They came on a sweltering August evening in 2015, to Marion Phillips’ first-floor apartment in Bradenton, past the sanitation department, the juvenile detention center, Ramirez Auto, and a soup kitchen named Our Daily Bread. Four cops and an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families.
They were there to look at Abby’s leg.
Someone, maybe a teacher, had noticed it earlier that day: A multicolored bruise stretching across the back of the 6-year-old’s left thigh. Pablo Torres, Marion’s boyfriend, admitted he had spanked Abby with a belt while Marion was at work.
“You should never have done that,” Marion told him. “You should have taken her by the hand, sat her little butt down and I would have left work.”
The investigator ordered Marion, eight months pregnant, to pee in a cup with the bathroom door open. Then he told the three girls, wailing, that he needed to take them for a few hours.
“It’s going to be OK, baby girls,” Marion whispered.
They disappeared into the car.
In the world of child welfare, some cases are clear-cut, with details that turn stomachs: gashes from whippings, babies shaken to death, horrific sexual abuse.
But far more common are the neglect cases, which make up the vast majority of child welfare investigations in Florida: The family living out of a van. The mother shaking an addiction to pills. The dad who spanks with a belt.
Marion’s was one of those cases. “Very workable and fixable,” said Brooke Robertson, then a supervisor at the local Guardian ad Litem office, a volunteer-based organization that looks out for the best interests of kids in the child welfare system.
Yet five years later, Marion is still fighting for custody of her children. USA TODAY followed the case for two years as part of an investigation into how Florida’s child welfare system struggles to help mothers escape cycles of trauma and domestic violence, and often reaches instead for the most extreme solution — taking children away from women who have never been accused of abusing them.
As she prepared to go to court the next day, Marion smoothed her hair into a ponytail and braided it tight, all the way down. Then she prayed: for luck, for mercy, for understanding.
“Some people have the most beautiful pasts and nothing ever happened to them,” Marion explained. “Some people have somewhat good pasts but also bad mixed in.
“Mine, the only thing good, was – is – my children.”
Marion had no criminal record to speak of. But the Department of Children and Families had been in her life plenty.
Over the years, the state’s concerns revolved around her longtime partner Jim Cullen’s drug problems and violent behavior, case records show. In 2006, the state took temporary custody of the couple’s four oldest children after Jim tested positive for drugs. In 2012, Jim’s parents adopted the kids after accusing Jim and Marion of abandoning them, according to court records – a bitter custody battle that permanently soured their relationship.
Shortly afterward, Marion left Jim, rented a two-bedroom apartment in Bradenton and took a steady job at Family Dollar for $10 an hour. She also found Pablo. The landlord thought him “a good man.” The neighbors called him the “best thing that ever happened to her.”
Still, the Safe Children Coalition, the nonprofit contracted with DCF to oversee child welfare in the region, told Marion to get rid of him. In addition, they gave her a hefty but cookie-cutter case plan: complete a 26-week parenting course, attend domestic violence counseling and undergo a mental health evaluation.
Her girls — ages 4, 6 and 7 — were put in a group home run by the Salvation Army. Her infant son was sent to a foster home.
Marion bought a binder and a three-hole punch. She switched to the early-morning shift so she could be off by the time the kids were done with school. On a notepad decorated with ornaments and snowflakes, she carefully jotted down appointments, addresses and reminders:
When will mental health for children start?
Support payments from fathers?
And at the bottom: Food stamps??
“Marion started out as a doormat,” Robertson said. “Not having her own opinions, doesn’t really give eye contact, very submissive.”
In January 2016, to glowing reviews, a judge gave the girls back to Marion.
But the reunion would be short-lived. Weeks later, the girls told caseworkers they had visited Pablo at his house. Marion’s new caseworker, a recent college graduate with less than a year on the job, suspected Marion had rekindled her relationship with him, which Marion denies to this day.
Child welfare workers took the girls back. This time, the caseworker tacked on new requirements: more domestic violence counseling and a new psychological evaluation.
Robertson, the guardian ad litem supervisor, was puzzled by the coalition’s harsh reaction. Case plans can be complex, and it was common for single moms to return to boyfriends or husbands for help with child care, transportation or emotional support.
“This is a normal part of our work,” Robertson said. “We try to offer realistic help.”
Robertson also worried because child welfare work could be highly subjective. Marion was severely introverted, and she had struggled to connect with her caseworker.
In November 2016, Marion arrived at the psychologist’s office a full hour early for her mental health evaluation. Feeling suddenly claustrophobic in the windowless room, she sped through his questions.
In his report, the psychologist noted that Marion’s affect “remained unchanged” when discussing traumatic events. In his opinion, Marion, “perhaps because of her own history of abuse and neglect, does not register the levels of fear or aversion that might guide her to more actively insulate herself and her children from perpetrators of abuse.”
He deemed the “prognosis” poor.
