Emma Rose is near her seventh birthday. As she approaches that birthday, she suffers from an inability to read or write well. She cannot solve basic math problems. She wets the bed. In fact, until about the age of six, she was not literate at all. As the clock keeps ticking she becomes less and less literate — a regression to an abnormal state for a girl of her age due to the reckless disregard by a judge of a basic legal concept.
I’ve blogged about this before. The Southern Voice, a gay oriented publication in Atlanta, has also written about it. I’ve been digging around, tracked down a court order in the case, and nearly came to tears. This case is a tragedy where good people are having to confront reality as balanced by their values.
Judge Lee Parrott, a good and decent man and a good judge before whom I’ve practiced law, unfortunately, has made a poor choice in balancing his values with the reality of a situation. Instead of applying the law and asking the question “what is in the best interests of the child,” the actual issue the judge must determine, Judge Parrott asked, “What is in the best interests of the child on the assumption that what might truly be best is abhorrent to me personally?” The result is tragic.
Emma Rose grew up in the cab of a pickup truck. Her mother, a truck driver and lesbian, “was awarded sole legal and physical custody of [Emma] in a divorce proceeding in Murfreesboro, Illinois in January 2002.”1 Emma’s relationship with her natural father ended totally at that point. Schultz, along with her then girlfriend named “Star”, were raising Emma and Emma’s brother Matthew, along with Star’s two children. “The couple experienced a variety of relationship problems including drug abuse, financial issues, and discipline issues with Matthew.” Matthew, exhibiting dangerous stability issues, had been repeatedly killing pets and “being physically violent toward” his mother as well as being “physically and emotionally abusive to Emma.”
Emma’s mother, Deborah Schultz, finally decided she needed to give Emma away. She gave her to Elizabeth Hadaway, a resident of Wilkinson County, Georgia and a lesbian as well. A Wilkinson County Superior Court Judge granted custody. Over the next several months, Ms. Hadaway taught Emma to read so well that Emma was able to bypass kindergarten and go right into first grade with children her own age. As the Bibb County Superior Court documented
[Hadaway] . . . provided competent evidence that when she took custody of Emma, [Emma] could not read, write, or do simple math. In fact, Emma had never attended school, and Plaintiff spent all of the summer of 2006 tutoring Emma to ensure that she acquired all of the skills necessary to enter the First Grade with her peer group. [Hadaway] succeeded in her efforts, and Emma was primarily an A-/B+ student this past fall, despite not having been to K-4 or kindergarten.
Further, the Court heard evidence that Emma’s own mother had repeated referred to Emma as “retarded” or “stupid” and her brother referred to her as a “stupid bitch.”
Once Hadaway had custody of Emma, Child Services visited to check on the situation as part of the process of Hadaway adopting Emma. In the course of such proceedings, all income that will affect the raising of the child must be listed. Hadaway’s lesbian partner of seven years was included as part of the income that would affect Emma’s life.
That’s when Judge Parrott decided to destroy lives in the name of values.
In November, Hadaway went before Judge Lee Parrott to have her adoption finalized. By all accounts, she had made tremendous progress with Emma, who could now read, had developed writing skills, was more social, etc. The Department of Family and Child Services (“DFACS”) was on board and everything was ready to go. Then Judge Parrott, originally supportive, decided no. In effect, he ruled that Hadaway and her partner of seven years were trying to pull a fast one on the court and pretend to be married, despite a constitutional provision denying gay marriage. Expecting this, Hadaway had ended her relation with her partner, moved from her partner’s home, and rented an apartment.
It’s a fair statement to say that Parrott was outraged at the hearing. As the Southern Voice notes,
On Jan. 8, 2007, Parrott issued a ruling that denied Hadaway the right to adopt Emma Rose and ordered the young child be returned to her biological mother within 10 days. . . . Hadaway and Shultz met at a truck stop in Jeffersonville, Ga., on Jan. 12, 2007, but Shultz refused to take Emma Rose back to Florida with her, instead reiterating her wish for Hadaway to raise the young girl. Prior to Parrott’s Jan. 8 ruling, Hadaway left her longtime partner and moved to Bibb County, 70 miles south of Atlanta, which she considered more progressive and tolerant than Wilkinson County. After Shultz refused to regain custody of Emma Rose, Hadaway said she was encouraged by attorneys and DFCS workers to apply for an adoption in Bibb County Superior Court. Upon discovering that Emma Rose remained in Hadaway’s custody, Parrott issued two more rulings: a Feb. 12 order to place Emma Rose in DFCS custody, and a March 23 ruling finding Hadaway and her attorney in criminal contempt for not following his order to transfer custody of the child. The two women were sentenced to 10 days in jail, or five days plus a $500 fine, but are currently appealing Parrott’s decision.
The Judge in Bibb County, Tilman E. Self, III, himself a strong evangelical Christian, a former Ralph Reed supporter, and a Citadel grad, granted Hadaway custody.2
Sadly, despite Judge Self’s ruling, the issue is still up in the air. Emma’s foster parents, raising five other chidlren with six additional children regularly in their household, refused to turn her over to Ms. Hadaway, despite a court ordering them to do so. Judge Parrott won’t enforce Judge Self’s decision and refuses to consider that Ms. Hadaway might be an appropriate custodian for Emma.
In the meantime, Emma Rose sits in foster care away from a potential mother who loves her. Her potential mother sits in jail. The Bibb County Superior Court noted
Emmas has regressed emotionally since being taken from [Hadaway's] care and custody. It must be remembered that Emma already suffered from fears of abandonment when [her mother] transferred custody of her to [Hadaway] . . . . Now, Emma has psychologically regressed.
Emma no longer reads well, no longer writes well, and is unable to perform simple math problems. She wets the bed at night. She misses Ms. Hadaway. She suffers from sever abandonment issues. Judge Parrott will not yield.
At some point you have to realize that sometimes what is in the best interests of the child might might go deeper than superficial statements of values. When values meet reality, we must be willing to think clearly and deeply about the impact we might have on others — especially six year girls who’ve been abandoned by their natural mother and natural father. In this case, we’re forced to weigh competing values and interests and we’re forced to choose between the values of how we’d prefer this child raised and the value inherit in placing this child with the only loving mother she’s ever known. The choices are rarely easy, but sometimes the right choice is clear. I think Judge Parrott chose poorly.
- All quotes are from the “Order Granting Plaintiff’s Petition For Immediate Change of Custody,” Civil Action No. 07-CV-46353, by Hon. Tilman E. Self, III, dated March 30, 2007. It is available here. ↩
- Judge Self is a good friend of mine. We practiced law together and I had the privilege of running his campaign for the Superior Court. ↩