Quiana Ford was passed right through a hole in D.C.’s custody rules.
Louis Ford heard the police officer knock on his door around 9 p.m. on the night of Sept. 22. Ford recognized the policeman who’d arrested his daughter’s former boyfriend for assaulting her a day earlier. The young couple shared more than a conflicted history: Back when they were dating, Natalie Ford and Antoine Nichols-Jones had a child together.
The officer said he was there to enforce an emergency temporary protection order Nichols-Jones had been granted, which included a change in custody. On a petition filed in D.C. Superior Court earlier that day, Nichols-Jones claimed that Natalie Ford had “beat on” their daughter, Quiana Ford. Louis Ford demanded to see a copy of the charges, but the officer didn’t have one.
“I refused to let him in,” says Louis Ford. “I was just so flabbergasted….He was aware that he had arrested the guy the day before. His attitude was indignant. He was there to carry out the court order….He said if I didn’t turn over the child they’d call for backup and knock the door down.”
Ford, a well-connected Ward 4 realtor, kept the cop waiting while he called friends who were lawyers and judges. His D.C. councilmember, Charlene Drew Jarvis, was brought into the fray. Jarvis called the lieutenant at the 4th District station house to see what could be done, but everyone said the same thing: The cops had no choice but to carry out the judicial decree. And there was nothing Louis Ford could do but comply.
For a moment, Ford considered sneaking Quiana out the back door. Finally, though, with three police cruisers parked outside his house and officers threatening to bust down his door and arrest him, he realized he had no choice but to give up his granddaughter. Ford and his daughter, who lives with him, gathered some things together and kissed the little girl goodbye. Natalie Ford walked down the cement front steps and handed the child over to Nichols-Jones, who had been sitting in a car outside with his new girlfriend, watching the police negotiate with the Fords.
Natalie Ford, 20, fell in love with the boy with the cornrows and unusually large head about five years ago, according to a family friend. Her own mother was dying of cancer, and she was, according to the friend, needier than the average teen. Her family was distracted. And, the friend says, Nichols-Jones was wild.
Adults in the leafy Northwest neighborhood of Crestwood didn’t approve of the relationship. “He’s just not a nice person,” says one. “He’s a very aggressive young man, very intimidating,” adds another, describing the 22-year-old Nichols-Jones. But when Natalie Ford met him, he was still merely troubled, a teen who’d spent his life moving in and out of foster care until he landed in the arms of an adoptive family down the street from the Fords.
His adoptive parents, say neighbors, eventually found him too hard to handle and moved to sever their relationship with him when he was 15. After that, Nichols-Jones was pretty much on his own. He became a ward of the court and moved into an apartment by himself, say several people who know him. And Ford, at the age of 17, became pregnant with his daughter. She moved out of her dad’s large colonial brick house, had the baby, and went to live with Nichols-Jones in Woodridge, in Northeast.
Nichols-Jones became abusive, according to a petition for a temporary protection order Natalie Ford would later file, which alleges that he hit her in the legs, face, and stomach while she was pregnant. One time, Nichols-Jones choked her so hard she dropped the newborn she was holding in her arms, she claimed in protection order petitions filed in D.C. Superior Court in 1998 and 1999. Her 1999 petition says that Nichols-Jones, terrified by what he’d done, then ran out of the house and called D.C.’s Child Protective Services (CPS), alleging that Ford had dropped the baby on purpose. The office, she says, investigated and found that she was not at fault. (CPS spokesperson Karen Kushner declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality rules.)
Natalie Ford declined to comment on her case, citing fear of retaliation by Nichols-Jones. “Natalie was greatly agitated by the situation of his being able to snatch the baby,” Louis Ford explains. (Nichols-Jones, who does not have an address on record or a phone, could not be reached for comment. A close friend of his, who witnessed Nichols-Jones’ arrest last September, disputed Ford’s claims of abuse and said that she continues to call his house, despite the protection order, in an attempt to contact Nichols-Jones.)
Ford moved into a group home for young mothers, and, later, went back to her father’s and entered a program at the University of the District of Columbia, her father says. And Nichols-Jones went on to get a new girlfriend, according to his statements to the court.
Nichols-Jones and Ford were no longer involved when he came by her father’s house last August. He said he wanted to talk. Ford went out to talk to him and got into his new girlfriend’s car. She returned two hours later with a black eye and a face so swollen that she was practically unrecognizable, says her father.
Louis Ford called the cops. They took a statement and issued an arrest warrant for Nichols-Jones, reports the elder Ford. But, he adds, the police were unable to locate him. Natalie Ford refused medical care. In late September, she saw Nichols-Jones around the neighborhood and, says her father, called the police again. That time they arrested him. At his arraignment the next day, Sept. 22, the aggravated assault and felony threat charges against him were “no-papered”—meaning the prosecutors chose not to pursue the charges. Nichols-Jones was once again a free man.
