State fumbled for answers while girl was in limbo
The bad stuff hurt too much, the girl said, so she took trips in her head. She imagined she was playing in the park, not lying on the basement floor or standing naked in the bathroom where, she said, her father touched her.
He told her not to tell anyone, she said, but she told anyway.
She told her mother, who went to the police. She told her therapist, who wrote a letter. She told the people who supervised her visits with her mother, who filed reports.
“I tried to tell anyone who would listen, but no one believed me,” said the girl, then 7, during a trauma evaluation conducted last spring. The Globe is withholding her name to protect her identity.
At least five times between 2010 and 2014, the girl’s father, James Stanley Jr., was accused of sexually abusing her. But again and again, according to interviews and court and agency records detailing the case, Massachusetts Department of Children and Families social workers and a family court judge dismissed or disregarded the allegations. Eventually, the girl was sent to live with Stanley — a man already accused of molestation by two other girls — before she was finally removed to foster care.
For five years, the girl’s safety and emotional well-being hung in the balance as the systems set up to protect her — short on staff, financial resources, and clear procedures — struggled to decide who to believe or what to do.
The case’s disturbing details provide a window into a system that one recently retired judge described as broken. The state’s family courts are overrun with volatile, complex claims, dozens of judges, lawyers, and advocates said in interviews with the Globe — but woefully short on tools to resolve them.
“It goes right most of the time,” said Chouteau Levine, who retired in 2011 after 10 years as a family court judge. “When it goes wrong, it’s terrible.”
Stanley has not been charged criminally in the case, and in an interview he denied molesting anyone. But a Globe investigation found that his continued access to his daughter, despite her continued disclosures, was the product of a series of confounding decisions about her custody, reached amid a fog of claims and counterclaims so dense that those adjudicating the case appeared at times to lose sight of the girl’s safety as a priority.
Much public attention, compassion, and outrage has understandably focused on the children whose lives have been lost in the vortex of the state’s child welfare apparatus; some of their names are now familiar: Jeremiah. Avalena. Bella. But many more survive, and some spend years at the mercy of the courts. They live with the scars.
Now 8, the girl shows symptoms of trauma, according to the social worker who evaluated her. She has trouble forming attachments, and a habit of drifting off to imaginary places where she feels safe.
Her broken life raises hard questions:
How could she have been turned over, again and again, to her alleged abuser?
Why did it take five years to fully investigate her claims?
And in a system mandated to watch for every red flag, how did a little girl get so lost?
The court system in which the girl’s case lingered for years was never intended to bear the responsibility for her safety.
The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court was once focused primarily on the administration of wills and other touchy but routine civil matters. But as divorces became more common, the courts began to hear thousands of them annually. The cases run the gamut, from ordinary splits to families torn apart by drugs to hotly contested disputes between parents who sometimes barely know one another.
Between 50 and 75 percent of probate and family court litigants don’t have attorneys, and many come to court without documentation to back up the claims they make. Some skip drug tests. Some beg. Some lie.
Lawyers and judges call the cases that involve allegations of sexual abuse atomic bombs: Everything around them becomes radioactive. Claims and counterclaims pile up. Alleged victims are often too young to testify.
And even though they are charged with critical decisions about a child’s welfare, judges in family court are given few tools to help them find their way.
“I’m struggling. I’m struggling to figure out what to do,” said Judge Amy Lyn Blake during a hearing on the girl’s case in 2014. Blake had been handling the case for four years by then, but still the details the court had gathered about the girl’s life were tangled and incomplete.
Stanley, 35, and the girl’s mother, Miranda Bernson, 30, each brought their own baggage. Stanley’s criminal history was extensive. He had no steady job, and appeared to live in his mother’s half-finished basement. Bernson had marijuana in her system when the girl was born, according to a DCF report, and she had objected to Stanley’s visitation with the girl even before the sexual abuse allegations surfaced.
The girl had also been far from clear about what had happened: While she repeatedly said her father had sexually abused her, she also said her mother had hit her and her stepfather had threatened her. Investigators suspected Bernson was coaching her daughter’s disclosures.
Blake, like all other probate court judges, was also forced to rely for key input on DCF, a state agency famously beset by problems — from its own slim budgets and overloaded caseworkers to the institutional bias, only recently overwritten, toward keeping children with their parents.
