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Mother denied custody of baby

Elizabeth Township woman tests positive for drugs

Thursday, July 11, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Yesterday was another bad one all around for Lisa Hughes, whose baby was stolen along with her Ford Explorer and then placed in foster care after police discovered syringes, a crack pipe and two tiny bags of suspected heroin in her purse inside the car.

Lisa Hughes, left, mother of kidnapped baby Triston Smathers, and her mother, Sharon Hughes, brush past reporters after yesterday's custody hearing in Judge Cheryl Allen's office. Allen ruled that the child, who turns 1 this month, must remain in foster care for at least 30 days. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Hughes, 32, of Elizabeth Township, began yesterday with a positive drug test for morphine, indicating she recently used an opiate like heroin.

Then at a juvenile court hearing yesterday, Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen decided to leave Hughes' son, Triston M. Smathers, in foster care. The baby has been in the custody of Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families since Sunday when, police said, Hughes left him in her unlocked and running sport utility vehicle at a Giant Eagle parking lot in Harmar while she ran into the store. The car was later recovered with the baby unharmed.

Also yesterday, Harmar police issued a warrant for Hughes' arrest, charging her with drug violations, child endangerment, leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle and driving with a suspended license.

Still, Hughes felt the court and the police treated her wrongly. "I don't think it was fair," she said after Allen, the supervising judge for juvenile court, made her decision.

Hughes again suggested that someone planted the drugs in her car. Initially, she claimed that the heroin as well as the syringes and a crack pipe police found in the car were placed there by Josh Ritter, 27, of Richland. Ritter was charged Monday with stealing her car and the baby.

Yesterday, Hughes suggested that other people had been driving and riding in her car Sunday and they could have placed the drugs there.

Harmar police Officer Otto Gaal testified at the hearing that police have no reason to believe that Ritter or anyone else put the drugs in Hughes' car.

Hughes has pleaded guilty on several occasions to drug use and possession, according to court records. When Harmar police searched her car this week, they found more drugs and two bottles of a liquid used to "cut," or increase the volume of, heroin.

Gaal also testified that after he informed Hughes that her baby had been found safe in the car in Pittsburgh, Hughes asked about the car, her purse and what would happen next, but did not press him for details about the child.

The judge said she couldn't return the boy to his mother, after considering the drug accusations and what she called Hughes' lapse in judgment in leaving the baby unattended.

Hughes' attorney, Catherine Volponi, asked Allen to place the baby with his grandmother, Sharon Hughes, where Lisa Hughes also lives.

Also, the baby's father, Michael Edward Smathers, an electrician from Armstrong County, offered to take the boy, telling the judge, "I would like to see him in my custody, and if not, with the grandmother."

Allen said she didn't have enough information about Smathers to place the child with him.

Allen also declined to place the child with his grandmother, even though Volponi assured the judge that Hughes would move out of her mother's home if the judge felt that was necessary for the baby's safety.

So the boy will spend his first birthday, Saturday, in foster care. Allen did grant weekly visits to the mother, grandmother and father, including one Saturday.

Another hearing will be conducted within 30 days to determine whether the boy will remain in foster care, be placed with a relative or go to one of his parents.

Volponi and attorney Marie Webb, who represented the baby, asked Allen to close yesterday's hearing to the public.

Allegheny County's juvenile court judges have routinely allowed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to attend similar hearings since the paper requested admittance Jan. 1.

Volponi said Hughes did not want reporters to attend and Webb argued that they should not because the media may discover where the child was placed and disrupt his life by going there. State law says such hearings in juvenile court are closed, but a judge may admit those with a legitimate interest in the proceeding.

W. Thomas McGough Jr., of Reed Smith LLP, Downtown, argued for the Post-Gazette that state law gave Allen discretion to open the hearing and that the state constitution requires it.

He also said that if the judge felt information to be revealed in some part of the hearing would imperil the child, that particular aspect of the proceeding could be closed.

In deciding to open the hearing, Allen pointed out that Hughes already had repeatedly talked to reporters and given them a photograph of her son to be published and broadcast.


Staff writer Johnna A. Pro contributed to this report.

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