularly costly to J.S. and D.S., because they would end up being passed from one foster home to the next.

D.S. bounced through five homes in four years; J.S. went to four. Each time a child is moved, psychiatrists say, he or she is less able to bond, less able to love, more likely to suffer debilitating emotional disorders. After what happened to D.S. and J.S. within CYS' child protective system, it wouldn't be hard to conclude that they'd have been better off staying with their mother, Lee said.

That is not, however, the conclusion CYS came to.

No attorney present

The agency asked Juvenile Court to declare the children abused or neglected because "Ms. Weigner left the children alone with Mr. James Boyce, a known perpetrator of sexual abuse, despite being repeatedly warned that he is to have absolutely no contact with any of the children."

Boyce could hardly be described as a known perpetrator, since his juvenile record was sealed, and he had no adult record. And, Weigner said, she was only told not to leave the children alone with him.

When the Juvenile Court hearing was held, Weigner had no attorney present to argue her case, and the judge decided not to give the children back to her.

She said she didn't know how to get a free lawyer, and she said no one told her how. Court officials say they always tell parents how to get free lawyers.

But Weigner, because of her limitations, may not have understood. State regulations say parents are entitled to legal representation at every hearing, yet the court didn't appoint a lawyer for Weigner until at least the third hearing, about a year later.

When CYS took her children, Weigner was four months pregnant with Boyce's baby, and terrified that CYS would take that child. too.

But then a caseworker visited her and Boyce at his mother's house in Freedom and said they could take the baby home when it was born, for at least a couple of weeks. Weigner and Boyce stacked up diapers and bought formula, clothes and a bassinet.

Richard Boyce was born on May 12, 1996.

Based on the caseworker's promise that she could take him home and her belief that five children were all she could handle, Weigner got surgically sterilized immediately afterward.

The next day, the caseworker went to the hospital and took Richard. The only baby picture Weigner has of him is the one taken there.

CYS placed Richard with George and Tamell Huffmyer, who was the volunteer foster parent liaison for CYS. Although J.S. and D.S. had been placed in another home initially, they had been moved to the Huffmyers by the time the baby was born. Shortly after the Huffmyers got the baby, though, they insisted that CYS move D.S. out of the home. It's not clear why, and the Huffmyers declined to discuss it.

When the caseworker showed up at the maternity ward, Weigner had been dressing to leave. Boyce's mother, JoAnn Boyer, was holding her infant grandson in her arms.

After the caseworker took the baby, Boyce stormed out, an omen of things to come for him and Weigner.

Shortage of help

CYS then gave Weigner and Boyce "family service plans," which are supposed to be road maps to possible reunification of parents and children. Under the plans, parents must meet some goals so the children can return safely, and the agency is supposed to help them achieve those objectives. The idea behind the service plans is that the quicker children go home, the less trauma they will suffer and the less cost taxpayers will incur for keeping them in foster care.

Weigner was a parent who definitely needed help. Besides being a mildly retarded junior-high dropout who'd been a victim of both sexual assault and domestic violence, she had only held a job or leased an apartment of her own for a few months.

Despite its duty and Weigner's clear need, CYS did virtually nothing to help her.

One of the goals she had the most difficulty meeting was getting decent, stable housing. She didn't have money for a security deposit. And she couldn't get into a public housing apartment unless she paid $908 she owed in back rent and repairs from a previous stay in public housing. That was an amount far beyond her means.

These, however, are problems many child welfare agencies solve.

The Allegheny County CYF, the counterpart to Beaver County CYS, does it all the time. It connects parents to agencies that will help pay overdue utility bills and security deposits. CYF will buy a parent a refrigerator or a stove if that's the roadblock to returning the children. And CYF has a special program to help parents get public housing.

Beaver County CYS did none of this for Weigner.

Boyce said CYS did not help him either, and in fact worked against his success. The agency required him to go to classes for sexual offenders, which were held during times when he was supposed to be working. He lost his job because he attended the classes. Then he didn't have the money to pay for the classes, and CYS wouldn't cover the cost, so, he said, he didn't finish them.

That meant he and Weigner couldn't get their baby, and Weigner couldn't get her other children back.

They agreed to separate. Weigner moved to New Brighton. She completed many of the goals CYS set for her. She graduated from the parenting school. A homemaker inspected her apartment and found it clean and well stocked with food. She never missed a visit with her children.

But after doing all that, she still faced a huge obstacle.

A ruinous accusation

By this time, CYS had accused Boyce of molesting one or more of Weigner's children. Three months after Richard was born, the Beaver County district attorney's office charged Boyce with a dozen counts of corrupting minors and indecent assault, although the charges didn't specify the victims.

