Last Oct. 7, Dion Chandler agreed to look after his girlfriend’s goddaughter for a night. Around 11:30 p.m., Chandler later told the police, he put the 13-month-old baby girl to sleep beside him in his bed. But when she woke him up with bouts of crying about an hour and a half later, Chandler says he cupped his hand over her nose and mouth to get her to stop. When the crying picked up again soon after, Chandler, worried that the baby would wake his grandmother, again covered the baby’s airwaythis time applying pressure for up to a minute. That did the trick. The D.C. medical examiner’s office eventually ruled the baby’s death a homicide by smothering.
But at an Oct. 31 pretrial hearing, Chandler stumbled upon a patch of compassion in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Susan Winfield. As first reported by Legal Times, even though Chandler had confessed to accidentally suffocating the child, Winfield insisted that Chandler had not deviated from “a reasonable standard of care.” In order to incarcerate Chandler until formal charges could be filed, Winfield would have had to find probable cause that he had committed the crime of involuntary manslaughter. But Winfield, rejecting the protestations of an exasperated prosecutor, found no reason to assume that Chandler would have known that covering a baby’s mouth would kill her. So she freed Chandler pending a grand jury indictment.
Her decision, according to attorney Liz Siegel, executive director of DC Action for Children, “flies in the face of common sense.” In every case, Siegel says, “A judge is supposed to bring to the courtroom her general knowledge and her sense of reasonable behavior. Reasonable behavior does not include putting a hand over a baby’s mouth to stop her from crying.”
When asked about the case, Winfield issued a standard disclaimer. “We are ethically bound not to speak on a case that’s pending,” she said.
Fair enough. But the Chandler decision is not an aberration, according to observers. Several of Winfield’s other rulings in child care and custody cases have enraged District child advocates. Those advocates suggest that Winfield, who used to head the family division of Superior Court and who now handles felony and mental health cases, adheres to a strain of family jurisprudence that disregards the negligence of parents and adult caregivers as a trade-off for keeping families intact. In the process, they say, she often harms children.
At their most extreme, those kinds of decisions can leave infants in the hands of convicted child murderers. Last month, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael Mason granted Latrena D. Pixley custody of her 2-year-old son, who had spent most of his life with a foster mother who now wanted to adopt him. Even though Pixley had smothered her 6-week-old daughter to death in 1992, Mason showed unflinching faith in her maternal redemption. It is almost always in the child’s best interest, according to Mason, to send the child to the biological mother instead of the one who wants to adopteven if the foster mother is more qualified.
But while the Pixley case has received national press attention, Winfield has quietly given dangerous adults third and fourth chances for years, advocates say. In her defense, Winfield insists that her critics would tone down their attacks if they had to don the robe. “In family cases, there’s information that the court has that all the parties don’t have. It seems to me the job [of a judge] is to balance…competing interests.” In a series of key cases, though, appeals courts have decided to adjust Winfield’s judicial scale, questioning her reasoning and rejecting her decisions.
In 1994, Winfield was asked to rule on what appeared to be a straightforward adoption case. When baby “M.D.” was born, he tested positive for cocaine. He left the hospital with his crack-addicted mother and unemployed father. M.D.’s father had done time for robbery, had been hospitalized for serious psychological problems, and had made the first of several suicide attempts at age 15. He had even spent a few months in prison the year before M.D.’s birthfor molesting his 7-year-old stepdaughter.
A little more than a year after his birth, both of M.D.’s parents agreed to hand him over to the D.C. Department of Human Services. The city eventually placed the baby in an orphanage, where he was prone to “periods of inconsolable crying,” according to court documents. Life finally brightened for M.D. in the winter of 1992, when he moved in with a foster mother, a woman in her 30s with a steady job and a playroom just for him in her split-level home.
In 1994, the foster mother went to court to officially adopt M.D. and terminate the father’s parental rights. It seemed like an obvious move. After all, the father had a long record of criminal activity, emotional disturbance, threatening behavior, homicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts. Even the psychologist hired by the father’s own lawyer found him to be an unfit parent. “I don’t see any road here,” concluded Dr. Lanning Moldauer. “I just…I don’t see any course that’s going to bring [M.D.’s father] within the foreseeable future…basic, even minimal, requirements of good parenting.”
Winfield disagreed. She found M.D.’s fathera convicted child molester who had visited his son only twice between February 1992 and May 1993to be a “fit” parent. She declined to strip him of his parental rights and denied adoption to the foster mother. If anyone was to blame for the poor parenting record, Winfield said, it was the D.C. human service agencies that had failed to help M.D.’s dad help himself.
The foster mother brought Winfield’s logic straight to the D.C. appeals court, which took the judge to task. “Nothing in life is certain,” wrote Judge Frank Schwelb. “It is conceivable, of course, that the experts were wrong, that the trial judge was right, and that notwithstanding the father’s indecent liberties conviction, criminal background, and past emotional disturbance, he no longer represents a significant danger to his son’s emotional and physical well-being.
“On this remarkable record, however, it is far more probable that the experts were right,” Schwelb concluded, “that the past will repeat itself, and that the father’s anti-social personality disorder will come to the fore under the pressures of looking after a 4-year-old boy.”
The court’s first duty is to protect the child, Schwelb reminded Winfield. “What is best for him trumps all other considerations.” Parental rights were eventually granted to M.D.’s foster mother in spite of Winfield’s efforts to the contrary.
