Who's To Judge?

County Removes Children From Home Implying Abuse

Imagine taking two children into your family, away from what you're told is an abusive home and a mother who shows no interest in them. You believe you are doing the right thing.

Then you meet that mother and find out you didn't have the full story at all. That's what Betsy Lee says happened to her in Beaver County, Penn. Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports.

''You become a foster parent in order to provide a safe environment for a child,'' Betsy Lee said.

She and her husband Dr. John Lee became foster parents to Mary Jo and her little brother Charles in 1996. "They're great kids, you know, adorable, charming and funny," she said.

"We were led to believe certain things through the process about why the kids were with us and why they should stay with us,'' said Betsy Lee. "We were basically told there was a lot of sexual abuse in the family."

"The mother at one point walked into the agency and said, 'I can't handle raising my children. I want to give them up,'" Betsy Lee said she was told.

Case workers with the Beaver County Children and Youth Services, or CYS, told the Lees that mother Leanore Weigner had allowed a boyfriend to sexually molest the children.

For her part, Weigner said, ''They thought I let stuff happen to my kids that I never let happen.'' She adds: ''I've been molested when I was little, and I'd never let it happen to my kids, never.''

In addition, CYS accused the mildly retarded Weigner of not being able to properly care for her children. So they took all five away.

Weigner insisted, however, that she has ''never done wrong to them, and they know that.''

CYS then told Weigner she could get her kids back if she followed its family service plan. ''I had to complete every class that they sent me to for parenting to teach me how to be a good parent,'' Weigner said.

But after successfully completing that course, the CYS still pressured her into signing away her parental rights, Weigner claimed.

''I didn't have everything. But I had a house over their head, I had food, I had clothes and that on them,'' Weigner said. ''But I think they wanted somebody rich that can take them places, do that with them.''

What happened to Weigner and other mothers in Beaver County caught the attention of reporter Barbara White Stack: ''The practices I saw in Beaver County were very different from what the standards for good child welfare practice were,'' she said.

''For example, they were terminating parental rights at twice the rate that other places were nationally,'' said Stack, who recently wrote a series on the subject in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

''And Leanore, unlike most neglect cases, was not a drug or alcohol abuser. So she is easier to work with than most neglectful parents,'' Stack said.

Yet Weigner has lost all five of her children.

Stak's stories accused both the judge involved, Judge Robert Reed, and CYS of denying parents due process when terminating parental rights.

''For this irrevocable thing, the permanent, forever severing of legal bonds between a parent and a child, you have to meet certain standards first,'' Stack said.

''I know there are a lot of people who are afraid of Judge Reed,'' said Betsy Lee. ''It still just amazes me...Nobody really seemed to be interested in going, 'Wait a second what's really going on here?'''

Weigner's kids were taken to different places. ''Two of them are in Beaver County with Betsy Lee, and I don't know where the other three are,'' Weigner said.

Betsy Lee got to know Weigner well. She would take Mary Jo and Charles to county-supervised visitations with their mother. "I met their mother on visits, and she was faithful in her visits," Betsy Lee said.

"Every time there was a visitation, I was there,'' Weigner said.

Once when young Mary Jo was asked whom she was going to see at the carnival, she referred to her mom as ''Visitor Mom.''

"They know her from visits at the agency....That's their only memory of her,'' said Betsy Lee.

During these visits Betsy Lee began to question whether Weigner should have lost her children in the first place. She noted that no one mentioned a need for counseling for the kids, despite the abuse she was told they had suffered. ''It raises some serious questions about why not,'' Betsy Lee said.

Although the man accused of this abuse pled no contest, he was given no jail time - which led Betsy Lee to further wonder if the kids were ever really abused.

CYS would not discuss Weigner's case specifically but told 48 Hours that if a parent completes the family plan to CYS' satisfaction, the children are always returned.

But despite her attempts, Weigner did not attend the final hearing on her parental rights. At that hearing, CYS recommended that the court terminate her rights and claimed Weigner couldn't properly house or care for her children. Hearing no objection, Judge Reed signed the decision.

Observed Betsy Lee: ''As soon as we make any kind of classification in terms of your race, in terms of your education...and say you're not smart enough, you're not good looking enough, you don't have the right kind of job...and therefore the child will be better with someone else, we should all be scared.''

The Lees were put in a terrible position.

Betsy Lee explained, ''I made a commitment to my kids two years ago when I understood the story to be something different. I told them, 'You're our kids, and you're not going anywhere.'''

By the time the Lees had learned the whole story, they had already started adoption proceedings for Mary Jo and Charles. "They developed bonds with us, and we've developed bonds with them,'' said Betsy Lee.
Weigner's loss became Betsy and John Lee's gain.

Some might say maybe the kids shouldn't have been taken away from Weigner, but they're going to be better off.

"Maybe they will be better off with me," said Betsy Lee. "But to judge that in terms of economics and social conditions is to basically put yourself in the position of God.''

And last summer just after the Lees officially adopted Mary Jo and Charles, Weigner had to deal with another loss. Because of a new job, the Lees were moving to Texas.

Said Weigner, reading a letter to her kids telling them goodbye: ''All I can say is that it hurts more than anything in this world.''

''I will never forget July 10th, because it's the day I had to let you go again,'' she said.

She added, crying, ''Mommy's going to miss you. ''

Hugging Weigner, Betsy Lee said, ''I'm so sorry. I know how much this hurts.''

''Dear Lord, just let her know she's a part of our family, and that won't change,'' Betsy Lee said.

''They'll always be my children....No matter how far away they are, they're mine,'' Weigner concluded.

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