Boyce flatly denies any molestation. Weigner doesn't believe he did it, partly because her children never mentioned it. When she would try to ask them about it during visits, the CYS caseworkers would tell her not to bring it up. CYS director Colonna said a supervisor may ask parents not to discuss sexual abuse if he feels the questions are an attempt to influence the child during an investigation.

Betsy Lee said it was clear to her that neither Mary nor Charles was a victim, because they never exhibited the sexualized behaviors associated with it.

Despite the serious charges leveled against Boyce, the district attorney allowed him to enter a special program designed for first-time offenders, almost all of whom are accused of nonviolent crimes. It's not clear how an option meant for nonviolent offenders could be offered to someone charged with numerous counts of indecent assault, other than the possibility that the prosecution felt it might not win at trial.

Boyce's public defender advised him to take the offer, rather than face the possibility of conviction and jail time. Boyce said he agreed because the lawyer assured him that entering the program, called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, wasn't the same as pleading guilty or being convicted. He served one year's probation.

Boyce maintains his innocence and remains angry about the accusations.

Ten days after Boyce accepted the deal, Weigner was back in juvenile court.

It was Nov. 21, 1996, and now, CYS wanted to change the goal for her children from reunification to adoption.

Weigner didn't know it then, but CYS was abandoning her in stunningly quick time -- just 11 months after the older children were taken, and six months after the baby was. In 1996, agencies were expected to work with parents for at least 18 months before seeking to terminate their rights. And most tried much longer to help parents get their children back, so that the average parent nationwide got a little more than three years to meet goals before their rights were terminated.

The speed of Weigner's termination was not unique in Beaver County.

From 1994 through 1998, the most recent statistics available, Beaver County terminated parents' rights twice as quickly as the national average, and even faster when a baby was involved.

For the hearing on whether her children should be designated for adoption, the court finally appointed a lawyer for Weigner. That attorney, Cathy Campbell, asked the juvenile court hearing officer, who serves in place of a judge, to give Weigner more time.

Hearing Officer John D. McBride agreed, and refused to change the goal to adoption. He ordered CYS to continue to help Weigner get her children back.

Despite that, CYS immediately went to an Orphans' Court judge and asked for a hearing to terminate Weigner's parental rights, the first step necessary for adoption.

In many other places, including Allegheny County, that wouldn't occur because CYS would have to deal with a single judge throughout a family's case.

Weigner's termination hearing was scheduled for Jan. 14, 1997, but Campbell persuaded Beaver County Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Reed to postpone it twice.

Weigner had more time. But then CYS began pressuring her in a different way.

Seeking acquiescence

CYS started pushing Weigner to relinquish her children for adoption, which would avoid the need for a judge to involuntarily terminate her rights.

Weigner asked Campbell about it, and Campbell said, "I told her that it was her decision and she needed to understand what she was doing, because you can't go back. I said 'You are struggling, but this is a permanent decision.' "

Campbell said she thought Weigner understood.

But Weigner didn't. And Campbell did not offer to go with her when she talked to CYS about it.

That should not happen. Linda Ehrenreich, who directs the group of attorneys in Allegheny County who represent parents in such cases, said she would be furious if she found out CYS had discussed relinquishment, or a similar procedure called consent, with any of her clients without her lawyer being present, especially if the parent was mentally ill or mentally retarded.

Campbell said she didn't know her client was mildly retarded. And, she said, the law doesn't require legal counsel for parents who sign away their rights.

Weigner signed the relinquishment on July 28, 1997 -- but she did so partly because she misunderstood what was going on.

When CYS told Weigner it would try to terminate her rights if she didn't relinquish her children, she thought termination meant she would be criminally charged and might go to jail.

"I was scared because I was never in jail," Weigner said. "I had never even been charged with anything. They had me scared."

Colonna, the CYS director, said he can't imagine she got that idea from anyone at the agency. "I would say in no case would a parent be told criminal charges would be filed if they don't sign a voluntary relinquishment."

In addition to lacking legal counsel when she needed it, Weigner was not given a court-appointed guardian, which she would have had in Allegheny County, where the courts require such a second line of defense for parents who are under 18 or mentally ill or retarded. Part of the guardian's job is to make sure the parent understands what termination means.

That doesn't happen in Beaver County, though. Court rules there require guardians only for parents under 18.

On Sept. 23, 1997, a judge severed Weigner's rights to her children forever. At the same hearing, the judge terminated Boyce's rights, although he didn't have a lawyer and wasn't given an opportunity to speak. Now, he said, "I don't believe in the justice system. It isn't any justice at all."

Second thoughts

Twelve days after the terminations, on Oct. 5, 1997, Joseph Shriver, an infant cousin of Weigner's children, was beaten to death by his foster mother.

