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Bierly Children Stolen
August 1, 2005 permalink
Not all of our readers are Canadian. An American fan suggested the Bierly story as a good example of child protection gone awry.
Lisa Bierly had her children stolen in Utah. A child with medical needs was neglected in care, the mother was not allowed to give evidence to the court, the family lawyer did not bring out important points in defense, the lawyer for social services vilified the family. A functionary of the child protection system tried to use it as a source of a child for her own adoption. And even after acknowledging that the removal was unjustified, the state would not give the kids back. The children identified by the pseudonyms Michael and Katie appear in other sources as Jordan and Leigh. You can reach Lisa Bierly at lsbierly @ yahoo.com (but remove the spaces around the at sign).
One woman’s arduous custody battle wins child-welfare reforms, and nothing more.
It had been more than two years since the family had seen or heard from the boy, hereafter referred to as “Michael” due to privacy concerns, and Peter was unsure his brother would even recognize his voice. He dialed the number anyway and, by chance, Michael picked up.
“Peter?” Michael asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, it’s your brother,” Peter guaranteed.
What followed was a hasty, nerve-racking reunion. Between sobs on either end of the line, Peter confirmed that Michael was in good health and being a good boy, but he missed everyone and wanted to come home. Before hanging up, Michael, who recently turned 12, asked Peter to carry a simple message to their mother: “Tell mom I said thanks for trying.”
Few would fault Michael’s mother for not trying. But Lisa Bierly, a former debutante and daughter of a retired Pittsburgh banker, is showing wear for the four-and-a-half-year struggle to win back her two youngest children. The fiery mother of four’s distinctively thick eye makeup runs ever more frequently. Her doctor says wincing stomach pain probably indicates ulcers. And she could stand to lose a few pounds, she says, to ease the load on a nagging back injury, but time or zeal for exercise has been hard to come by.
It was September 2000 when Michael, a brittle diabetic, was taken into state custody due to his mother’s alleged medical neglect. Adding to the anguish was the removal of Michael’s now-6-year-old sister, “Katie,” as a so-called “sibling at risk” six days later. Since then, Bierly’s waking hours have been spent in dogged pursuit of bringing them back home. Standing in her way have been state agencies, including Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), which acknowledge both removals were fraught with mistakes, but ultimately blame Bierly for losing her children.
The word “mistakes,” however, doesn’t nearly quantify the tragicomedy of errors and bureaucratic dysfunction that presaged and perpetuated a harsh lesson in Kafkaesque futility. Bierly doesn’t shirk her part in exacerbating the nightmare. But she’s paid dearly for those missteps while the other offending players have gone as yet unanswerable.
A first-of-its-kind review of the case by the Legislative Auditor General’s office found that “procedural errors were made during the removals of each of the children and … we cannot definitely conclude that the removals were justified at that time.” There’s consensus that the first social worker assigned to the case strayed from accepted DCFS policies, and widespread agreement among child-welfare workers that one particularly relentless assistant attorney general seemingly worked against the family from the outset. Then there was the doctor who, before ever examining Michael, referred his mother to DCFS for medical neglect, then testified as the star witness against her fitness as a parent, and later tried to take the boy for her own.
Justice in the case has been almost poetic. For even as Bierly’s various protests have brought about changes to DCFS policies—changes that could easily have made the difference in her case—she’s yet to taste the fruit of those hard-won reforms. Consequently, semiweekly Sunday breakfasts with what family she has left invariably turn to dour reflections on two empty seats.“Grandpa Barry”
DCFS Child Protective Services (CPS) worker Barry Richards, “the stranger who called himself grandpa,” dropped into the Bierlys’ lives at a Midvale motel, where they were holed up contemplating a move back to Pennsylvania to be with Bierly’s ailing father. Her eldest, Tim, was the lone holdout. Looking back, the 23-year-old dead-ringer for actor Ethan Hawke wishes they’d just gone.
Richards, a licensed clinical social worker and self-described “traumatologist,” was at the time a part-time caseworker with 13 months experience. Although he still conducts clinical assessments for the division, according to DCFS Salt Lake Valley Regional Director LaRay Brown, he’s since left CPS. During the course of what Bierly recalls as a 20-minute chat, Richards informed her of an anonymous medical neglect referral, then bid her goodbye, never to meet Michael until taking him into state custody two weeks later.
