A North Shore woman who fled Massachusetts in 2012, after she said her daughter had accused her ex-husband of sexual abuse, was found guilty of custodial kidnapping in Newburyport District Court on Wednesday.
Miranda Drew, 30, was not acting in fear of imminent danger to her child when she packed up and left for New Mexico, Judge Mary McCabe ruled at the conclusion of the three-day bench trial, and she had not pursued every legal avenue available before she fled.
McCabe sentenced Drew, who’d waived her right to a jury at the trial’s outset, to one year of incarceration. The sentence was suspended for two years, requiring Drew to comply with Probate Court orders in order to stay out of the house of corrections. She was also ordered to pay restitution to James Stanley for his efforts to retrieve the girl from New Mexico.
Whether Drew, 30, absconded with the girl was not in question during the trial. Instead, Drew’s unusual defense hinged on whether her actions were necessary to protect the child, who was 6 when Drew was arrested in February 2014, from the child’s father, James Stanley.
The case and the questions it raised about how the Department of Children and Families and the state’s probate and family courts handle abuse allegations that emerge during custody disputes were the subject of a Globe investigation and subsequent story in January.
Stanley has never been criminally charged with abusing his daughter, and a forensic trauma investigator for the Essex district attorney’s office, Patricia Snyder-Mathews, testified that two interviews with the girl did not produce clear, consistent allegations against Stanley.
Stanley denied the allegations in an interview with the Globe over the winter and in court on Wednesday.
“All I’ve ever done is try to co-parent,” Stanley said. “Neither of us is perfect. But I never raped nor molested anybody.”
Stanley was also the subject of sexual abuse allegations brought by a daughter from a previous relationship and was charged as a juvenile with the rape of his younger sister — charges that were eventually dropped.
Throughout the trial, Assistant District Attorney Maura Bailey explained that the allegations, true or not, were not at issue.
“The Commonwealth has never challenged whether or not the child was the victim of sexual abuse,” Bailey said. “That’s not the issue.”
But Drew testified that those allegations, along with disclosures she said her daughter made to her, drove her to flee the state before Stanley got unsupervised access to the girl through the Probate Court.
“James was going to be given the right to see her unsupervised,” said Drew, who was known as Miranda Bernson before remarrying. “And I was not going to allow my daughter to be molested any longer because nobody in the system wanted to do the right thing.”
But prosecutors said Drew had sought to keep Stanley out of the girl’s life long before those allegations emerged, citing several angry 2008 text messages sent shortly after the couple separated.
“She used emotional abuse through those texts, including name calling, humiliation . . . and threatening to take away [parenting] privileges in order to control that situation,” said Bailey during her closing argument. The sexual abuse allegations that first emerged through Stanley’s older daughter were “just a handy opportunity for her to carry out her original intention.”
And, Bailey said, Drew’s actions were not effective — one of the legal standards that must be met for a successful defense based on necessity — because her flight and eventual arrest ended up delivering the girl to Stanley.
Despite the various allegations and a letter from the girl’s therapist asserting that the girl had disclosed sexual abuse by Stanley and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the girl was sent to live with Stanley after Drew’s arrest.
The Department of Children and Families ultimately moved the girl into foster care after she complained again of alleged abuse by her father, this time to a supervisor overseeing a visit with her mother.
During a 2015 trauma evaluation that DCF ordered once the girl was in state custody, the girl disclosed several instances of alleged sexual abuse by her father.
The girl has since been returned to Drew, though DCF still has legal custody of the girl as a separate juvenile court proceeding plays out.