When it became apparent in late 2017 that Marion was pregnant again, with her ninth child, the coalition was furious that she hid it from them, said people familiar with the case. At court, Marion’s caseworker and coalition lawyers confronted her.
“Just bullying her,” said Kristine Greene, a parenting coach who supported Marion. “Right outside of court.”
They took Marion’s baby, a girl named Maryah weighing just over 4 pounds, two weeks after she was born.
Like many women ensnared in the child welfare system, Marion was not accused of injuring her kids. Instead, DCF accused her of something called “failure to protect.”
For years, progressive voices in domestic violence and child welfare have criticized agencies for using the charge “failure to protect” to take children away from their mothers. Critics say it revictimizes women and it is preferable for agencies to work together with mothers on holding batterers accountable.
Many states have followed suit. Not Florida.
In March 2017, caseworkers placed Marion’s infant daughter Maryah with Judi Lee, a longtime Sarasota foster parent and former adoption consultant.
During Lee’s long history working with the Safe Children Coalition, she clashed with birth families several times, including one case in 2013 that presented such “extreme difficulties” that the coalition temporarily recommended barring Lee from fostering babies, according to her foster parent file.
Licensing records show Lee soon began raising concerns about Marion, sending packets of information to coalition caseworkers about the criminal histories of Marion’s associates and reporting that Marion’s car did not appear to have enough room for the kids’ car seats.
Marion’s caseworker’s reports, once complimentary of her parenting, took a turn.
In one report, the caseworker said Marion did not appear to be emotionally attached to Maryah because the newborn was in the hospital for 10 days but Marion visited only “a few times and called twice.” In another, the caseworker said she was concerned Marion always brought coloring books and dolls when visiting the girls.
“Would like to see a visit in which the mother does not provide gifts,” the caseworker wrote.
The coalition also tightened the reins on Marion, ordering that only people who had been background-checked and approved could be around the kids. Even though Marion worked overnight, the coalition approved just two women as babysitters. If both were unavailable, Marion was out of luck.
The rules were so strict that when Marion asked the coalition for permission for her landlord’s handyman to fix her kitchen sink, the coalition said no, stating in an email that only a judge could grant that permission. They recommended she wash her dishes in the bathroom.
Then the police began to show up.
The first time was in February 2018, when an anonymous tipster reported that Marion’s baby was “exhausted and dehydrated” and that Marion was driving with all five kids in one car. Police records show investigators closed the case after speaking with the girls who “appeared to be in good spirits and felt safe at home” with plenty of food and water.
Over the next three months, Bradenton police responded to calls for welfare checks on Marion’s apartment at least five more times, according to police records. The checks became so frequent that a dispatch officer in May 2018 asked the coalition whether Marion was being harassed.
“This is, in the last week, at least the third time that you guys called us to go out there,” he said, in the recorded call. “I’m just trying to figure out if there’s somebody making up false accusations calling in anonymous tips that are bogus and not panning out.”
Days later, Marion was pulled over by sheriff’s deputies who said they received a tip she had drugs in her car, according to Marion. Finding nothing, they fined her $250 for having two children strapped into one seat belt, records show.
Two days after that, Marion said she spotted Lee, the foster mother, parked outside her apartment. She chased the car two blocks south and snapped a photo of the license plate.
In an interview several months later, Lee, who declined to name Marion but spoke broadly about her case, admitted she was driving the car but claimed it was a coincidence that she was so close to Marion’s apartment. Lee also denied calling the authorities on her.
“The mom is a product of her environment,” Lee said. “This mom hasn’t told the truth since she was three, probably.”
Now nearly three years into her case, Marion brought her concerns about being harassed to the coalition. But the coalition was more focused on the information the police calls turned up.
In one welfare check, police found an unnamed male babysitter at the house, records show. The coalition suspected it was an old friend of Marion’s named Earl Drymon, whose criminal history includes a 1997 conviction for manslaughter. They also suspected a relationship, which Marion denied.
“With Earl, his record, it sucks. It really does suck. … But he was my friend before state involvement,” Marion said.
In May 2018, the day before a crucial hearing in the case, the coalition met the girls at their school to question them about Drymon. According to the coalition, 10-year-old Ariana said Drymon had spanked her with a belt, but recanted when investigators arrived. No marks were found on the girl.
Still, child protective investigators took Marion’s kids for the third time.
At a hearing the next day, Greene and Robertson rallied around Marion, arguing that she was being subjected to an unprecedented amount of scrutiny.
“I was going whenever I wanted to,” Robertson said. “Case management dropped by, the supervisor dropped by, the therapist dropped by. This mother was getting eyes in her home about nine times a month.”
But both said their supervisors became worried about publicly disagreeing with the coalition.
“(My supervisors) would start saying, ‘It will be hard for you to get a job if you keep sticking up for these parents,’” Greene said. “I said that’s OK, because I can get another job but these parents can’t get another child.”