Custody battle to decide 2-year-old girl’s fate Martha's odyssey includes adoption, injuries

Date: 2005-10-06

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Author: MARY ZAHN; Staff Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Tossed from one family to another, 2-year-old Martha was orphaned in Guatemala, adopted by a Pennsylvania couple, given up by her parents there and then injured after being placed in a Milwaukee area foster home.

Now she is thriving in a new foster home with a couple who want to adopt her, but the Pennsylvania couple is fighting in court to get her back.

In addition, the private adoption agency that placed the girl in the earlier foster home has been cited for failing to immediately report the abuse allegations to child welfare authorities in Milwaukee.

"We want to be her mama and papa," Martha’s current foster father told Children’s Court Judge Thomas Donegan at a hearing Tuesday. "She has gone from the frail child we took out of the hospital to a little girl running around. Her smile just lights up the room."

However, the Pennsylvania couple who adopted Martha from Guatemala participated by speakerphone and said they will oppose the termination of their parental rights at a hearing in Pennsylvania on Friday. Pennsylvania courts never finalized the couple’s voluntary termination of their rights to the girl, and their status as her parents is unclear, authorities said. The couple is divorcing, according to Carol Gapen, a Madison attorney representing the mother.

Noting that the couple had twice said they did not want Martha and have not seen her or talked to her since she was sent to Wisconsin in January, Lisa Fricker, an assistant district attorney, said her office would oppose Martha being returned to them.

Martha’s moves from family to family began in August 2004, about five months after the Pennsylvania couple adopted her from Guatemala. The couple decided to put Martha up for adoption, and she ended up with the Milwaukee area foster parents. She was placed there by Evangelical Child & Family Agency, a private adoption agency in New Berlin.

About three weeks later, the Pennsylvania couple changed their minds, and Martha was sent back to them. In January, they filed papers in Pennsylvania indicating they were terminating their parental rights, and Martha was sent back to the Milwaukee couple.

Removed from foster home

In August, Martha was removed from the foster home after suffering a skull fracture, wrist fractures and other injuries. A criminal investigation involving those foster parents is continuing.

A friend of the foster family reported alleged abuse of Martha to the executive director of Evangelical Child & Family Agency on Aug. 6 and again Aug. 7, according to the state Bureau of Regulation and Licensing report. The first report involved the foster parents treating the girl roughly at the State Fair, pulling her by the arm and forcing her to eat, the report states. The agency’s executive director, who is not named in the report, did not believe that the concerns rose to the level of abuse but advised the caller to report the situation to a child abuse hotline.

The next day the caller reported that Martha had shown up at church with a splint on her arm and that the parents gave different accounts of how she was injured. The executive director waited until she had contacted a colleague for advice on the matter before reporting it to the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare for investigation Aug. 8. On that day, Martha was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where multiple injuries were subsequently discovered.

Stephen Hayes, the attorney representing Evangelical Child & Family Agency, which is in New Berlin, disputed the state report and called it incomplete. In the first case, he said, the caller reported to the agency that Martha was being forced to eat a Polish sausage and that they had refused her request to be carried, neither of which rose to the level of abuse. The next day, he said, the caller reported the child’s injured arm to agency officials, who called the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare to report the abuse that same day.

"The (adoption) agency responded promptly and appropriately based on the information they received," Hayes said. "Merely having a child eat her food isn’t in and of itself abuse."

The agency has until Oct. 25 to submit a corrective plan of action to the Bureau of Regulation and Licensing to ensure that abuse allegations in the future are immediately reported to child welfare authorities as required by state law, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Children and Family Services.

Meanwhile Martha’s current foster father said the girl had changed dramatically since they brought her home from the hospital about six weeks ago.

"She had a cast on her arm from a broken elbow and a bandage on her chin from her fractured jaw," he told a reporter. "She would only point to things and ask ‘please.’ " Now she calls us Mama and Papa. When you come home, she runs right into your arms. It was love at first sight."

The foster father told Donegan that he and his wife would be willing to directly communicate with the Pennsylvania couple to ease any concerns they might have about the care Martha is receiving.

Donegan said he would allow the Pennsylvania couple to speak with the foster parents but that they are to have no contact with Martha. In addition, he said, he would contact the Pennsylvania judge handling Martha’s case to brief him on the Wisconsin situation.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 18.

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