That lag, Richards later testified in court, was due to the “ongoing investigation, gathering a cumulative amount of concern and evidence from those witnesses I interviewed.” But Richards never mentioned that throughout his investigation—he was out of town at a conference, as later discovered by the Office of Child Protection Ombudsman (OCPO), which found lapses in Richards’ casework and concerns about his behavior.
Meanwhile, the case Richards set on the back burner was boiling over in the hands of Dr. Dana Hardin, then the new chief of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at the University of Utah Medical School and head of the Utah Diabetes Center.
Bierly was two-and-a-half-hours late for Michael’s first appointment with Hardin who, weeks earlier, had replaced Michael’s lifelong diabetes doctor. Hardin had left for the day but, when phoned by an attending nurse, instructed Bierly to stand by with Michael for her imminent return. When Bierly refused, she says Hardin ordered Michael hospitalized at once. Flabbergasted, Bierly says, she left with her son.
“I wanted a second opinion,” Bierly has always maintained. “It wasn’t that I knew more than the doctor, but I knew my child, and he was not sick.”
Adds Darryl Taylor, Bierly’s common-law husband and Katie’s father: “That was Lisa’s medical neglect: that she didn’t want her kid to go in the hospital with some lady that she doesn’t even know, some new doctor.”
Bierly skipped a follow-up, whereupon Hardin urged DCFS intervention.
Tim tried, but couldn’t console his brother when “Grandpa Barry” arrived to take him into custody. “I told [Michael] we’d get him back; do whatever we could,” recalls Tim, now a father to three daughters of his own.
With characteristic Bierly pluck Michael refused to go, leaving Tim to carry his sobbing brother, “the Love Bug,” to an idling car at the curb. Tim notes it was “the last time we were able to have freedom as a family.”
Richards drove off with the boy, later citing his “immediate” need of medical care in a shelter request form. But according to OCPO and the Legislative Auditor General, Richards never interviewed Michael, never had his medical condition assessed and offered the family no in-home preventive services before the removal, all of which DCFS policy calls for. And instead of racing the supposedly sickly child to a hospital, as DCFS policy also requires, records show Richards delivered Michael to a shelter where no one was so much as qualified to administer an insulin shot. He admonished staff to strictly follow Bierly’s written instructions for Michael’s care, “despite the fact that DCFS removed [Michael] based on allegations Ms. Bierly was not providing [him] with appropriate medical care,” OCPO pointed out.
In a phone call hours after Michael’s removal, Bierly says Richards confessed the removal was a “huge mistake,” one of many allegations he prefers not to address. Despite a signed and notarized confidentiality waiver from Bierly, which he insisted upon before he would discuss the case, Richards declined comment, citing concerns about his integrity and professional reputation.
It wasn’t until four days after Michael’s removal—when in the foster home of a registered nurse who voiced “intensifying” concerns that his condition was “worsening without [Bierly’s] attention,” Richards' case logs note—that he was admitted to Primary Children’s hospital at his mother’s request. Michael’s treating physician: Dr. Hardin.
Days later, Bierly was splitting time between court and the hospital when Richards returned to the motel to take Katie from her father, whom Bierly points out has never been accused of abuse or neglect. “Did he have the [guts] to admit his mistake?” Bierly asks. “No, he compounded the problem with [the assistant attorney general] by taking my daughter.”
Records show DCFS countenanced OCPO recommendations that Richards “receive specific training on the appropriate actions” that should be taken when children with chronic medical conditions are taken into custody, and a “plan of corrective action” to retrain him in “CPS policy, the ability to adequately assess risk and the ability to write clear and specific activity logs which accurately represent the action taken on the case.” OCPO ultimately concluded that a “more timely assessment and intervention may have precluded … removal” of both children.
That’s an understatement to former Republican state Rep. Matt Throckmorton, one of many to take more than a passing interest in the case. Of hundreds of allegedly bungled DCFS cases that Throckmorton says he has thoroughly investigated, the Bierly case is among a half-dozen where, “in my opinion, it’s just 110 percent clear the children never should have been removed.
“All she needed was one chance to clarify it without the state immediately yanking her kids,” he says, “a chance for a second medical opinion, at minimum.”