But Nichols-Jones wasn’t done with Natalie Ford. He walked down the hall at D.C. Superior Court from the criminal court to the domestic violence unit and filed a petition for a temporary protection order against her, requesting that she be forbidden to contact him, his girlfriend, Faye Golden, or Quiana. Judge Reggie Walton, a prominent and respected jurist who was the second-youngest judge ever appointed to the D.C. bench and the first U.S. deputy drug czar (under President Bush), presided over the case. A colleague of moralist William Bennett and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Walton was promoted in January 2000 to the post of presiding judge in the domestic violence unit. He presides over 40 cases per day.
Walton took a quick look at Nichols-Jones’ sworn statement and granted temporary custody of Quiana Ford to a man who Louis Ford says had never paid child support and had just been charged with assaulting the child’s mother.
“We don’t have the capacity as judges to conduct investigations,” says Walton. “We don’t have staff to, so that’s not the role of the court. The court makes judgments based on the information in front of you….I can’t envision a situation where I would have known that someone had assaulted a mother of a child and with that knowledge, absent some extraordinary circumstance, that I would place that child with that father.”
Imagine, for a moment, a legal environment where an individual could make allegations against a mother and—without any further investigation—cause the police to come to her house and take away her child in the middle of the night.
Natalie Ford lived through exactly that nightmare. Walton gave temporary custody of her child to the man who, she had been telling the court and police for more than a year, had allegedly kicked her, choked her, punched her, menaced her with a gun, and threatened to kill her.
Victims’ advocates say this kind of mistake happens all too easily. The laws established to protect victims of domestic violence were created with the understanding that traditional evidentiary requirements might be so burdensome in the context of domestic violence as to prevent the battered from getting the protection they need. A requirement, for example, that a woman face her batterer in court to get a protection order might allow him to intimidate her into silence, and so the court does not require the presence or testimony of the defendant before granting a temporary protection order. Because an abused woman might be trying to hide from her abuser, the domestic violence court allows the plaintiff to withhold her address from public records. And because domestic battery is often life-threatening, the domestic-violence court acts with great speed. Nichols-Jones, after filing for a protection order, used those provisions to mount a legal attack on Natalie Ford.
The Fords were furious. The day after Quiana was taken away, they went down to Superior Court. But according to Louis Ford, no one could find the case file. The following day, Walton said he’d schedule a new hearing but wouldn’t reverse the order. The Fords turned to their lawyer, Causton Toney, a general practitioner and onetime D.C. Council staffer with a dozen years in private practice under his belt. Toney helped Natalie Ford, who says she was still bruised, file yet another petition for a civil protection order against Nichols-Jones.
“What’s amazing is how cursory his statement was that precipitated the change in custody. It was nonspecific as to date, time, location, number of incidents, witnesses. And none of that was asked for during the proceedings,” says Toney. “The court took his word and demanded the change in custody that day. The paucity of information and the lack of corroboration—it was shocking.”
“If you were stopped for speeding or pulled over for a normal check, they would run your name, and they would do a quick check. They would know about you on a traffic stop,” Toney adds. “How [court officials] don’t do basic stuff and know about a person before they give them a child, I don’t know.”
The court records clearly show, however, that such a background check was run on Nichols-Jones the day after the order was granted—the same day the Fords approached Walton. The resulting single-page document says that Nichols-Jones had been charged with eight crimes in his 21 years: aggravated assault, simple assault, making threats, and destruction of property. Other than the property crime and an unspecified juvenile crime, all the charges stemmed from actions he had allegedly taken against Natalie Ford. Four of those charges had been no-papered. But two charges—domestic assault and another domestic misdemeanor—were still unresolved at the time the Fords approached Judge Walton and asked him to return the child.
“The most cursory review of the case law in this situation would have shown that he was…already in the system and basically walked out of the courtroom and went down the hall and filed a false claim against her,” says Toney. “If the court had simply run his name…they could have ordered a hearing in two days or had social services immediately investigate the claim.”
Walton scheduled a new hearing for Oct. 1—although, according to Toney, serving papers to Nichols-Jones was tricky because he had listed his address as “confidential” on his initial petition. At the hearing, Walton transferred custody of Quiana Ford to a third party, the Rev. Roselyn Smith-Withers, an associate pastor of the 19th Street Baptist Church who has known Natalie Ford since she was 7 years old through National Tots and Teens, a black family organization. She lives just down the street from the Fords.
On Oct. 5, a new hearing was held in front of a different judge, Mildred Edwards, who ruled in favor of Natalie Ford’s petition for a civil protection order. Nichols-Jones withdrew his petition against Ford.
“As the law requires, I made a finding that Mr. Nichols-Jones had committed an intrafamily offense against Ms. Ford,” Edwards explains. “Virtually every judge would agree that the custody decision ought to await the decision of whether there is an intrafamily offense.”
Quiana was returned to Natalie Ford, and Nichols-Jones was ordered to take parenting classes and complete a domestic-violence intervention program. “If one didn’t have the money to fight something like that, the system would just run right on over you,” says Louis Ford. “The system is supposed to protect you instead of harming you.” CP