Mother gives all to keep daughter from father's abuse Woman dies after forgoing treatment for breast cancer to protect child

August 09, 1993|By Holly Selby and Carol L. Bowers | Holly Selby and Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writers

A mother who gave up her home, her career and her identity to protect her youngest child, in the end also gave up her life.

The woman -- who left Harford County and spent almost a year as a fugitive to prevent her ex-husband, convicted of sexual child abuse, from having overnight visits with their daughter -- died in California last week of breast cancer.

Six months before, the 43-year-old, known only as Mary, won sole custody of the 7-year-old she had sought to protect. The family's last name is being withheld to protect the child's identity.

From August 1991 to May 1992, with help from an underground network stretching from Maryland to Georgia, Mary hid her daughter from police, social workers and her ex-husband.

As word of her plight spread, Mary became a symbol to parents involved in similar custody and abuse cases.

Some supporters donated food, money and housing. Others, including members of the Alliance for the Rights of Children, testified in court on the mother's behalf.

For much of the time she spent in hiding, Mary kept her cancer a secret -- afraid that by seeking treatment, she would jeopardize her daughter's safety.

"She thought she had no recourse. She gave up everything for her daughter, and indeed she has come to sacrifice her life," said Barbara Norris, a social worker in Lexington, Ky., who worked with Mary.

The legal battle began in 1986 when Mary, then living in Bel Air, Md., was six months pregnant. As Mary, a mental health counselor, was leaving on a business trip, her older daughter from her first marriage passed her a note.

"I decided to read it on the plane. I thought it was probably a note that said, 'I love you and I'll miss you,' " Mary said in a 1992 interview.

Instead, the note contained these words: "He molested me."

Mary confirmed the "he" in the note was her husband, and she immediately sought a divorce.

Less than a year later, in 1987, Mary's estranged husband was placed on probation for fondling his then 11-year-old stepdaughter, according to Harford County Circuit Court documents. The couple's divorce was complete in August 1990, and the file for the case was sealed as the battle over visitation with the youngest child escalated.

Meanwhile, the youngest child, then 4 years old, told a baby sitter her father was molesting her during unsupervised daytime visits. Mary began fighting to prevent unsupervised overnight visits between father and daughter.

But in August 1992, Harford Circuit Judge Cypert O. Whitfill, who had convicted the father of child sexual abuse and placed him on probation, agreed to allow the man unsupervised overnight visits with the child.

Mary appealed the ruling, took her daughter and fled to her native state, Kentucky. Over the next few months, she lived in fear of discovery, moving often, keeping the child close, and calling friends only occasionally because she dared not leave a phone number.

In desperation, she contacted The Sun and the Lexington Herald-Leader in the spring of 1992 to tell her story. Within weeks of those newspaper articles, Judge Whitfill transferred the case to another judge, setting in motion a series of unusual legal maneuvers.

In May 1992, Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr., also of the Harford Circuit Court, awarded full custody of the girl to her father, claiming Mary had "a serious psychiatric problem." The judge did not describe the problem, but in mid-May delayed the transfer of custody.

At that point, Kentucky officials intervened, offering to allow Mary to turn herself and the child in to them, while they determined which parent should have custody.

Mary turned the child over to the Kentucky social services department. The child originally stayed in a foster home, but was eventually allowed to live with her mother pending a decision on custody.

In November 1992 the Maryland Court of Special Appeals set a precedent, ruling that Mary was justified in shielding her child from the over-night visits, based on "reasonable belief" that the child might be in danger for abuse. In February 1993, Kentucky courts awarded Mary sole custody of the girl.

Mary, described by those who knew her as a strong, resourceful woman, learned as early as November 1991 that she had breast cancer. But, still in hiding and without medical insurance or identification, she didn't seek treatment.

"She believed her child fully [that her father had molested her]," said Ms. Norris. "Therefore there was nothing she wasn't willing to do."

Even after receiving custody of her daughter in February, Mary didn't trust the social services system -- and still refrained from obtaining medical care. Finally, Mary confided in Ms. Norris, who said she told the mother that "my evaluation of her ability to be a parent had to do with her nurturing and not whether she had cancer."

But by early spring, when Mary began receiving chemotherapy treatments, it was too late.

The little girl is now living in central Kentucky with her 22-year-old half-sister, who has been granted temporary custody. The sister, one of Mary's two daughters from her first marriage, is seeking permanent custody.

Until the end, Mary apparently remained confident that she was the best person to care for her youngest daughter, said Sandra Downs, a Kentucky lawyer representing the 22-year-old. So far, no will designating a guardian for the youngest child has been found.

"Mary had been ill for quite some time, but at the same time truly believed in her heart she would be the one to raise her daughter."

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