While DCF can take custody of children whose safety is in question, the girl’s case erupted at a time when the department was routinely refusing to do so. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of petitions for custody filed by DCF dropped by 30 percent.
Officials from DCF declined to comment on the specifics of the case. Despite repeatedly investigating reports of abuse against Stanley as well as counterclaims from Stanley that Bernson was abusing the child, DCF had never put her in foster care for more than a few days.
That left Blake to decide the kind of case that most strains the hobbled family court system: with parties whose claims are suspect and whose credibility is compromised.
Every day, family court judges must make decisions “based on a very thin slice of data,” said David A. Hoffman, a family lawyer and mediator and a lecturer at Harvard Law School who founded the Boston Law Collaborative. “When there are vulnerable kids involved . . . that’s where the system doesn’t have resources to really figure out if there is abuse or neglect.”
Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Trial Court, said the court makes a determination based on the facts in evidence.
“Judges can only decide cases based upon the facts and evidence presented to them on any given case at the time it is heard,” she said.
Blake, however, was slow to take advantage of what little help was available.
At the time of the 2014 hearing, the judge had not yet appointed a guardian ad litem to represent the girl’s best interests, despite formal and informal requests from both parents. Guardians ad litem are attorneys or mental health experts who investigate contested custody issues and are charged specifically with representing the child’s interests.
When parents can’t afford it, judges have the ability to appoint state-paid guardians ad litem. But the girl’s case began as state budgets were being cut because of the recession, and judges were being told by court administrators to limit such appointments.
Overall spending in probate courts dipped nearly 25 percent during the recession, as the girl’s case was beginning, data provided by the state trial court administration show. Meanwhile, the number of cases heard annually has stayed roughly the same, at about 155,000 between fiscal 2010 and 2014.
As a result of the cuts, spending on guardians ad litem declined rapidly — down 17 percent in fiscal 2010 alone, according to statistics from the trial court. While the overall budget has crept back up, guardian ad litem spending had not fully recovered by fiscal year 2015. Statewide, the number of probation officers, who also serve as investigators in the probate system, decreased from 100 in fiscal 2005 to 78 in fiscal 2012. Their numbers through fiscal 2015 had not yet returned to previous levels.
“There are specialists who are very good at rooting out whether sexual abuse has already happened, but they’re expensive,” said Levine.
Budget cuts created a system of haves and have-nots, said Levine, that reflects society: Those who can afford to, settle their disputes privately.
“The people that can’t afford that are stuck with this system,” Levine said.
Colleagues described Blake, appointed to the bench in 2008, as a respected and cautious judge with extensive litigation experience who had worked as a prosecutor, a divorce and family court lawyer, and a victim advocate. Those credentials qualified her to deal with the array of difficult cases that fill a probate judge’s calendar.
“You’re dealing with the most important things in people’s lives: their children, their money, their whole way of life changing,” said retired probate court judge Dorothy M. Gibson, who served for nearly two decades in Middlesex County before stepping down last year.
“Ultimately, the decision is yours. It’s a very important decision,” said Gibson. “And sometimes you just don’t know.”
The girl was just shy of 3 years old when the specter of sexual abuse first emerged.
It was September 2010, and she had allegedly begun complaining of discomfort in her genitals. Her older half-sister — Stanley’s daughter by a different woman — said that their father had abused both of them.
Judge Blake was initially skeptical of the allegations involving the younger girl, available records suggest. (Recordings of the early hearings in the case are unavailable.) And the court system more broadly was starkly conflicted about how to proceed.
Blake granted the half-sister a year-long restraining order against Stanley, but on the same day refused one for the younger girl. When a second judge, hearing an emergency appeal, stopped Stanley’s visitation with her, Blake reinstated it, only to have the second judge halt it again days later.
Donahue, the trial court spokeswoman, said the facts in the two girls’ cases were different.
“A judge is not able to further investigate the facts presented before them at the time a matter is heard,” she said.
As the case wound toward a custody trial, probation officers peppered reports with notes of caution, and cited Stanley’s arrest record, which included dismissed juvenile charges of rape of a child.
