Little one welfare officers favor mom’s batterer in custody battle
Lena HaleYou’re told every day what a piece of garbage you are. You start to believe it.
“You’re told every day what a piece of garbage you are. You start to believe it,” Lena said. “That systematic torturing, it gets in your brain and it changes your core beliefs about yourself.”
In late 2014, Lena and William moved in with Lania, and soon Lena became pregnant with Rosalee. That’s when the physical attacks began. “He knew I wasn’t going anywhere then,” Lena said.
She wasn’t the only one who accused Lania of violence. He was charged with aggravated assault in 2015 after one of his employees said Lania threatened him with a crowbar, an arrest report states. Court records indicate additional charges for alprazolam and marijuana possession and grand theft. None were prosecuted.
Lena and Lania married in November 2015, soon after Rosalee’s birth. By the time DCF opened the March 2017 case, beatings had become normal, Lena told a department investigator. Lania criticized her appearance, her housekeeping – she could do no right. He punched her face, swept her feet out from under her in the shower.
He kept prescription painkillers in a locked safe, Lena said. During arguments he would take them out and rattle the bottle, tempting her to take them.
Lena cries as she talks about her ordeal during a day of drug testing and running other errands.Thomas Cordy, Palm Beach Post
When she sensed his rage building, she turned on whirring fans and white-noise machines in the children’s rooms and tucked them into bed early. She went out to the veranda to keep Lania’s outbursts out of sight.
After the pair reconciled over William’s illness, old patterns reemerged. Lania isolated Lena from her friends and forbade her to work anywhere but his office, where he kept several cameras trained on her desk. He’d beat her and then buy her presents, she said – an expensive ring, an edible arrangement, a Louis Vuitton handbag.
“He controlled every sense of my world,” Lena said. She grew paranoid, afraid to fall asleep, afraid for her life – and afraid that if she reported the abuse, she’d lose her kids.
“I remember praying to God, being on my knees, tears pouring down my face like: ‘God, please just let me get through the next 18 years. Just let me get my kids out of the house and I’ll leave him,’” Lena said.
That autumn, worry about the children’s well-being consumed her thoughts.
She moved with the kids into her parents’ home, and filed another restraining order on Nov. 27, 2018, stating that Lania had restricted her breathing with a pillow, forced her to have sex against her will and threatened to kill her family, records show.
Lania tried to force Lena into substance abuse treatment under the Marchman Act the same month, records show, but the petition was dropped and DCF found no evidence that Lena was abusing drugs.
His efforts fueled one of Lena’s greatest fears: that Lania would twist the truth to undermine her credibility.
Rosemary and Jerry provided Lena and the kids with food and shelter, but Lena struggled to find work. Lania had canceled her insurance, and she needed money for her thyroid medication. She moved back to their Beverly Beach home.
Two days later, Lania became furious that Lena refused to drop the restraining order. He chugged a few beers and followed her from room to room, screaming insults in her face. He wrenched from her grasp the knife she’d grabbed to defend herself and hurled a rubber mallet that missed Lena but broke the blinds behind her, according to a January 2019 charging affidavit.
Rosemary Hale, Lena’s mother, bakes a cake with her grandchildren, William and Rosalee.Thomas Cordy, Palm Beach Post
Lena dashed out to the veranda, begging him to stop. He threw her down into a deck chair and squeezed her throat as she battled for breath.
When he let go, she ran inside. Lania snatched Lena’s phone from her hand and left with her purse. Police apprehended him several days later.
The state later dropped the domestic battery charge and reduced his violation of the restraining order to a misdemeanor.
The department investigators who visited Lena at her parents’ home the next morning gave her an ultimatum: The children could stay with Rosemary and Jerry, but Lena had to go.
Lena dealt with losing her kids the only way she knew how. She put on a brave face and her Balenciaga blazer, grabbed her Louis Vuitton handbag and walked into a conference with child welfare workers carrying a binder with a picture of her and her children on the front.
She’d written a table of contents, outlined her goals and shortcomings. “I was going to run that meeting,” she said. “They sat there and rolled their eyes.”
The facial expressions Lena observed at that Community Partnership meeting foretold the disdain she later felt emanating from every interaction.
Lena’s first case manager, Christiana Griffith-Keith, described her as an attentive, affectionate mother who “strives to ensure (her children) have the best of the best,” according to a March 2019 assessment. A court approved the woman’s recommendation to reunite Lena with her kids on April 17, 2019 at her rented residence in Palm Coast.
In May, Lena twice tested positive for cocaine, a drug she denied using. She pointed to inaccuracies in the lab paperwork and, according to Community Partnership records, provided a doctor’s note that alleged a “false positive,” potentially because she’d been taking a prescription antibiotic.
Lena completes paperwork with a lab employee following a random drug test.Thomas Cordy, Palm Beach Post
Lania told Community Partnership that he’d never known Lena to use cocaine, records show, but he used the failed tests to push for custody of both Rosalee and William.
Lena’s troubles multiplied after Griffith-Keith resigned, citing long hours and little reward.
“You want to believe you’re saving lives, saving kids, but I saw in so many instances that it caused more harm than good,” Griffith-Keith said in an interview. “(A mother) needs time, needs somebody to walk this out with her, needs support — and that doesn’t exist.”