Throckmorton slated Bierly to share her story with a child-welfare oversight panel in 2002, but another case took up the allotted time, and he was never able to reconvene the panel. After the meeting, though, Throckmorton says Assistant Attorney General Paul Amann introduced himself and immediately volunteered, “Lisa is a liar.”
The e-mails began innocuously enough, Throckmorton says. Every few days, Amann would write, inquiring about the next hearing. But then the cables turned “bizarre,” “annoying,” “amazing,” “almost juvenile,” Throckmorton says. He forwarded one particularly “harassing” e-mail—questioning why a conservative lawmaker such as Throckmorton would take up for someone like Bierly—to Amann’s superiors, after which he says the pestering ceased.
Considering the stature of Amann’s office, Throckmorton says, “if he was willing to write that kind of e-mail to a state legislator, that supports the validity of the concerns that [Bierly] raised about how he treated her in court.”
Among fellow attorneys, Amann is known as a fierce courtroom adversary, among some DCFS workers as an overbearing bully, and to Bierly, the man who ensured she’d never get her children back. Technically, the attorney general’s office is supposed to provide legal advice to its client, DCFS, but those lines sometimes get blurred in practice.
“They said I have an authority problem,” laments Bierly. “[Amann] had an authority problem, as in he had this massive ego and everybody had to bow down in his presence.”
At a shelter hearing to decide if the removals were warranted, Amann set the lasting tone, painting a ghastly portrait of Bierly for 3rd District Juvenile Judge Olof Johansson. Relying on Richards’ testimony, along with letters of concern from Dr. Hardin, Amann depicted Michael as a boy on the cusp of death due to his mother’s neglect.
Richards’ testimony that Michael was hospitalized the day he was removed went unchallenged by Bierly’s court-appointed attorney, Russell Pietryga, who then argued semantics when Richards stressed the family’s “transient” motel accommodations as his reason for removing Katie. In fact, that decision may not have been Richards’ at all. His case logs state that Amann and the guardian ad litem, a state attorney assigned to represent Michael’s best interests, “obliged” Richards to seek Katie’s “immediate removal.”
Had anyone bothered to ask, Bierly ached to tell Johansson, the family was in a state of transition, not transience. What’s more, she and Taylor had inked a lease on a $1,200-per-month house the day before. But nobody asked, and neither Bierly nor four defense witnesses—Tim, Peter and two family friends—earlier sworn in were called to testify.
Richards’ description of Michael’s “perilous” condition went unchallenged, even though both the boy’s pediatrician and previous diabetes specialist indicated in earlier and subsequent correspondence that, although Bierly missed appointments, Michael was seen regularly, was well cared for and as much loved as any child.
Michael’s weight had plummeted to the fifth percentile on the growth curve for boys his age, Dr. Hardin’s correspondence stated, a possible indication his insulin was being insufficiently administered. But according to Hardin’s own tally of Michael’s weight at the time, he would have plotted safely in the 25th percentile on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention growth charts.
That Michael never went into crisis under his mother’s care, which records show he has done at least twice in foster placements, “proves that I knew what to do with [Michael’s] diabetes,” Bierly says. Hospital records indicate Michael’s blood-sugar levels were wildly erratic throughout his stay at Primary Children’s, and long after Hardin adjusted his insulin, supporting what Michael’s previous doctors had always known—his brittle diabetes was exceptionally difficult to control.
Even DCFS Director Richard Anderson seemed befuddled, later telling OCPO that Michael “did not appear to be doing much better in foster care than he was with Ms. Bierly.”
None of that factored into Amann’s resounding Law & Order-style courtroom monologue. Citing a letter from Dr. Hardin that she’d addressed to his office the day before, Amann pitted the boy against his mother.
“She’s talking specifically … about the mother,” Amann said, “how she was not appearing, and how she didn’t come to see the child, didn’t come to visit the child …”
“That is not true,” Bierly gulped, her voice registering a whisper on the court tapes.
“… And [Hardin] has statements in here that are quoted directly from the child,” Amann continued, more vehement with each cadence. “‘You won’t come back. You will never come back. I hate you. You never come back. … She lies. You lie, mom. You lie.’ A direct quote from the child.”