“PO is very concerned that mother’s concerns are valid,” wrote one officer in September 2010, “and the child would be at risk if she were to visit father at this time.”
At the one-day trial on May 31, 2011, Bernson’s attorney asked Blake to require that all Stanley’s future visitations with the girl be supervised.
Stanley, representing himself, testified that the various allegations against him were false — the product of a concerted effort by his former partners and his sister to smear his name and expel him from his daughter’s life. His troubling juvenile record — charges, later dismissed, that he had raped his younger sister when both were children — was addressed only briefly.
“Even if it happened, it happened when she was 11?” Blake said, referring to the sister, according to the trial transcript. “I don’t know how it’s relevant.”
A few weeks later, in a ruling issued June 7, 2011, Blake reinstated some of Stanley’s visitation rights — first as supervised visits but gradually converting them to unsupervised. Blake noted that Stanley had not been criminally charged with abusing the girl or her sister. And she questioned the truthfulness of the testimony from the girls’ mothers about the alleged abuse, citing the lack of “corroborating evidence” and concern that the two girls’ mothers might be working in concert against Stanley. DCF, she said, believed Bernson coached her daughter’s disclosures — an accusation Bernson denied.
Bernson seemed more interested in “gathering evidence against the defendant than doing what was in [the girl’s] best interest,” Blake said. Bernson had acknowledged in her testimony that the girl loved her father and liked seeing him; a social worker testified that their supervised visits had gone well.
“It is in [the girl’s] best interest,” Blake wrote, “to visit with her father.”
Bernson’s erratic behavior in and out of court appears to have undercut her credibility throughout the case. She went from police station to police station filing reports against Stanley. Online, she shared long, dramatic blog posts — including the girl’s name and photo — that detailed the ongoing case and the accusations against Stanley.
But how much her behavior should count against her is one of the hard puzzles judges struggle to solve. Mothers who bring forth allegations of sexual abuse against their former partners often appear vindictive or disorganized, said Eileen King, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Child Justice, Inc. The fear that a child is in peril can cause a parent to take risks and behave recklessly, she said.
And while false accusations of abuse by parents do occur, according to experts, they are far rarer than officials deciding custody believe.
A 2012 University of Michigan study, paid for by the US Department of Justice, found that custody evaluators on average estimated that between a quarter and a third of child abuse allegations were false.
“This raises serious concerns,” the report admonished, “because empirical findings about the rates of false child abuse allegations in divorce cases are much lower.”
The 2012 study also noted that gender bias can play a role in custody disputes, with negative stereotypes inclining officials to disbelieve women’s allegations of abuse as fabrications made to gain advantage. The issue has not been systematically studied in Massachusetts for decades, but a 1990 study by the state Supreme Judicial Court found that mothers were held to a higher standard of behavior than fathers; and “a majority” of the probate judges surveyed agreed that “mothers allege child sexual abuse to gain bargaining advantage.” A smaller-scale 2002 report on the Massachusetts probate courts by the Wellesley Centers for Women echoed many of those findings.
“The courts are committed to making sure that biases are understood and do not affect a judge’s obligation to be fair and impartial,” said Donahue, citing a mandatory daylong training on the topic of bias last fall.
Though Blake’s order gave Stanley the right to visit regularly, he saw his daughter just once in the next year. During that visit, Bernson’s attorney alleged in a letter filed with the court, he may have been periodically alone with the girl. Stanley “became enraged” when the attorney confronted him about such unsupervised contact, she wrote, and the visits stopped.
When, in the summer of 2012, Stanley attempted to restart his visits and then gain custody of the girl, a new battle in probate court loomed. And so, sometime before Oct. 1, 2012, Bernson and her current husband defied the court, took the girl and her other two daughters, and fled the state.
Allegations of sexual abuse have trailed Stanley for nearly 20 years, starting in his childhood.
His sister said she never planned to tell anyone what she says he did to her, when she was 11 and he was 12. But one night five years later, she got drunk with his ex-girlfriend, she said, and it slipped out: Her brother, she said, had raped her.
When she went to the police in 1998, her brother was charged with three counts of rape of a child and one count of unnatural acts with a child. Stanley’s arrest record, obtained by the Globe, lists the charges; the police records on the case are sealed.
