Mother struggles for custody


By Steve Mayo 
Montgomery Advertiser

No child custody case is ever simple. That's an understatement for the case 26-year-old Barbara Montgomery faces.

The Montgomery County Department of Human Resources took Montgomery's daughter and placed Baillie with a foster family almost two years ago.

  Today, Baillie celebrates her third birthday as a foster child, the same way her mother did.

"I hear stories all the time where mothers are drug addicts and get their children back," Montgomery said. "I have a steady job. I don't drink and I don't do drugs. I've gone through the parenting classes. But I can't get my child back."

For Montgomery, a single-mother, perhaps too many hospital visits for her daughter and a department of human resources record led to a letter from the department that characterized Montgomery as an unfit mother. 

Montgomery County Department of Human Resources officials couldn't comment on the case specifically because of department policy. However, in a letter dated July 30, 1999, they said: 

"...Said child is in immediate or threatened danger of physical and emotional harm... The department of human resources has made reasonable efforts to prevent removal and that continuance in the home of the parent, guardian, or custodian is contrary to the welfare of the child. In the foregoing, said child is in need of care."

That letter was based on a report the department received from the Children's Hospital in Birmingham, which stated Baillie had been hospitalized six times since May 1999 and undergone four surgical procedures. 

It was then the condition known as Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy attached itself to Montgomery's medical record. Montgomery said doctors never confirmed the condition but the allegation was enough to raise concern about the child's welfare.

The allegation, Montgomery says, along with being a single-mother and her history as a sexually abused foster child created enough of a profile for the department to make a case and take her daughter. 

"I feel like a target for them," she said. "I feel like it's guilty 'til proven innocent and you get no help to prove your innocence."

Dr. Marc D. Feldman, a Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy expert in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System, couldn't comment because he is involved with the case.

Feldman's office referred questions about Munchausen to Louisa Lasher, who worked in Georgia's social service agency and has worked in hundreds of Munchausen cases. 

She explained Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy as the behavior in which a parent deliberately exaggerates, fabricates or induces a problem with children or even adults for some kind of internal need. 

"Because it's so different from other child abuse and neglect, mistakes can be made either way," Lasher said. "You just can't look at medical records."

Montgomery said the hospital visits were for a bruise to Baillie's right thigh that doctors were never able to determine the cause of. "So they said I suffered from Munchausen," she said.

According to medical records, which Montgomery provided to the Advertiser, Children's Hospital doctors discussed the case and asked for Feldman's help.

The discussion included Baillie's improved condition after being admitted to the hospital and worsening after discharge, medical records show. Also the inability to explain the bruise and Montgomery's department of human resources records, which profiles a 1-year-old girl, orphaned after her mother died, years later sexually abused and placed in foster care until she was old enough for a group home, also helped the team of come to the conclusion that the case should be referred to the department of human services.

Dr. Sesi Ogunbi, Baillie's doctor since birth, was also asked her opinion. "Based on the visits I've had I did not suspect any abuse," Ogunbi said. "I'm no expert on Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, but if it's suspected then doctors refer the case to and expert. Obviously, I never suspected it."

Ogunbi said she did refer the mother and child to the hospital in Birmingham because she was unable to determine the cause of the bruise.

While the case remains tangled in department of human resources hearings and court proceedings, Baillie lives in a foster home. 

Montgomery grew up in about a half dozen foster homes and remembers the living as a second-class citizen to the biological children of the foster family she lived with. 

"Some of the things I've been caught up in just hurt me," Montgomery said. "No seconds," was the rule at the dinner table for Montgomery. "I can remember having to stay in a room while the others watched television. I couldn't use the phone to call my relatives." 

Montgomery said she knows a young boy who is in foster care who has to wait until the foster family comes home before he can go into the house. "They don't give him a key so if he gets home from school before they do he has to wait on the porch 'til they get home."

But it was at Alabama's oldest nursing home in Mobile that Montgomery said she learned that people do care. In fact, she still lives with the same foster mother she moved in with when she left St. Mary's in Mobile. 

Over the 18 month battle, Montgomery has lost and regained visitation with her daughter. Now she spends less than four hours a week with her daughter during her supervised visits. 

Between working at the Wal-Mart and visiting Baillie, Montgomery spends her time telling anyone who will listen her story the governor's office, the state welfare commission, the Montgomery County Department of Human Resources, attorneys, family advocate groups and even the Montel Williams Show. 

But another year has passed and Baillie remains in foster care, just as Barbara lived practically all of her childhood.

Montgomery says she's not asking for a nanosecond of sympathy. Instead, what she's looking for is the way to get her child back.

 

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Steve Mayo, a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, can be reached at 240-0112 or fax at 261-1521.

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