A glance at hospital visitation logs proves Bierly was by her son’s side for all or part of 61 hours during his eight days at Primary Children’s, despite scrambling to find ready shelter, keeping track of two teenage sons and gearing up for a court defense she’d never get to present. Far from a boy selectively observed bawling out his negligent mother, the logs show Michael was desperately homesick, and blamed the separation from his family on his diabetes.
Worse than muzzling her, “they never once listened to the cries of [Michael and Katie],” Bierly says. And while Katie couldn’t speak for herself, Bierly says the signs were plain enough. Nicknamed “Pretty” for her long, blond locks, Katie took to nervously pulling them out in foster care, and case logs show she “had been moved around so much” by early 2002, “it had a definite impact on her ability to bond.”
Michael’s futile attempts to return home, according to case files provided by Bierly’s one-time attorney Wayne Searle, included urinating on the bedroom floor at his foster home, beseeching his foster mother to forget his insulin and licking glucose strips to throw off his blood-sugar levels. In one of his last checkups with Hardin before she moved to Texas in June 2001, she noted he was deliberately skipping meals. Asked why, Michael answered: “First I get to go home, then I don’t.”
Pietryga objected to Amann’s theatrics, calling Hardin’s 11th-hour letter inadmissible hearsay. “If this child is saying this stuff … let’s put him on the stand,” Pietryga demanded. “I don’t have anyone to cross-examine on this.”
Johansson then cleared the court for a private meeting with the squabbling attorneys. When court reconvened, without a word to or from Bierly, Johansson ordered Michael to remain in foster care indefinitely, and Katie temporarily, until a “safety plan” and a psychological workup on Bierly had been completed.
“I was cut, dried and hung before ever walking into that courtroom,” Bierly maintains. It’s an understandable conclusion, given that hospital staff and DCFS seemed to know Michael’s fate in advance.
“Mom to be informed tomorrow that child won’t leave hospital with her,” Hardin scribbled in a log two days prior to the hearing. Richards was to inform Bierly of Johansson’s anticipated decision the day before the hearing, hospital logs show, the same day Hardin noted discussing “the court mandates” with Michael, “i.e. he is going to be [a] ward of [the] state.”
Conflict of Interest?
Bierly satisfied Johansson’s stipulations with respect to Katie, and she was returned home three days before a November 2000 adjudication hearing to determine if, in fact, Michael had been neglected. The downside was that Amann didn’t deliver discovery to Bierly’s attorney until two days before trial.
With so little time to examine the state’s evidence, Bierly showed up with nothing but a doctor’s note vouching for her fitness as a mother, expecting Pietryga to indulge her request for a continuance. He declined to submit the note, and convinced Bierly to take the stand. “‘Tell the judge that you know how to take care of your juvenile diabetic,’” Bierly recalls as the gist of Pietryga’s advice. “‘You’ll get your child back today.’”
“As stupid as I was, I went on the witness stand,” says Bierly, only to face off with Amann’s sole witness, Dr. Hardin. “Here’s a mother being charged with alleged medical neglect and she is opposite the chief of endocrinology at the diabetes clinic—now, who is the judge going to believe?”
More than that, Bierly has since learned that Hardin may not have been a disinterested third party. City Weekly has obtained a document from a confidential source indicating Hardin was actively attempting to adopt Michael in late 2002. Furthermore, two independent sources close to the case have confirmed, in notarized affidavits provided to City Weekly, firsthand knowledge that in 2003 DCFS placed Michael with Hardin for the purpose of potential adoption. The placement lasted for roughly six months beginning in March 2003, one source says. Both sources say Hardin personally disclosed that Michael lived with her for several months during 2003, but he was returned to Utah after having extreme difficulties assimilating with her family.
One source claims direct knowledge of Hardin taking Michael for at least one overnight visit to her home while she was his treating physician from October 2000 until she moved to Texas in June 2001.
Reached by phone, Hardin denied any contact with Michael after she left town. However, she said her family, especially her sons, took a personal liking to Michael. “They kind of buddied around, and … I visited him with my kids—mostly just my kids wanted to visit him while he was in foster care, and we did do that,” Hardin said.
After the alleged adoption effort fell through, Hardin acknowledges her family continued to send letters and greeting cards to Michael through DCFS. She initially denied that she considered adopting Michael, but later explained in a voice message why she “hesitated so much,” when asked.
