Mother's concerns weren't enough
Iarussi's adoption of Legler justified, Pollard lawyer says
Jun 28, 2004
Child-welfare workers were within their rights to push for the adoption of Brittany Legler despite the concerns of her birth mother, the mother's lawyer said.
The lawyer, Carol Morehouse, said she did not agree with the decision of the Erie County Office of Children and Youth to go through with Legler's adoption by Lisa M. Iarussi in light of the concerns of Legler's birth mother, Rosa Pollard.
At the same time, Morehouse said, Pollard's fears that she would never see her daughter again if Iarussi adopted her were not enough for OCY to reconsider or block the adoption.
"I was disappointed. Rosa was disappointed," Morehouse said. "But as a matter of law, I cannot fault them for it. It was a reasonable position to take at the time."
Legler, 15, died May 9 after collapsing at Iarussi's mobile home in Millcreek Township, and an autopsy revealed that she suffered more than 200 bruises, a cauliflower ear and other injuries. Police on May 19 arrested Iarussi on the felonies of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child and the misdemeanor of recklessly endangering another person. Her preliminary hearing is set for Tuesday.
Iarussi, 35, adopted Legler in August 2001 as part of an OCY plan dealing with the care of all of Pollard's children. The agency removed the five children then living with Pollard in 1999 because of concerns that Pollard, who receives Supplemental Security Income for a mental disability, lacked the means to care for all the children by herself.
Pollard's concerns about Iarussi grew as the adoption of Legler reached its final stage. Those worries prompted Morehouse to write a letter to Erie County Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr. in November 2000.
The letter said that Pollard feared Iarussi would keep her from seeing Legler, but the letter expressed no concerns about Iarussi's parenting skills. Morehouse asked DiSantis to hold a hearing on Pollard's concerns, but one never occurred. OCY stood by Iarussi as the adoptive mother.
"After my letter to the judge, OCY's response was that they didn't see the need for another hearing," Morehouse said. "They had a placement for Brittany. They didn't see the need to re-litigate it.
"The decision had already been made."
OCY was involved in the process from the start. After removing Pollard's children in 1999, caseworkers had Pollard enroll in a parenting program and placed Legler and the other children in foster care.
OCY then let Pollard keep three of her children, arranged for Pollard's aunt to adopt a fourth and arranged for Iarussi to adopt Legler, the oldest child, who was also receiving SSI benefits for a mental disability. The aunt had adopted another of Pollard's children — she had six in all — when that child was a baby.
Financial issues and other concerns prevented Pollard's relatives from adopting Legler, Pollard said. So, Pollard said, she initially suggested Iarussi as an adoptive parent for her daughter, then known as Brittany Pollard. She took on Iarussi's maiden name of Legler after the adoption.
Iarussi and Pollard became friends when they attended special-education classes in high school. Iarussi also sometimes cared for Legler when she was younger. Those two factors — Iarussi's familiarity with Legler and her friendship with Pollard — made her a viable candidate for an adoptive parent, Morehouse said. She said OCY was willing to allow the adoptions of Pollard's children to be as "open" as possible, so that Pollard could stay in contact with them.
But the prospects for Iarussi agreeing to an open adoption appeared to fade in 2000. Pollard said she and Iarussi had a falling out.
"My client is seriously concerned that she may be cut off from any contact with Brittany if she remains in that home as a permanent placement," Morehouse wrote to DiSantis on Nov. 22, 2000.
Morehouse wrote that Pollard's aunt — the same aunt who already adopted two of Legler's siblings — was willing to adopt Legler as well. Morehouse wanted DiSantis to address the aunt's offer at the requested hearing.
DiSantis said in an interview that he would have forwarded the letter to OCY, and he said the letter would not have automatically stalled the adoption process. He said it raised issues about visitations rather than any allegations that Iarussi would have been an unfit mother.
Concerns about Iarussi's parenting skills were raised by another person: Legler's foster mother. She said in a previous interview that she told people involved in the adoption that she worried about whether Iarussi could give Legler special attention that Legler's mental disability required. The foster mother said she last was a part of the case in the spring of 2000, when Legler left her residence and was placed with Iarussi in a pre-adoption arrangement the courts approved. The foster mother said she never spoke to Morehouse, who was not part of the foster-care process.
Despite Morehouse's letter, Legler's adoption moved forward as she continued to live with Iarussi. Erie County President Judge William R. Cunningham approved the adoption after holding a final hearing on Aug. 22, 2001. Pollard said she never saw Legler before her daughter's death May 9.
The solicitor for OCY has said agency officials will not comment on the adoption because of state-mandated confidentiality rules. OCY is conducting a confidential investigation into how agency workers handled the Legler case, including how the workers responded to complaints from school officials who suspected Legler was being abused in the years after her adoption.
Morehouse said she never received reports prior to the adoption that raised concerns about Iarussi's parenting skills. She said Pollard's concerns about not seeing Legler, while valid, were not enough for OCY and the courts to derail the long-planned process to allow Iarussi adopt Legler.
OCY favored a placement with Iarussi because of "the stability and permanency it provided, the familiarity," Morehouse said.
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.