It traumatized Weigner. Her friends and family called to make sure it wasn't one of her babies. Weigner, who had assumed foster care was safe, began to worry that her children too could be killed by foster parents.

She wrote Campbell and asked her to try to reverse the termination of her parental rights. She said she'd been pressured into it. She said she was afraid for her children.

Campbell never responded -- despite the fact that in 1992, state Superior Court ruled that lawyers representing poor parents like Weigner in terminations must file appeals when their clients request them. The court said that if the lawyers felt the appeals were utterly frivolous, they could ask for permission to withdraw, but they had to file briefs pointing to any possible appeal issues anyway.

Weigner couldn't get any help from Campbell. She was alone and fearful for her children's safety. "They told me to just go on with my life. How could I do that without my kids?"

She tried to kill herself. She spent three weeks in the hospital.

She began taking medication for depression. But, she said, "Sometimes I get really, really depressed and I don't even want to be around."

A year later, in the fall of 1998, Weigner looked up the phone number for John and Betsy Lee, who'd had two of her children for two years at that point.

She had met Betsy Lee briefly during visits with Mary and Charles before the termination. Now she'd read a news article saying that CYS had taken from the Lees a 14-month-old baby they'd hoped to adopt, and Weigner wanted to offer her sympathy.

Betsy Lee was touched by this kindness from someone who had lost so much. They began talking from time to time. Weigner told Lee bits and pieces of her story. It didn't jibe with what the caseworker had told Lee about her.

Lee, already suspicious of CYS because the agency had placed her foster baby with someone else for adoption, began letting Weigner talk to Mary and Charles on the phone.

Lee was careful, though, because she feared CYS would take those children away from her, too, if the agency felt she had violated rules.

A painful parting

A year after Weigner's rights were terminated -- in the fall of 1998 -- Beaver County CYS still hadn't completed adoptions for any of her children.

The Huffmyers were supposed to adopt J.S. and Richard, but they got a divorce, so the two children were sent to live with their brother D.S. in his foster home. Then, last spring, the three children were moved to yet another foster family.

The move to a new foster home occurred a year-and-a-half after the termination. The three children would have to be with the new family at least another six months before an adoption could be approved.

There was no reason, however, to delay Mary's and Charles' adoption, but it still wasn't scheduled, which was frustrating to the Lees because they were facing a deadline.

John Lee had completed his physician's residency and had accepted a job with a practice in Texas. They had rented a house and were to leave Beaver County in July of this year.

Betsy Lee's caseworker told her that Mary and Charles might have to stay behind if the adoptions weren't completed before the Lees left. Betsy Lee couldn't bear for that to happen. It would devastate the children as much as it would her and John.

One problem the Lees faced was that they had filed a federal lawsuit against CYS over the agency's refusal to let them adopt their foster baby, and they didn't want Robert Masters, the CYS solicitor they named in that suit, to serve as the lawyer for this adoption.

CYS finally agreed to let them use a private lawyer, Albert A. Torrence of Beaver. Torrence quickly scheduled a date.

On June 29 of this year, Mary and Charles became Lees in a ceremony in which they were joyous and silly, as a 5- and 6-year-old should be. When questioned under oath if she would love and cherish the children as she would the son born to her and John, Betsy Lee said, "I rejoice in it."

They celebrated with breakfast at McDonald's, the children's choice. Betsy Lee then called Weigner to make sure she was OK. "I have asked her to be honest with me about what she wanted. She has consistently said she wants what is best for the kids. She has sweetly said we could adopt. But having gone through this situation ourselves with [the foster child], we have to deal with how she is impacted by all of this."

 
  Weeping, hugging and praying together, Leanore Weigner, left, and Betsy Lee prepare to say goodbye in July at Brady's Run Park. Lee had adopted two of Weigner's children. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

After the adoption, Betsy and John Lee let Weigner take Mary and Charles to a fair by herself. Days later, the children were still talking about it -- the popcorn, the rides, the fun with their mother.

Once they reached Texas, Betsy and John Lee planned to send Weigner plane tickets so she could visit the children.

But before they left, Betsy Lee had to take on the excruciating job of arranging another goodbye between Weigner and her children.

She decided to take Weigner and the children to Brady's Run Park in Beaver County. They could play for hours on the swings and slides. Weigner could hug them, kiss them and tell them goodbye again.

Both Mary and Charles wrote their mother letters.

Charles wrote, "I love you. I miss you. I like to play with you. I don't want to go away."

Weigner wrote:

"I never thought this day would come again ... when I had to say goodbye. So I had to write it because I can't say it to your face ... when you go, please remember me and that I love you very much. And you will always be in my mind and in my heart. I really can't explain how I feel right now.

"But I can tell you that it hurts more than anything in the world."

Tomorrow: A jailed mother struggles to keep her children



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