“We talked about it a lot,” Hardin said. “And I still feel guilty about the fact that we did not even try. … Yes, I thought about the ethics of whether or not I could even think about it, and also concluded at that point that I would need to have completely separated my work life from him for quite some time if that were to be the case.”
DCFS won’t confirm or deny whether Michael was placed with Hardin, but agency administrator Adam Trupp parrots Hardin’s take on the ethics of it.
“If there’s a referent who then ends up managing to get a removal of a child, and then they get that child placed in their home as a foster-adoptive home, I can see a conflict there,” Trupp says. “But the farther away you get from that direct contact, the more I think it’s unlikely that there’s any sort of conflict.”
Trupp did a quick check of voluminous DCFS case logs, but turned up no record of Michael’s earlier purported visit to Hardin’s home, and can’t think of a reason why it would have been justified.
No kidding, says Tim Bierly, who learned of Michael’s move to Texas months ago. “I’m not about to ask why [Hardin] would want [Michael], or why anyone would want [Katie], because I know damn well why,” says Tim. “They’re funny, beautiful, smart; they’re my family.”
Even so, Tim can’t see the logic of DCFS allowing the placement, because it “pretty much proves that [Hardin] had some sort of a motive,” he says.
Johansson substantiated Hardin’s allegations of neglect, and continued Michael’s stay in foster care pending Bierly’s successful navigation of a “service plan.” No longer an issue of fitness—Bierly was officially unfit—Michael’s fate would now turn on his mother’s “compliance.” As ordered, Bierly submitted to regular counseling, passed her diabetes courses and maintained a residence, but one provision of the service plan would render all other efforts moot.
Katie, it seemed, was safe at home and in the clear. A December 2000 risk assessment signed by Bierly’s new caseworker—hereafter referred to as “K.L.” because she has since left the division and could not be contacted—concluded Katie was not a sibling at risk. And K.L.’s case logs show that a service plan for Katie was then terminated, “because of administration error, due to [Amann] telling caseworker that PSS [in-home protective] services were ordered when they weren’t.”
Amann contends K.L.’s cancellation of the service plan was in error. DCFS administrator Trupp can only fathom that at the time there was poor coordination “between the decision-making processes and evaluation processes within the division and the AG’s actions in court.” Nonetheless …
“Just so that all the cards are on the table,” Amann told Johansson at a January 2001 disposition hearing for Michael, “it is our intention to remove [Katie] from the mother’s custody.”
Amann went on to cite Bierly’s alleged failures to abide by Katie’s safety plan. Specifically: that she didn’t have a working phone, which records show she did; that she hadn’t maintained a residence, which records show she had; and that she slept at a friend’s house the night before the hearing, which is “none of Paul Amann’s damn business,” Bierly says.
Bierly repeatedly interrupted Amann, but was scolded by Johansson, who told her to wait her turn. But when Amann finished, Johansson chose not to get involved because the matter of Katie’s status was not officially before him. As to the initial decision to remove Katie, “Those are prerogatives and decisions that the attorney general’s office can make,” he said, before dismissing court. Despite Bierly’s frantic pleas to Amann, Katie, who had been waiting with Bierly’s friend in the court parking lot, was taken back into state custody.
That’s about when affairs between DCFS and Amann turned irreconcilably south. DCFS brass disagreed with Amann’s decision to remove, telling OCPO investigators “non-compliance is generally not a reason for taking custody of a child.” It was K.L.’s first unsupervised hearing, and she “thought that’s how the system worked.” K.L. was later pulled off the case due to concerns she was unsure “whether to follow [the] DCFS practice model,” or “directives” from Amann and the guardian ad litem, DCFS documents reveal. Furthermore, DCFS repeatedly requested Amann’s ouster, but he refused, and the attorney general’s office backed him.
Trupp calls Johansson’s deference to Amann an “abrogation of responsibility,” adding, “If we take a child in court, the court should assert jurisdiction to say, ‘Wait a minute, this child’s under my jurisdiction, not under the division’s, not under the AG’s.’”
Dating back to 1999, internal DCFS communications obtained from Searle indicate Amann regularly stepped on the division’s toes. Responding to a complaint lodged by one DCFS caseworker, David Carlson, Amann’s boss and then chief of the attorney general’s Child Protection Division, acknowledged others had complained that Amann “acts like it is his way or the highway. …They complain that he is rude and condescending.” But Carlson dismissed the rancor as a problem of “attitude and demeanor … as apposed [sic] to the substance of the disagreements.”
