A tragic end

Our view: In custody disputes, protect children first

April 03, 2008

The laws in Maryland could have better protected Amy Castillo's three small children. But the judges in this nasty custody dispute had the final say over her estranged husband's right to visit them, and they misjudged his potential to harm his daughter and two sons.

When Mark Castillo didn't return his children, ages 2, 4 and 6, to their Silver Spring home Saturday, their mother frantically tried to convince Montgomery County police that something was amiss. But he had already drowned them in a bathtub in a Baltimore hotel, police said.

No judge could have predicted Mr. Castillo's desperate act of defiance against his wife, but his diagnosed mental disorders and previous suicide attempts should have been a signal to proceed with utmost caution. Was supervised visitation, even for a limited period of time, even considered?

Mrs. Castillo, a pediatrician, had tried to end her husband's visitation rights in June 2007 and, earlier that year, sought a restraining order to keep her husband away from the kids. But in the latter case, the law required her to show "clear and convincing" evidence of abuse or harm to the children. Mr. Castillo's alleged threat to kill the children to punish her, as Mrs. Castillo recounted to a judge in 2007, wasn't enough. It was her word against his - as is often the case in these disputes.

Findings by two mental health professionals that Mr. Castillo posed no threat or little risk to his children also complicated the picture. But Circuit Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. found the Castillos' relationship so disturbing that he told the couple he had "substantial difficulty" believing either spouse. That should have prompted him to order supervised visitation. It would have offered the children some protection.

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