Two other women took over Lena’s case, and Lena pinpoints the personnel change as the moment the tide turned against her.
She was sunning poolside at her apartment complex on May 19 while her kids visited their grandparents across town. A neighbor approached, accused Lena of an affair with her husband and attacked Lena with a hairbrush, a police report states.
On May 21, she tested positive for barbiturates. Lena said she’d taken Fioricet, a prescription medication to ease tension headaches, not realizing it would be an issue.
Lena’s new Community Partnership supervisor visited that day and noted Lena had two black eyes and several bruises. The woman’s indifferent demeanor so troubled Lena that she filed a complaint with the state inspector general, begging for someone to intervene before she lost her kids.
The supervisor returned on May 24 to take William and Rosalee to a foster home, citing the neighbor’s attack as evidence Lena couldn’t protect them — even though the children weren’t present when the incident occurred.
Community Partnership refused to place the children with family because Rosemary and Jerry disputed the agency’s allegations, which included drug use.
Substance abuse alone wouldn’t be sufficient cause to take someone’s kids if the agency could provide support services and develop a safety plan with a mother and trusted adults in her life, Griffith-Keith said.
“You need somebody who can come over when you say, ‘I need a break right now, I’m having a weak moment. Make sure my kids are OK,’” she said. “Then the safety threat is mitigated.”
Community Partnership documented concerns that Lania struggled with substance misuse, too. Alcohol consumption preceded his attacks on Lena, and his ex-wife reported he had a pill habit that stemmed from a hip injury, records state. But Lena’s new case managers still seemed to favor him.
Community Partnership allowed Lania eight unsupervised hours per week with Rosalee. Lena was limited to one – at a visitation facility.
She frequently texted caseworkers about William and Rosalee’s well-being. She complained that a case supervisor called her names. She offered to prepare her kids’ lunches and wrote daily notes reminding them of her love. Caseworkers returned the letters unopened.
Notes Lena wrote for her children while they were in foster care.Thomas Cordy, Palm Beach Post
“Please understand that those children are my life,” Lena pleaded. Community Partnership labeled her impulsive and uncooperative.
“They hate me,” Lena said.
Lena believes they only saw the way she projected herself – “I’m tough as nails” and “Nobody sees me sweat” – without recognizing the wounded woman behind the bravado.
“It doesn’t mean I won’t come home and cry in the shower,” Lena said.
Rather than building rapport with Lena and helping her regain power over her own life, case managers seemed to take Lena’s defensiveness and distrust personally, said Angie Pye, director of the Beacon Center, a Daytona Beach domestic violence shelter that provided Lena an attorney.
“What she needed was to be heard and validated for the violence she was a victim of,” Pye said. “Instead, she really just got more blame.”
A judge returned Lena’s kids to Rosemary and Jerry in August 2019. Lena couldn’t be alone with them or spend the night at her parents’ home, but she could visit daily.
The reprieve was short-lived.
Lania completed his case plan and pushed for custody of Rosalee at a court hearing the week before Thanksgiving.
“I went in there like a zombie – devastated, terrified,” Lena said. “This is my worst nightmare.”
She walked out during the hearing, unable to listen any longer. As she left, she recalled seeing a familiar smirk on her case supervisor’s face.
The judge awarded Lania full custody. Community Partnership did not object.
Lena HaleI close my eyes, and I see their little faces.
“How can you charge me with failure to protect, and then a 41-year-old man just changes in five months and that’s who you’re going to give my kid to?” Lena said. “Every person who did not object to that should be charged with failure to protect.”
The despair she fought off for so long gripped her, sunk its teeth in, dragged her down into its depths. She distanced herself from William, knowing her pain would weigh heavy on his tender heart. She exhausted herself with waitressing and bartending shifts to distract her from a very real fear – that her days as a full-time mother were behind her.
“I close my eyes, and I see their little faces,” Lena said, sobs shaking her voice. “You wanted to break me, you broke me. I’m done.”
Lena packed away the pink stuffed unicorns and the battery-powered blue dinosaur in the bedroom she’d decorated for her kids and rented it out to help pay her bills.
She ignored several drug screens. She skipped an 8:30 a.m. therapy session because she was too exhausted after a bartending shift that ended just a few hours before dawn.
She saw Rosalee for an hour a week at a supervised visitation facility. She questioned if she should cancel future visits. “Should my daughter have to see me?” she wondered. “Is that what’s best for her?”
She’d been called an unfit mother so much that she started to believe it.
Lena realizing her children may never sleep in the bedroom she decorated for them at her Palm Coast duplex.Thomas Cordy, Palm Beach Post
The pain and loss with which Lena reckons could push her to a precarious place as a person who has battled substance abuse.
“Certainly stress and trauma can be precipitants for a relapse,” said Dr. Robert Leeman, associate professor at University of Florida’s Department of Health Education and Behavior. But “resilience factors” such as family support and a desire to stay drug-free to regain custody could work in a mother’s favor, he said.
At times Lena gives up, ponders steps she can’t bring herself to say aloud. Rosemary worries that Lena has lost hope, and with it her incentive to stay clean.
“I feel like they pushed her to the edge and she just wants to die now,” Rosemary said. “She’s not a bad person, she’s in a bad place – and they’ve put her there.”