That very substance was at center stage when Amann ordered the removal of another supposed sibling at risk in March 2001, even though DCFS and law enforcement ruled the death of another child in the home an accident. “‘Your legal counsel is telling you to remove, what are you going to say about that?’” Amann was quoted telling the caseworker.
Amann’s casual references to an alleged child abuser as “(MO)Lester” rankled another DCFS employee. And one of Bierly’s caseworkers was “disturbed and angry” when Amann suggested the woman’s personal life was affecting her work. He also riffed on a typo Bierly made in a court pleading: “‘fencing with the same old windmills’ … may bode well for her ‘ruinification’ but it does not bode well for her ‘reunification.’”
Reached for comment during a recent business trip, Amann deferred to the authors of said communications. Generally speaking, he explained via e-mail, the “function of child protection attorneys is to call the legal shots.” But, he added: “Clients don’t always follow their attorney’s advice. I’m sure that Brian Nichols wasn’t following the advice of counsel when, during his [recent Atlanta] rape trial, he shot the judge and court reporter.”
As to Bierly’s claims that he held undue sway over her case, Amann responded: “Please don’t allow yourself to believe that I am the omniscient, all-powerful presence that Lisa portrays me as (or I will bring about your swift and unimaginably devastating demise!!! Ha ha ha ha ha. I’m kidding … C’mon.)”
That brand of humor was lost on DCFS, too.
“I don’t think we would come out in any way and stand up in defense of the AG’s office in what they did in that case,” says Trupp, adding that Amann’s actions amounted to a “seminal event” in Utah’s child-welfare system.
“If you are a prosecutor wanting to prosecute, and punish, and seek retribution, which there’s certainly a place for, then you shouldn’t be in this system,” Trupp says.
After the Bierly case, Amann was reassigned to the attorney general’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. And paramount among systemwide changes since the case is a clear understanding between DCFS and the new Child Protection Division Chief Mark May. Trupp says May has assured DCFS that it can make its own “‘dumbass decisions,’” as long as they fall within the law.
Other changes include an increased focus on in-home preventive services; the need for a warrant before removing children, except in the most extreme circumstances; and changes to how the sibling at risk statute is applied.
Today, Trupp says, “we would not go into that kind of situation having just medical neglect, not linked to the other child, and no nexus between the parent’s behavior and a risk to the other child, and remove that child from the parent’s custody.”
Though Bierly acknowledges pride in helping effect changes to the system, “What does that do for me and my children?” she asks in frustration. While admitting some days are better than others, “every night when I close my eyes the nightmare is real again,” she says.
“Elian Gonzales-style removal at gunpoint”
Logs show Bierly had complied with her service plan after it was finalized in late January until mid-April. After some wrangling with Amann and the guardian ad litem, DCFS returned Katie home in late March.
Michael went into insulin shock earlier that month, 30 minutes after arriving for a supervised visit with Bierly. K.L. and the foster mother pinned the blame on Bierly, but the case files confirm Michael arrived with a dangerously low blood-sugar level. At any rate, records show Hardin readjusted Michael’s regular insulin dosage downward—as Bierly claims she had always lobbied—and began working with DCFS toward Michael’s first trial home placement. Bierly’s court-ordered therapist recommended the same. But hopes of Michael’s homecoming, and the reunion with Katie were short-lived.
Admittedly, the Bierly family had its share of domestic foibles—which were about to catch up with them.
Bierly and Taylor were convicted of shoplifting an $88 CD player days before Christmas 1999. Their explanations, while conceivable, are as easily unbelievable—each thought the other had paid for the device. And earlier that year police cited Bierly for simple assault; there again, an isolated accident, she says. Arguing with Taylor late one night, Bierly explains, she reached around to push him away but bonked him on the nose instead. “We’re not the Bradys,” she concedes. “We’ve made mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we should lose our children for the rest of our lives.”
Past due on a $300 fine and court-ordered diversion classes for the shoplifting conviction, a judge issued a $10,000 bench warrant for Bierly’s arrest in February. Making matters worse, in an unannounced home visit, Bierly’s caseworker spotted her entering the house with Taylor. And that was a problem.