Her family insisted she drop the charges, she said, so she recanted — and the charges were dismissed.
Ten years after the sister made and then backed away from her accusation, when she was serving time in prison for an armed home invasion, she got a letter from her mother, Kelly Mahoney.
“I need you to know that I owe you a very big apology,” read a copy of the letter provided to the Globe, dated Feb. 26, 2008. A spokesman for a local police department confirmed the department has the original. “I had you drop the charges against [Stanley] because I didn’t believe you, and thought you were just being vindictive,” she wrote.
“Well, honey, I so, so very much want to say ‘I’m Sorry’ because I very much completely believe every word you said now.”
She changed her mind, she wrote, after two other family members told her Stanley had raped them, too.
In a recent interview, Mahoney called the letter a forgery. But she could not explain her assertions to the contrary during the May 2011 probate trial:
“Do you recognize this letter?” Bernson’s attorney asked her, according to the transcript.
“Yeah, I do; I wrote it,” Mahoney replied.
Mahoney testified then that she no longer believed the letter to be true. Blake did not allow the letter into evidence, calling it hearsay, and did not address it in her ruling.
Stanley, in an interview, said his sister and her friends falsely accused him because they were angry that he had broken up with the ex-girlfriend. He said his sister had a history of lying, and that his other family members denied being assaulted.
But something else in the 2008 letter, not addressed by the court, appeared consistent with the allegations that would emerge in court two years later.
Mahoney suggested that Stanley was fondling another one of his daughters — the girl’s older half-sister.
The older half-sister is a teenager now, and the memories of what she says her father did to her lurk constantly in the back of her mind. Stanley, she said, sexually abused her for years.
The older half-sister became suicidal and heard voices, according to medical records. DCF supported a finding of sexual abuse against Stanley; it was quietly overturned two years later without a hearing. She has not seen her father since.
Later that summer, she told her mother she had seen Stanley touching her younger half-sister, too, her mother testified at the younger girl’s custody trial.
Stanley, in an interview, said the older girl could not have seen him abusing the girl, because he had just one visit with them together — apparently contradicting his own sworn 2011 testimony that the girls were “always together” and that he saw them often.
He suggested that his sister had orchestrated the campaign against him by persuading everyone to lie.
A spokeswoman for the local district attorney’s office said prosecutors “extensively investigated allegations of abuse of Mr. Stanley’s children and found insufficient evidence” to charge him. “As in all cases, the Commonwealth gave serious consideration as to whether a prosecution would be in the best interest of the children.”
The girl was gone — spirited away by her mother — when Stanley appeared in court alone on Oct. 1, 2012.
Through many hearings the court had appeared to treat him with caution, denying his bid for custody of the child
What changed the judge’s mind was not clear, and no recording or transcript of the hearing is available. A spokeswoman for the court said Blake was barred from speaking about the case by the code of judicial conduct.
Courts do not track how many custody cases involve allegations of abuse, so no statistics exist on how often children are given to those accused of abusing them. But experts say that when a mother violates a court order — by fleeing as Bernson did, or refusing visitation — she risks losing custody altogether.
“If you abscond, then that is the entire focus after that — the fact that you took off. That is considered the worst thing that anybody can do,” said Richard Ducote, a Pittsburgh lawyer who has argued highly contentious custody cases in Massachusetts and several other states.
When Bernson was ultimately arrested in New Mexico in February 2014, after about 18 months on the lam and charged with custodial kidnapping, the girl moved in with Stanley. She was 6 years old.
It took only two months for a new allegation to emerge and return the case to Blake’s courtroom. Out of jail and awaiting trial, Bernson met the girl for a supervised visit at a Mall Tots playground in mid-April. There, said a visitation supervisor who oversaw the meeting, the girl said that another child in the home at the time was crawling into her bed to avoid sleeping with Stanley, and touching her privates.
“I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time . . . I’ve done crisis intervention. I work with abuse victims. I know when a kid is lying,” the supervisor said in an interview with the Globe. She had no doubts about the girl’s disclosure. She filed an emergency report with DCF, known as a 51A, reporting neglect and alleged sexual abuse by Stanley, citing concern about the children’s behavior and sleeping arrangements.
