Victimizing The Victims

Consuelo fontaine called for help after she fled her allegedly abusive husband— so the city tried to take her kids away. Her story is increasingly common.

The most peculiar incident in the city's campaign to nail Consuelo with neglect took place in family court on March 16. There, ACS attorney Yvonne Humphrey concluded her questioning of the Fontaine family's caseworker by announcing that she wished to amend the neglect petition for a third time. Humphrey based her new charge on "the caseworker's testimony here today that the mother informed her that on the occasion of these alleged incidents [Shuber's exposing himself to Rosa], she was . . . actually out of the house." It's not until the judge pointed out just how screwy this was— "Is it neglectful for the mother to leave the children in the care of her husband? Is that the amendment?"— that the ACS attorney backed down.

In this topsy-turvy case, visiting family court is like stepping through the looking glass. Up is down, good is bad, and common sense has fled. The city's motivation eludes almost everyone involved. Even if Shuber exposed himself to Rosa and even if the court determines that this constitutes sexual abuse, it has little bearing on the girl's future; Rosa is not his biological child and he has no visitation rights. Chances are, she will never see him again. Shuber told the Voice he's not going to be seeking custody of his two biological children, either.

Why the city would want to take the kids away from Consuelo is even murkier. Consuelo has no intention of rejoining Shuber; even if she is guilty of failing to protect the kids from witnessing domestic violence, she has corrected the situation. Even Rochelle Yankwitt, the law guardian who represents the interests of the children in court, opposes the city in this case. "Ms. Fontaine has been a good parent," Yankwitt insists. "She should have custody." The therapist who interviewed Rosa in the aftermath of the alleged sexual exposure, Lisa Sanders of the Children's Advocacy Center of Manhattan, apparently agrees. "It is recommended that a reassessment be done regarding the decision to name Mrs. Fontaine, the alleged victim in a domestic violence situation, a respondent on a neglect petition," Sanders's confidential report concluded.

Fontaine on the city's approach to her case: "It doesn't seem to matter what really happened."
Mayita Mendez
Fontaine on the city's approach to her case: "It doesn't seem to matter what really happened."

As the case stands now, the kids are "paroled" to Consuelo, but "under ACS supervision." That means ACS caseworker Kysha Jones drops by from time to time and questions the children, also making them strip down so that she can check for bruises or marks. Consuelo fears for the future. "I didn't want to make this, what my husband did, something criminal," Consuelo says. "I needed help. But don't take my kids."

Advocates for domestic violence victims, meanwhile, are watching, horrified, as their efforts to help women like Consuelo backfire in the city's hands. "There is an increased awareness of the impact of domestic violence on children," says Sanctuary for Families's Leidholdt. "Advocates like us have worked toward that for years, but when that awareness meets an underfunded and poorly run bureaucracy, the result is a disaster."

As the Voice went to press Monday night, the neglect case against the Fontaines was dismissed by a family court judge, who reprimanded ACS for providing insufficent evidence and using the word beating in an "inflammatory" way. ACS attorney Yvonne Humphrey made a statement formally protesting the decision.

Research assistance by Hillary Chute

houppert@hotmail.com

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