Judge decides to remove children from parents in unexpected turn at hearing
One of the 5-year-old twins ordered removed from their parents by Fayette County Judge Kathy Stein was subsequently sexually abused by her foster father, according to grand jury indictments of him.
The girl, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was sodomized multiple times roughly two months after she was removed from her mother and father in February 2015, according to court and child protection records.
Stein, a Family Court judge, was ultimately suspended twice in about six months by the state’s Judicial Conduct Commission and was ordered to undergo more training because of the twins’ case and two others.
Before she was suspended, Stein sustained a child protective services’ finding that the twins were at risk for abuse by their father because of “substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse of the children’s older half-sister and used that decision — more than a year after the twins were put in foster care — to justify keeping the youngsters from their biological parents. The twins’ father was never charged by police.
The original allegation of sexual abuse against the twins’ father came from the foster family. The foster father would later be charged by police with sexually abusing one of the twins. He and his wife also were fostering the half-sister at the time.
The rationale for separating the twins from their biological parents was challenged Friday when the the younsters’ half-sister claimed that the sexual abuse allegation against the twins’ father was a misunderstanding. When she had told her foster parents about the abuse, she was talking about her biological father but they thought she was talking about the twins’ father, the half-sister said in a phone call with the Herald-Leader. When she told the foster parents about the mistake, she said, they told her to leave it alone because she “could go to jail if I changed it.”
The Herald-Leader has withheld the twins’ parents’ and half-sister’s names because it would identify the twin who was victimized.
Stein’s denial of due process in the twins’ case and two others made her the first judge in Kentucky’s history to be suspended twice within a single year, according to documents provided to the Herald-Leader by the judicial oversight commission. The last time a Kentucky judge was suspended for a second time was in 1985, when the punishments were separated by three years.
In the two other cases, Stein granted emergency joint custody to a father who had not had unsupervised visitation with his daughter in more than seven years and granted custody of a woman’s daughter to the mother’s sister.
The twins’ ordeal was detailed in hundreds of court, police and Cabinet for Health and Family Services documents provided to the Herald-Leader. The documents reveal confounding family court and child protection systems often shielded from view in confidential cases.
The twins’ parents were in Stein’s courtroom on Feb. 16, 2015, over the cabinet’s January claim that they had neglected the twins and allowed them to witness domestic violence. A report from the cabinet stated that their son had seen his father “punching, shoving, and spitting” on his mother.
The cabinet received a report that the son “was repeating ‘Don’t tell my daddy, don’t tell my daddy, daddy smacked me, daddy smacked mommy,’ and this child had speech delays,” the cabinet wrote in its initial summary.
The summary also alluded to an incident of domestic violence that the father committed against the mother in 2013. He was ordered to stay away from the mother for a year starting on July 25, 2013. The father completed counseling for domestic violence with Advanced Solutions of Central Kentucky, according to a letter from the organization.
In court Feb. 16, 2015, the attorney for the twins’ father, Pam Ledgewood, acknowledged that she hadn’t gone over with her client “in any detail, all the allegations.” Nevertheless, she advised him to agree with the cabinet’s neglect claims and custody recommendations. Ledgewood also told the father that if the allegations weren’t true, he wouldn’t have been in court that day, according to court video of the proceedings.
The cabinet requested that the mother receive temporary custody of the children and that the father have only supervised contact with his twins. The parents then left the courtroom. Once the parents were out of the courtroom, Ledgewood requested a meeting with Stein and the other lawyers at the bench. Their conversation was about two minutes long and appeared to indicate that the judge and attorneys thought the twins’ mother was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of the father, according to the court video.
“It’s a very classic case, I think. He has her all wrapped,” Stein said of the father.
“That man does not present to me as someone who could coerce me, you know, to do anything,” Ledgewood said. “I’m from a more privileged, educated background.”
“If you looked at her expression today ... she looks terrified,” Stein said.
The father and mother were brought back into the courtroom and were told that the “guardian ad litem,” a lawyer appointed by the court to represent the twins, requested that the children be removed from the parents and given to the cabinet temporarily. Without a second detailed hearing with input from the parents, Stein granted the request. It was this decision that contributed to Stein’s eventual suspension.
Stein also prohibited the parents from seeing the twins under any circumstance.
In March 2015, the twins were moved to the foster home of Jeremy and Jennifer Cecil in Winchester. A teenage daughter of the twins’ mother from a previous marriage also was moved to their home, which was affiliated with Benchmark Family Services, a private foster care company. Benchmark is paid by the cabinet to find foster families.