Because of Bierly’s prior simple assault, Johansson had ordered no contact between Taylor and Katie until he came before the court. The order came at Michael’s adjudication hearing, after Katie had been returned home, and didn’t list “the father” by name, which Bierly and Taylor took to mean Michael’s biological father. Once the mandate became clear, though, it was as unfathomable as it was impossible to live by.
“There have never been any allegations against Darryl,” Bierly stresses. “They knew where he lived; why didn’t they send any court papers his way?”
Besides, to keep in step with the service plan, Bierly needed to maintain a stable residence. But between court, DCFS meetings, doctor’s appointments, diabetes training, therapy, visits with her children that needed to be scheduled five days in advance and “kicking against the pricks,” as one official put it, she hadn’t the wherewithal for a job. That left Taylor, and his construction wages, to pay rent on a home that was well beyond their means, but a move to more affordable digs would show instability, Bierly feared. Bierly says a call from the attorney general’s office to her father in Pennsylvania soured that relationship, not to mention a source of income when times were rough—and times were rough.
The facts remained: Bierly was in violation of a court order, and a looming arrest warrant didn’t portend a stable home environment. Court documents show she tried to clear up the warrant with a fine payment on May 4, 2001, but she says the court clerk told her she’d first have to see the judge, who was in regularly scheduled court hearings all day.
Fearing jail, Bierly dodged two critical juvenile court hearings: one on May 10 to consider a trial home placement for Michael, and another four days later to end Katie’s trial home placement.
The only thing to do then was wait. But a heads-up that Johansson ordered Katie back into custody sent Bierly skedaddling across the street to a girlfriend’s house for a nerve-calming gin and tonic. “It was the dumbest thing,” she says. “I knew what was coming down; I just didn’t know my whole family was going to get hurt in the process.”
DCFS called in Midvale police to effect the removal. In an internal e-mail, Amann later dubbed the fiasco “an Elian Gonzales-style removal at gunpoint.”
Through the door, Taylor was taken down and handcuffed. As the sounds of radio chatter and an apparent scuffle neared, Bierly ducked into a bedroom closet with Katie—a rash gesture, “but I just couldn’t lose my daughter again,” she says.
According to a police report, two officers converged on Bierly’s hiding place and, with guns drawn, ordered her out from under a mound of linens. The first officer commanded Bierly to “drop the child,” the report states, to which “I told them ‘No,’” she says. That’s when, according to the report, a second officer “applied a pressure point on her left shoulder and she released the child.”
As Bierly was being handcuffed, down the hall officers mixed it up with brothers Tim and Peter. The officer in charge of Katie released her to join the fray, and as Katie scampered outside after her mother, her brothers were pepper-sprayed, wrestled to the ground and cuffed. Both were charged with resisting arrest—Tim with assault on a police officer and Peter with obstructing justice—and released at the scene.
Bierly can’t help but bemoan her next 48 days in jail as excessive punishment for an $88 retail theft. “It probably cost me my kids,” she says.
All the same, DCFS hadn’t given up. Bierly’s inexperienced caseworker was replaced with a seasoned veteran, “L.H.” DCFS refused to sign on with a petition to terminate Bierly’s parental rights, which the guardian ad litem filed days after her arrest. Although Amann’s name wasn’t on the petition, DCFS knew he wasn’t an ally.
In an internal e-mail to DCFS Salt Lake Valley Regional Director LaRay Brown, L.H. said Amann and the guardian ad litem had “worked together … against the mother from the beginning. I am not stating [Bierly] isn’t hard to work with, she is, but … they DO NOT have the best interest of the children as their priority.”
On the hard-to-work-with score, Bierly’s petulance is scrupulously documented throughout the case files. She canceled appointments, demanded impromptu visits, alleged Michael and Katie were being harmed in state custody, huffed, screamed, cried, failed to return calls, even cherry-picked facts to make herself look better to the system. It’s the same as she ever was, and always will be when it comes to her children.
In her defense, Tim says where the system ran up against an insolent challenger, Bierly taught him the “stubbornness of never backing down, no matter how big you are … if you do me wrong.”
And many agree Bierly was done wrong, but she’s also an undeniable “pain in the ass,” according to her own lawyer. That shouldn’t detract from her undeniable strengths, Tim says, as “a wonderful mother, and a wonderful friend.”
