The Handler case and how it could affect other families if action is not taken

The actions of DHHS caseworkers and the courts cost a loving family their son

September 22nd, 2011 · Filed under: Civil Rights, Community Maine · 2 Comments

Dr. Ellie Handler, with her son David, at home in Northport, Maine.

Imagine if your child was taken away from you and then secretly sent out of state. A child that you had raised, loved and cherished more than life itself. Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. Living this tragedy has been a day-in and day-out torment for the Handlers. When it happened to Ellie and Russell, they attempted to legally locate their son, David, but they soon found themselves frustrated inside a legal maze where the State systematically closed off all avenues out of the labyrinth. Over and over again, their hopes were crushed. First and foremost they wanted to know if their child was safe, cared for, and loved.

The United States Constitution tells us that a mother’s and father’s right to parent their child is a fundamental constitutional right, but it’s our heart that communicates the real love and bonding that is the basis of any parent-child relationship that the law itself can never sever.

While the Handlers are united in their hearts, they long to know that David is safe and secure. They need your help.
How the Handlers lost their parental rights to David when he was just seven is a story that needs to be told. Their civil rights and procedural rights were violated. The Americans with Disabilities Act was tossed aside.

The Handlers lived in Northport where Ellie had her own OBGNY practice, and Russell was a banker at MBNA. Unable to conceive, after an extensive background check, they adopted a three-month-old baby, David. Their new son immediately became the light in their lives.

When David was still an infant, Russell was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer; his chances of survival were slim, but his positive attitude and his family life helped to pull him through.

As David was growing up, the couple took him everywhere and taught him sailing, horseback riding, music, and art, as well as practical everyday responsibilities. Anyone who knew the Handlers saw the love they displayed for him.
Then Ellie was a diagnosed with cancer; at the same time she was in the throes of a mental condition. She had begun to remember events in her traumatized childhood. Horrifying memories of being repeatedly raped and molested by her grandfather. Just a month before she was declared cancer free, Ellie, overmedicated from cancer and mental-illness drugs, was found in a dumpster without any clothes. The Waldo County Sheriff’s Office responded. She was delusional. She told them Russell was abusive, so the Office of Child and Family Services of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) took action.

David Handler enjoying a day on a boat with his family before Maine’s DHHS took him into custody.

It’s important to note that at this time the priorities of DHHS were overturned. In 2004 sweeping changes were being made to child protection services as a result of the death of Logan Marr. Logan was suffocated to death with duct tape at the hands of her foster parent mother for “misbehaving.” Logan’s biological mother lost custody of her daughter, because her own mother complained to DHHS. Logan’s grandmother claimed that her daughter was “too immature to be a parent.”

Maine is now looked upon as a model for other states in family reunification. But the previous system, where it was normal for caseworkers to come into a home and remove children without any evidence of abuse or neglect, had been in place for 25 years. In the 1990s, Maine had more children in State care than any other state. Many caseworkers trained in previous techniques remained after the changes were made official, and when dealing with the Handlers, these caseworkers apparently used their old familiar tactics.

In 2005, when caseworkers got involved in the Handler case, the transformation of child protective services was in its infancy. At this time, Russell gave Ellie’s medical records to both law enforcement and DHHS. The Rockland DHHS had their own doctor confirm she was suffering from mental illness. But documented evidence shows that Ellie’s mental health was not considered a factor in determining the credibility of her assertions against Russell.
DHHS chose to believe Russell was a domestic abuser without any evidence to back up Ellie’s accusations. Once DHHS came to their conclusion about Russell, they pursued an established path of securing a statement called a Jeopardy Order that would declare David was knowingly put in danger — in jeopardy. It is a common practice to avoid having to prove accusations, for at this stage the burden of proof is on the State.

Even though the State knew that Ellie was undergoing cancer treatment and suffering from mental illness, it made no attempt to provide any sort of accommodation for her mental illness and physical impairment. They could have at least appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to look out for Ellie’s best interests, especially when it became clear that the State was seeking to have her admit to “Jeopardy” based on her mental-health issues.

While in the depths of a mental-health crisis, Ellie agreed to a Jeopardy Order. With a stroke of the pen, her signature took away her Constitutional right to a hearing. What Ellie never knew and couldn’t comprehend at that time was that the “jeopardy” agreement also served as the foundational prerequisite for the State to eventually terminate all parental rights.

Ellie was granted custody of David under the condition that she did not contact Russell. All the while, the State had a mandate to come up with a reunification family plan that provides services to remove the circumstances that led to a finding of jeopardy. Instead DHHS workers encouraged Ellie to get a divorce from Russell.
When the State had concluded that parental reunification was not possible, it then should have considered placement of David with other family members. David has a grandmother whom he knew well. She was waiting for him to come home. Cousins had also put in a request to take care of David. But family reunification was denied in favor of a foster care family.

All this made Ellie’s mental state worse and began to tear Russell apart.

Once DHHS made its determination that Russell was a “domestic abuser,” the courts and the authorities seemingly backed them up to the fullest extent. Two years of turmoil between the State, lawyers, false accusations, and court mandates made the Handlers’ lives a living hell.

Ellie was encouraged by DHHS workers to call Russell, even though they knew that would be breaking the court’s ruling. Ellie wanted her family life back; she wanted to be around those whom she trusted and loved, so she did break court orders, she saw Russell. Once she drove down the road of David’s foster home. The court meanwhile did not take her mental distress into account when they punished her for breaking their rulings — even though they had used her mental illnesses to help them obtain “jeopardy.” This hypocritical double standard of the court is a huge injustice. In October of 2007 the iron fist of the court came down, terminating the Handlers parental rights.

David and his father share racing his car.

There are a number of legal counts that the state needs to answer:

• There were systemic civil rights violations during the procedures where Ellie agreed to jeopardy. Because the State had prior knowledge of Ellie’s mental-health condition, it should have conducted a hearing to determine whether she had the capacity to assist in her defense. Knowing that Ellie lacked that capacity, the State was obligated to appoint a GAL for her, but didn’t.

• The State failed to ensure that Ellie, who was suffering from a mental disability, had equal access to services in the child protective system; this violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• The State failed to comply with state and federal mandates requiring placement of David with a family member.

• The State violated Russell’s substantive due-process rights by prejudging his case and by having Ellie call him, whereby the state could charge him for violating the “no contact” provisions of the court order.

Because of the obvious complexity of this case, the different points outlined in this summary will be explored in more detail in this newspaper.

These injustices should never be repeated. Safeguards need to be integrated into the child protection system.
The years the Handlers could have spent together as a family can’t be relived. The additional mental stress placed on Ellie because she lost custody of her son and almost lost her husband will never be determined. All because Maine’s child protective services pushed their “truth of the matter asserted” through the courts, without looking at the real truth involving Ellie’s mental disability.

David and this mother, Ellie, picking apples with Dad.

Ellie Handler has been mentally abused by DHHS. They took advantage of her state of mind.

Legal challenges to the current situation have so far been unsuccessful. Perhaps because of the national scandal of the Logan Marr case, the courts and DHHS fear admitting they made mistakes. There is never any excuse where justice is not being served.

DHHS has made significant changes since the Logan Marr case; however, transparency in how they operate is still needed to avoid miscarriages of justice — as shown through the Handler case.

Ellie, Russell, and David will be forever changed by the intervention of DHHS in their lives. It’s not too late to see David reunited with his family. That is the outcome the Handlers pray for every day.

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