Editor's note: This is the last in a six-part series of in-depth columns by columnist Issac J. Bailey to examine a Conway father's two-year struggle to bring his daughter home from a New York foster home.
Late on Oct. 25, Johnny Smith, his wife, Cheryl, and maybe his mother, a brother and sister-in-law plan to load themselves into a couple of vehicles and head north.
They will travel almost 900 miles, stop maybe six times to refill the gas tank and eat over the course of the 17-plus-hour trek they've made seven times - U.S. Airways got them there twice; three of the road trips were to be there for operations Smith's daughter underwent to heal injuries sustained when she was abused. They will eventually end up on State Route 9 in Warren County, N.Y., the road where in July 2008 Smith's then-3-year-old daughter was found by motorists wandering alone in a shirt and diaper after being attacked by caretakers when she was in the care of her mother.
The mother did not respond to several attempts to get her comments on the case.
It is there Smith's case is scheduled to be heard Oct. 27 before a Family Court judge in the Warren County Municipal Center.
They will walk into the courtroom knowing something has finally changed in their favor. After twice denying her return, the S.C. Department of Social Services has reversed itself and now approves of Smith's daughter coming home. The denials are always upheld by New York child protective services officials because of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, a law designed to govern such cases when they involve two or more states.
"South Carolina did studies at the request of New York in 2008, 2009 and 2010," said Virginia Williamson, the lead attorney and spokeswoman for DSS. "Mr. Smith and his family have made changes since 2009. Based on those changes, we have been able to recommend the placement in 2010. We are very happy with this result and hope for a favorable disposition by the State of New York."
There's also a chance Smith may not have to wait for that Oct. 27 permanency hearing.
"If an ICPC placement out of New York is approved, the placement can be made, regardless of the timing of the next permanency hearing," said Pat Cantiello of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, who was not speaking directly about Smith's case because the office declined Smith's offer to waive his confidentiality.
But just as Smith's financial status became an issue early in his struggle to regain his daughter, it remains one. He's spent months scraping together enough money to pay for a New York lawyer to represent him in court in October, as well as for his travel, lodging and other expenses. It would be a strain to come up with more money to pay the lawyer's fees that might be necessary to petition New York to not delay his daughter's potential homecoming until late October.
And even though South Carolina has removed the primary hurdle, its approval provides no guarantees. The way the ICPC is interpreted by New York and South Carolina, New York had to uphold South Carolina's two denials but is under no obligation to uphold South Carolina's approval, during the planned permanency hearing or before. New York earlier began proceedings to have Smith's parental rights terminated, and the state retains the right to move forward with them again.
Two years ago, the foster mother who has been taking care of Smith's daughter told him if he was unable to regain custody that she would be in a good, safe home. Her identity would also be changed, Smith said he was later told.
"To be given a whole new name and Social Security number, that hurt my heart when they said that could happen," Smith said.
If New York does allow Smith's daughter to come home, South Carolina will be required to monitor and help the family. During Smith's more than two-year fight, neither New York nor South Carolina offered Smith assistance, financial or otherwise.
Another complication is how New York officials will view Helen Prince, Smith's former common-law wife and mother of his now 5-year-old daughter. Prince served eight months of a one-year sentence in a New York jail for child endangerment charges for the abuse suffered by her daughter. She was released early last year.
Prince, who now lives in Brunswick County, N.C. is also trying to regain custody. Brunswick County's Department of Social Services would first have to approve such a placement.
The Family Court judge in New York could decide to grant custody to either Prince or Smith and supervised or unsupervised visits to the other parent.
The factors surrounding that possibility create more concerns for Smith.
Months after being released from the New York prison, Prince and her 14-year-old son faced charges in Brunswick County related to the sexual abuse and neglect of a young child under their care. Her son's case was being handled in juvenile court. Prince's charges were being handled in criminal court and were initiated by the father of the young child. When he did not show up for a court hearing, those charges were dismissed.
"Since taking out those charges [he] has discontinued contact with the DA's Office, Juvenile Services, and even [his 14-year-old stepson], so I was not surprised that he failed to show up for court," said Meredith Everhart, assistant district attorney for Brunswick County.
According to news accounts in the (New York) Post Star in 2008, Prince told investigators she noticed injuries to her then 3-year-old daughter but was told by the 15-year-old son of her boyfriend they happened when "she was in the bathroom trying to get out of her bathing suit, [and] she fell."
Her lawyer at the time, Gerry Amedio, told The PostStar.com said she did not mean to harm her daughter. She "just had a lot on her plate" while trying to work, care for the children and find a home while her boyfriend was still in South Carolina working.
Prince has not responded to calls and messages for comments. Through social networking messages, Prince told friends and associates that she was not to blame, because her daughter never complained about being hurt.
"I think she's still in denial," Smith said.
And that's what concerns him about potential court-ordered visitation rights.
His daughter required surgery, the removal of her tonsils, a two-night stay in the hospital and ongoing psychiatric treatment for the injuries she sustained over a period of weeks while in her mother's care.
Still, his biggest fear remains the one he's been battling since 2008. He's afraid if he won't get his daughter back, she'll forget him.
He's afraid he'll miss more of what has already been missing from his life, like the way girls his daughter's age happily jump into their father's lap for no reason and without warning, the way they bring home handmade trinkets from camp, the way they cry and hold their father's hand a little tighter while walking into school for the first time, the way they ride a pet goat around the yard, as she did in the days before she left with her mother.
"That was the last child that I had," Smith said. "And girls are kind of rare in my family. I don't know exactly how to say it, but I was more or less compelled to see that she come back ... so she wouldn't forget where she came from."
That's why he's kept buying her clothes - two sizes too big to keep up with her growth - and had kept them neatly in her room until he shipped them off, along with school supplies, to her New York foster home.
That's why he said that even though he's hit "brick wall after brick wall" he won't stop fighting until all options have exhausted. If he fails, he said, he wants his daughter to know he did everything he could, that he didn't abandon her, that he tried to protect her.