Still, the girl was in Stanley’s care for three more days before DCF began its investigation. When she was finally interviewed, the girl told a different story, less damning of Stanley. The visitation supervisor called the three-day delay “unheard of,” and said DCF’s handling of the case caused her to stop working with the Haverhill office.
At the subsequent court hearing, Blake ordered the girl placed in foster care, despite a push for custody by the girl’s maternal grandparents, Gabe and Lisa Bernson. In DCF custody, the judge said, the girl could get services through the state.
But at a hearing a few weeks later, a DCF social worker recommended the girl be returned to Stanley — a recommendation based in part on a letter submitted to DCF by Stanley that purported to be from a Mall Tots worker. The letter cast doubt on the visitation supervisor’s professionalism, describing her laughing with Bernson and ignoring the child. The day after the hearing, the girl was again returned to Stanley’s care.
Only later did the court hear that the letter had apparently been altered. A private investigator hired by Bernson’s parents obtained the original letter the Mall Tots worker said she had given Stanley; the worker told him she did not believe either the supervisor or Bernson had acted inappropriately during the visit. The investigator turned the evidence over to the court.
In court, Stanley’s lawyer denied that his client had altered the letter. In an interview, Stanley declined to answer questions about it.
At a subsequent hearing, in June, Blake threatened to place the girl in foster care again. During the hearing, Blake cited a DCF report that found both parents had neglected the girl. Frustrated, the judge accused both parents of poisoning the girl’s mind.
“She has experienced more in her short lifetime than any adult should ever have to experience, and it’s at the feet of both parties,” Blake said. “So I’m going to be very clear with you: Both parties, according to DCF, neglected this child. Both of them.”
But instead of putting her back in foster care, Blake again decided the girl should be with her father.
In a recording of that hearing, Blake offered little explanation for her order.
But some who study the way family court judges make such decisions said the choice between parents is often mistakenly treated as a zero-sum game. One parent’s defiance of court orders can win the other parent custody, almost by default.
“It is very common for courts to punish and retaliate against mothers,” said lawyer and author Barry Goldstein, who also trains family court judges, “not realizing what they’re really doing is punishing the child.”
The disclosure that finally led to the girl’s permanent removal from her father’s care came in August 2014, during another supervised visit with Bernson.
“She was pretty vivid,” the visitation supervisor said in an interview. He recalled the girl describing her father “touching her privates.”
Bernson called the police, and the supervisor called DCF. That night, social workers whisked the girl into foster care, just days short of her seventh birthday.
Once the girl was in DCF custody, the trauma evaluation could commence at state expense.
It had been nearly five years to the day since the first allegations of abuse emerged. In those years, the various systems set up to protect the girl had struggled — openly, at times — to make the seemingly simple decision to remove her from harm’s way.
Last April, the girl sat for the first of five interviews at the Children’s Charter trauma clinic in Waltham. Social worker Melanie Milde wrote that the girl appeared energetic and “cognitively advanced for her stated age” — then 7.
“Of grave concern,” Milde wrote, is the girl’s “statement of sexual abuse by her father . . . to this evaluator and other adult figures in her life.”
Milde acknowledged the possibility that the many symptoms of sexual trauma the girl showed, and her many disclosures, could be the product of her mother’s anxious and repeated questioning. But “given the consistency of [the girl’s] narrative,” Milde wrote, she found sufficient basis to file an abuse report with DCF herself.
Stanley declined to speak directly about the trauma evaluation. He said Bernson was consumed with the desire to expel him from her life, and accused her of planting fabricated notions in the girl’s head.
“I feel like at this point my daughter’s in a false reality,” Stanley said. “My conscience is clear.”
He also compared himself with the girl’s mother, who fled the state and the justice system.
“I didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “I stayed right here.”
Bernson is still awaiting trial on the kidnapping charge; DCF returned the girl to her care in December.
In the hundreds of pages of court records, reports, transcripts, and medical records documenting the case, the girl is rarely heard from. She did not testify at trial. DCF workers recorded a stray word here or there. Only in the trauma evaluation, filed under seal in court, does she get a chance to be heard.
“I told my mom and I think my mom believed me,” she told Milde, and later added:
“It hurt. I’m telling the truth. Do you believe me? Will the judge believe me?”