Winfield’s erratic bouts of empathy don’t stem from a bleeding heart. Before she became a judge, Winfield spent years as an assistant U.S. attorney, rising to deputy chief of the felony trial division. She prosecuted the ugliest of criminals, hammering many of them into jail. Five years later, in 1984, Winfield was sworn in as a Superior Court judge.
During her stint in family court, Winfield seized every opportunity to remind lawyers who was in charge. “She was not what we would call a user-friendly judge,” says one Superior Court attorney (who requested anonymity “because we have to live with her”). Some attorneys dubbed her the judge they’d least like to see behind the bench, in part because of her imperiousness and in part because of the unpredictability of her decisions.
“She can be very cruel sometimes. Other times, she’s very compassionate,” says another lawyer. “She’s like a cat. You never know when she will strike.” When she does strike, though, Winfield tends to do it at a child’s expense, according to lawyers who have argued child welfare cases in front of her.
In the early ’90s, when Winfield served as deputy presiding judge in the family division, the District’s adoption system slowed to an intolerable crawl, say lawyers who practice family law in D.C. They suggest that Winfield insisted on a strict interpretation of adoption laws, particularly a regulation that seals adoption records to protect the privacy of parents and children. The rule prevents interested parties from learning identifying information about parents or details of confidential social worker reports, explains Stanton Phillips, an adoption attorney working in Virginia and the District.
But under Winfield’s interpretation, Phillips says, “no one was allowed to learn any information about their case, including petitioners and the attorneys.” For example, he says, parents and their attorneys had trouble learning even the most basic of details, such as the status of their request or why the process had stalled. And adoption proceedings all but stopped as a result.
“It was a very serious problem,” Phillips says. “There was no way to get your case moving.”
One woman, hoping to get a glimpse of her adoption records in December 1995, ran headfirst into Winfield’s interpretations. The woman was adopted in the late 1950s, when she was 2 years old. Before that, she’d spent her infancy at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, and that’s all she really knew. In a letter to the court explaining her reason for applying to see her adoption records, the woman wrote, “The first nine months of my life are a blank to me. I want to fill in those blanks. All I know [is] that I was at an orphanage run by Catholic Charities. I don’t know what I ate, who fed me, how I was taken care of, whether I got sick, whether I cried a lotnothing. I want to know as much as possible.”
Even though the adopted child was now an adult, and even though neither the biological mother nor the adoptive mother contested her application to see the records, Winfield denied her request. She pointed to the regulation sealing adoption records in defending her decision.
Again, the appeals court disagreed. Judge Michael Farrell, writing on behalf of the appeal panel, said Winfield’s interpretation of the privacy rule “is not compelled, nor do we even think it is the most sensible reading of the statute.” Farrell pointed out that the D.C. code applies to a child, not an adult. And he reminded Winfield that the code was primarily intended to protect the adopted child, not stymie someone trying to piece together her life.
Child advocate Siegel questions Winfield’s ability to balance the needs of all parties involved in family cases. “I see a pattern of favoring parental rights over the child’s rights,” she says.
As long as the parents are straight, that is. In 1994, Winfield denied a gay couple’s joint petition to adopt a child, ruling that the current adoption law did not allow unmarried individuals to adopt children, regardless of whether the adoption would be in the best interests of the child. Soon after, the appeals court again took issue with Winfield’s reasoning and concluded that unmarried people living together in a committed personal relationship, regardless of their sexuality, are indeed eligible to petition for adoption.
Although Winfield says she can’t comment on that case, she denies that adoption policy has changed under her leadership, insisting that the law has followed precedents set by her predecessors. But prior to Winfield’s denial of the gay adoption, at least two other Superior Court judges had been allowing gay couples to adopt.
“I am a very technical person,” Winfield acknowledged last week when prepping a jury for the murder trial that lay before them. Those who appear before her echo that assessment. Attorneys say that Winfield’s fixation on the letter of the law, to the frustration of many around her, has been a hallmark of her decisions.
A few years ago, an abandoned child’s guardian asked Winfield to terminate the parental rights of two men considered to be the child’s father. It was not clear which was the biological father, but both had been identified as such by the child’s mother at one point or another. According to court records, one of the men had abandoned the baby on a sidewalk when she was just 2 months old, leaving her for the police to find. The other one denied that he was the father. The record indicated that neither of the fathers had shown up at a hearing held to decide whether to terminate their parental rights, but Winfield still refused to go ahead and terminate them. She insisted she could not do so until paternity had been established. Again, the appeals court disagreed and reversed the decision, in 1995.
Of course, most of Winfield’s decisions don’t get overturned. From Siegel’s child-centered perspective, Winfield is part of a larger problem. “[Winfield] is not alone,” Siegel says. “There are lots of judges who make very bad decisions in neglect cases in D.C.”
William Driscoll, an attorney who worked with Winfield as the former president of the family division’s trial lawyers association, says that just because a few lawyers don’t like appearing in Winfield’s court, it doesn’t mean she isn’t good at her job. “She’s not going to win any popularity prizes,” he says. “But my experiences with her as a lawyer have been pretty good. She’s very bright.”
But, as another attorney who has appeared before her points out, “Bright isn’t the same thing as wise.”CP