To that end, a one-time prospective adoptive father for Michael and Katie, David Reoch, says that contrary to the horrible picture of a broken home described to him by DCFS, Michael voiced “only fond thoughts of his home life prior to being in DCFS custody.” Michael lived with Reoch for nearly a year, with Katie later joining them for about six months, but the adoptions fell through when Reoch fell ill in mid-2002.
“Nobody knows us,” Peter adds, gravely. “We have so much love for these children, and there was never a time [Michael and Katie] weren’t provided for.”
As far as medical neglect, Tim says, caring for Michael’s diabetes became a way of life the day he was diagnosed at 11 months old. Using an orange to simulate the insulin injections, Tim says Bierly began training the rest of the family in earnest. “‘Now practice!’” he recalls his mother’s command. “And she qualified us all.”
While L.H. stuck with Bierly during and after her jail stint—at one point vowing to reunify the family in spite of Amann, Bierly says—by the September 2001 termination trial, she too had defected into the termination camp.
Even after the trial had gotten under way, however, DCFS Salt Lake Valley Regional Director Brown was dubious. “For me the most disturbing issue is that [Michael and Katie] may lose their mother, not because she cannot parent but she is not in compliance,” she vented in an internal e-mail to the attorney general’s office. “I am not sure this is how the system should work.”
At a last-ditch mediation session in September 2001, DCFS agreed to joint-therapy sessions with Bierly, Katie and Michael, with the goal being reunification. Amann and the guardian ad litem objected, and Johansson torpedoed the plan at a subsequent hearing.
The proceedings to terminate Bierly and Taylor’s parental rights dragged well into 2002, with Johansson rendering a tentative verdict in July, and the final order to terminate following in August.
Bierly filed a complaint against Amann with the Utah State Bar in 2001, which was dismissed two years later. Upon termination of her parental rights, she appealed and was rebuffed by the Utah Court of Appeals and Utah Supreme Court. The Utah Judicial Conduct Commission recently declined to take action against Johansson on a complaint from Bierly.
The Death Penalty
Views on how, why and whether Bierly and Taylor should have lost their children are as disparate as they were throughout the case.
From DCFS, Trupp offers that his view of what was safe and appropriate in the case is “entirely different” from Amann’s view. But the bottom line is there was a service plan, and Johansson found Bierly hadn’t satisfied it. Unfortunately, he says, “In the juvenile court system, you can come in on a misdemeanor, essentially, and wind up with the death penalty.”
The system’s undefined standard for what a fit parent looks like, Trupp continues, makes it particularly difficult for those like Bierly—poor, disorganized, stubborn—to achieve an idealized standard.
Though there’s nothing more DCFS can do, given that Katie and Michael have been adopted, “I don’t see Lisa ever giving up and, frankly, I would never stop either,” says Trupp.
Amann isn’t nearly as sentimental as Trupp, or at all receptive to Bierly’s self-ascribed role as victim. “Lisa is like a siren,” he reflected. “She’s like the siren that cried ‘wolf,’ if I may mix metaphors. She’s very forceful. She works hard to make her voice heard, and the story she presents is compelling. Unfortunately for her, it’s not factual.
“I don’t hold any animosity for Lisa. What I have for her is pity. She had God’s greatest gift and she lost it.”
In her own analysis, Bierly was the unwitting participant, and her family the unfortunate victims of a clash of wills. “There was a power struggle here,” she insists. “The AG didn’t care what DCFS wanted, the [guardian ad litem] was doing whatever the AG said, the doctor wanted my child, and then you have the judge who didn’t give a s—t about anything.”
Would she have done anything differently? Absolutely. But she can’t think what. “I was so busy jumping through so many hoops I didn’t know whether I was coming or going,” Bierly says. “Everybody was telling me I would get my kids back, and then before I know it, I’m at a termination trial fighting for my life.
“But if my case is an example of what was wrong with the system, and it obviously was because they’ve gone and changed all the applicable laws, then why shouldn’t they right the wrong?”
That’s exactly what Bierly hopes will come of a tentatively scheduled sit-down with DCFS, the attorney general’s office and a representative of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s office. But unless the outcome includes reunification with her children, Bierly vows, “I’m going to be fighting this thing until the day I die.”
Source: Salt Lake City Weekly
recovered from internet archive