“This was the worst part of my life,” the twins’ father told the Herald-Leader. “I lost my mother, I lost my siblings when I was in foster care. This was the most devastating moment of my life that will forever be frozen.”
On March 4, 2015, weeks after his kids were removed from his care, the twins’ father received a letter from cabinet investigator Caroline Nichols stating, “Based upon the information received through the investigation of this report, the (abuse and neglect) allegations have been found to be unsubstantiated.”
Sometime in April 2015, two separate allegations of sexual misconduct involving the female twin and the teen daughter were reported. It is unclear which report came first. The Cecils told Benchmark that the twins’ father had repeatedly touched the mother’s teenage daughter inappropriately from when she was 9 years old to when she was 15. That claim was eventually passed along to the cabinet.
The half-sister would stick by the lie through all interviews with the cabinet, she told the Herald-Leader on Friday over the phone. She also said the twins’ father did not abuse her sexually.
The other claim made in April 2015 was by the female twin during a visit to the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Jennifer Cecil said. The girl’s statement was referred to the Winchester Police Department, which said that Jeremy Cecil committed “sodomy on a 5-year-old and sexually abused the 5-year-old several times using his hands upon the child’s vagina” on or about May 1, 2015, according to police records.
The twins would remain with the Cecils through at least May 25, 2015, Jennifer Cecil said. Jeremy Cecil, who didn’t have a police record, was arrested Oct. 22, 2015, and is being held at the Clark County jail, awaiting trial. He pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree sodomy and first-degree sexual abuse.
In June 2015, the twins were moved to another foster family, Jeremy Cecil said in a phone conversation from jail.
Jennifer Cecil claimed that she remains a foster parent with Benchmark but was told that the company wouldn’t place any children with them until Jeremy’s legal troubles were resolved.
“I don’t know when he could have done it if he did. I don’t think that he did it,” Jennifer Cecil said regarding the charges against her husband. “I didn’t even let Jeremy take them to the store. They would go with me.”
In May 2015, the twins’ father and his lawyer met with Lexington police detective James Jeffries, who investigated whether the sexual misconduct claim against the dad warranted criminal charges, according to a document from the cabinet. The father denied all allegations. Jeffries put his criminal investigation on hold for lack of sufficient evidence. The twins’ father has never been charged with a sexual crime.
“To have the molester who molested my daughter accuse me, I have felt evil for the first time in my life,” the twins’ father told the Herald-Leader. “I knew the story was bogus. I knew it didn’t happen. I knew that this was a major cover-up by the cabinet, attorneys and judge. I want this judge to resign immediately.”
Nevertheless, a year later, on May 24, 2016, “Stein found a risk of sexual abuse against (the father) in regards to his children,” the cabinet stated in a document. “A finding was not made on (the mother).” Stein’s decision was based on the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act hearing results against the parents.
“The cabinet feels that the (needs of the children) are best met in their ... placements,” the cabinet stated. “The cabinet continues to have concerns regarding the mother’s ability to demonstrate parenting skills and protective capacity after participating in class and therapy to address the concerns. It is recommended that the parents continue working with the cabinet to regain custody of the children.”
On Aug. 1, 2016, the cabinet recommended that both twins should be adopted.
The mother has seen the twins about once a month, but the twins’ father has not seen his children in more than two years. During that time, he has contacted the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office and the FBI, to no avail. The father also filed the complaint with the Judicial Conduct Commission that led to Stein’s second suspension.
The Herald-Leader contacted the mother’s attorney, Abe Mashni, and the father’s attorney, Ledgewood. Both declined to comment. The twins’ mother also declined to comment. Stein, through her lawyer, James Deckard, and the cabinet did not return multiple requests for comment.
Stein removed herself from the twins’ case on March 2, according to a court document. Her reason was that “a respondent has filed a pleading that has disqualified me from any further rulings in these cases.”
Less than two weeks later, Stein learned of her suspension. The 30-day period started March 20. The punishment also covered the case of Rai-Tonicia King, who sought custody of Joian Adams’ daughter. Adams appeared in Stein’s court without an attorney on May 20. King and her attorney admitted that another evidentiary hearing was needed in the case. However, Stein “proceeded to grant permanent sole custody of the child” to King, according to the order.
Stein’s first suspension was from Sept. 28 through Oct. 4. In that case, Stein granted emergency joint custody to Charles Schindler in December 2015 without Schindler’s wife or her lawyer being present in court.
Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso