7 Minutes That Set a Child’s Course for Tragedy
Hearing that gave a Hardwick boy to father who allegedly beat and starved him was terse, incurious, disastrous
It took seven minutes of rustling papers and perfunctory questions uttered in rapid-fire monotone, and the deal was done. A Worcester probate judge had transferred custody of a young boy from the grandmother who had raised him almost since birth to the father whom he barely knew. A year later, the father would be charged with nearly killing the boy by beating him and refusing him food and water.
Even though family members now say that the father had a history of violence and mental illness, and though he had only recently acknowledged that he was the father, Judge Lucille A. DiLeo never questioned Randall Lints's fitness to raise his son.
And no party to the case suggested she should.
"OK, I think we have everything," DiLeo said in a matter-of-fact voice, after reading aloud the main points of the custody papers, and ensuring that they had been signed by the father, mother, and grandmother standing before her. "Thank you, everybody."
Legal experts say such quick approval is typical in cases like this one. There was no dispute over the father's petition for custody, because the family members had signed it before the brief hearing on June 30, 2014, a recording of which was obtained by the Globe. The judge simply ratified the family consensus. There was no one in court to speak specifically for the child.
The tragic fallout from the custody ruling has raised questions about whether probate courts can do more to protect the children whose lives their decisions most deeply affect.
"We must reform our probate and family courts so that, in every case, the interests of children outweigh the desires and preferences of adults," said Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge who heads the state Office of the Child Advocate. "Children in our courts need experienced professionals who will listen to them and help identify their genuine needs, skilled advocates for their interests, and decision-makers who will make the welfare of the children before them their highest priority."
Other legal specialists, even as they acknowledge the horrors allegedly inflicted by Lints, recoil at the notion that judges should intervene in cases in which an entire family is in agreement about who should gain custody.
"The idea that the state gets to tell you whether you have it together enough to bring up your child is really a little bit scary," said Mary E. O'Connell, a professor of child and family law at Northeastern University School of Law.
Indeed, in a custody case that is not disputed, the judge must presume that the adults have the child's best interests at heart, said Edward M. Ginsburg, a retired probate court judge who served 25 years in Middlesex County.
"In this case, there is nothing that the judge should have done that she didn't do: They're all standing there, they all agree, they all signed off on it, and that's it," Ginsburg said. "In that context, it's an administrative function."
The 7-year-old boy has been in a coma since July 14, when paramedics carried him from Lints's home in Hardwick with bruises across his body and burns on his feet.
He weighed just 38 pounds, having lost 12 to 15 pounds in recent weeks. Authorities say Lints had kept his son in his bedroom and starved and dehydrated him to stop him from urinating on the floor.
The case has focused intense scrutiny on the state Department of Children and Families, which had been monitoring the boy since February when it received back-to-back complaints that Lints was neglecting the child.
Officials have acknowledged that a state social worker visited the home just two weeks before the boy fell into a coma and his father called 911.
A year earlier, DiLeo had made what would turn out to be the fateful decision to transfer custody of the boy. In court, she ticked off the nuts and bolts of the deal: The maternal grandmother, who had been the boy's legal guardian since 2008, would hand custody to Lints, 26.
Reading from the agreement, she confirmed his promise to enroll the boy in counseling and add him to his Medicaid plan. She affirmed the visitation rights of the boy's mother, Amber Loiselle, who had been estranged from her son for two years.
No one present raised any objections that might have prompted DiLeo to question the arrangement. The judge sealed the deal with a series of questions to each family member.
"Did you sign here? Did you review it with your lawyer before you signed it? Understood it? Signed it freely and voluntarily?" And, finally, "Thank you."
DiLeo could have appointed an attorney for the child or an independent advocate, called a guardian ad litem, to assess whether placing him with the father was in the boy's best interests, said Sanford N. Katz, a professor emeritus at Boston College Law School and a specialist in family law.
"The focus of the case has to be on the child, not on the parents or anybody else," Katz said. "Even though all the parties may agree the father is the one, an independent look at this might say no."
DiLeo did not respond to several messages.
Still, it would have been highly unusual for her to intervene when there was no dispute over custody, said Robin M. Deutsch, the director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College in Newton.
"If people don't bring forward a concern, it's really not up to the court to go on a fishing expedition," Deutsch said. "It would be very inappropriate to say, 'Wait a moment. Let's get an evaluation.' Instead, you say, 'How great that they agreed;how wonderful.' "
If DiLeo had scrutinized the case, she might have discovered cause for concern.
In 2007, when Lints was first told that he was going to be a father, "He would call me and threaten to cut [the baby] out of my stomach," Amber Loiselle told the Globe last month.
A year later, a judge in Fitchburg granted Loiselle a restraining order against Lints after he allegedly shoved her to the ground. Lints was not listed on the boy's birth certificate, and the boy was told that his father was dead, according to relatives.
Lints only became involved in his son's life in 2013, after he was sued by the state to provide child support and was ordered to take a paternity test, court records show.
Lints's mother, Tina LaValley, said she warned her son, who has bipolar disorder and borderline schizophrenia, not to seek custody of the boy.
"I says, 'You don't want to put yourself in that situation,' " LaValley told NECN. "[He said], 'I don't want nobody calling me a deadbeat dad. I'm not going to be a deadbeat dad. That is my son. I'm going to raise my son.' "