Where Does This Baby Belong?

Valerie Malone has four children. Portage County says she's fit to care for three of them, but not Brianna.

Two weeks past her due date last September, Valerie Malone finally felt the early pangs of childbirth. She called the baby's father, Tom Michaels, to tell him the news. Then she grabbed an overnight bag and drove from her Aurora home to the Bedford Medical Center.

Curiosity greets a pregnant woman who walks into a maternity ward alone. When nurses inquired about the father, Malone replied that Michaels, who lives in Lima, would arrive soon enough. But it's what she said next that makes her wish she'd said nothing at all.

"I'm kind of scared that when [he] gets here, I don't know how he's going to be."

Malone claims that comment turned her delivery into an inquisition. During 14 hours of labor, she says, the medical staff pressed her for details on Michaels. In a haze of pain, fatigue, and growing confusion, she divulged little, believing they had no right to ask. She recalls pleading, "Leave me alone so I can experience the joy of my daughter being born."

Michaels would arrive at the hospital sometime during the evening. Court files reveal he refused to sign paternity papers. Malone agreed to allow him into the delivery room, but as night bowed to dawn, she requested privacy. By late morning on September 5, she cradled her fourth child, a healthy nine-pound girl.

Even as her labor ceased, however, the questions persisted over the next two days. One nurse, Malone says, spoke to her in a singsong voice, as if talking to a pet: "What's going on with you and Tom?"

"What do you care?" Malone retorted. "It's not your business. I'm not telling you nothing."

In fact, her interrogators already knew the worst. They had learned from Portage County child welfare workers that, two years earlier, Michaels allegedly assaulted Malone in her home, threatening to kill her and her three children, court records show.

But hospital staffers, trying to gauge whether Malone's newborn would be safe in her house, wanted to hear about Michaels from her. So they prodded: How often do you see him? Does he still visit your home? Has he ever tried to hurt you?

Legal documents suggest Malone reacted with a blast of anger: "At one point she was observed holding the baby and screaming and refusing to allow staff to take the baby."

All the while, Malone insists, nobody warned her what hung in the balance. On September 7, she found out -- the county seized emergency custody of her child, after deeming Malone "emotionally unstable." An ambulance ferried her to Geauga County Hospital, where she was held for five days in the psychiatric ward.

Between crying fits and demanding answers of her own, Malone endured more questions, this time from a psychologist. He diagnosed her as suffering from "post-partum psychosis" and judged her unfit to care for an infant in the short term.

Portage County officials would use that report, along with uncertainty about her home life and Michaels, to persuade a magistrate to place the baby in temporary foster care on September 10.

The hospital discharged Malone the next day. She expected to bring her daughter home, too. Six months later, a large orange teddy bear occupies the crib where her child has yet to sleep.

"They took my baby," she says. "It's like a living death."

Malone sits in her kitchen as she talks, her light brown eyes ringed by dark circles. In the family room, her older children -- ages 14, 10, and 6 -- lounge on a couch, watching cartoons and giggling. On top of an upright piano rests a picture of their half-sister, Brianna -- known to the county as Baby Girl Malone. Valerie accuses county officials of thwarting her attempts to get a birth certificate.

"I can be a mother to my three kids, but I can't be a mother to my other baby -- how do you separate that?" she asks. "You can't."

Yet beneath that apparent paradox lies a crucial difference. Malone and her ex-husband, the father of her older children, have remained friendly since divorcing in 1999. Tony Malone, who pays child support and Valerie's mortgage bills on his steelworker's salary, visits with his kids several times a week.

The relationship between Valerie Malone and Michaels, by contrast, appears to swirl in chaos. Each obtained a civil protection order against the other, and county documents allude to "confrontations" between the two since their daughter's birth. In a report last month, a caseworker wrote, "It is unclear as to whether they are having contact at this time."

How much that murkiness affects Malone's chances of regaining her newborn is unknown -- state law bars officials from discussing custody cases. But John Witkosky, head of the county's Department of Job and Family Services, contends his agency seldom removes a newborn from a hospital. In that respect, he indirectly casts doubt on Malone's words.

"There are always two sides to a story," he cautions. "To not let a biological mother go home with her baby, something serious has to be going on there."

When her young son misbehaves, Dawn Michaels sometimes pulls him in front of the family computer. She'll call up the Ohio Department of Corrections website and show him his father's mug shots.

"Take a look," she'll say. "Is that what you want to end up like?"

Tom Michaels, Dawn's estranged husband, has ended up with a rap sheet that dates to the mid-'80s and spans at least five counties. Amid DUIs and disorderly conducts, he owns a string of convictions for abusing Dawn and violating her restraining order against him.

He pleaded guilty to domestic violence in 1995 after shoving Dawn and trashing the inside of their Medina home. Similar episodes finally drove her away two years later. In 1999, his death threats against her won him a six-month sentence for aggravated menacing.

The same year, Tom Michaels met Valerie Malone through a mutual friend. Her 16-year marriage over, she found him funny and charming, "a sweet talker." She says he hid his wife-beating past from her, but their romance bloomed even after he went to prison months later on the menacing rap.

In daily phone calls and long letters -- he'd scrawl "Valerie & Tom Forever" on the envelopes -- Michaels planned his future with Malone. After he got out in spring 2000, they moved into a Kent apartment -- without her kids. The memory of giving up her children causes Malone to stare at the floor a long moment. Shame drops her voice to a murmur.

"It's not what I wanted to do. But I did it."

She split time between Kent and her Aurora home, where Tony Malone began living so he could care for the kids. Missing her brood, Valerie ended the arrangement a couple of months later. She returned to the house, and Michaels stayed with her off and on for a few weeks -- until September 19, 2000.

Police files describe a trip into hell that night for Malone and her children. Officers reported that she locked the doors when the six-foot, 200-pound Michaels turned up at her house drunk and raving. He broke in by smashing a window, Malone told the cops, then allegedly punched her in the face and dragged her around by her hair. She claimed he held kitchen knives to her throat and back as he threatened to kill her.

Michaels also allegedly struck her oldest son, then 11, and pushed over a TV that hit her 3-year-old. Malone reported that Michaels screamed at the kids, "I'm going to kill your Daddy, [you're] going to a funeral."

Hours later, he passed out on the couch, enabling Malone and her children to escape. Friends and family urged her to cut off contact with him. So did Dawn Michaels, who says Tom has yet to grant her the divorce she's sought for four years. "I told [Valerie], 'File a restraining order -- I'll help you.'"

She spurned the advice.

"I was pretty torn. I wanted him to go to jail, but not because of me." Her voice sinks again. "I really must have been stupid."

Malone posted bail for Michaels and hired an attorney for him. She recanted her police statement, forcing prosecutors to drop assault and other charges that could have sent him away for years. He wound up serving six months for attempted burglary.

He and Malone reunited following his release in March 2001, but fearing his drunken temper, she banned him from the house. When he racked up another DUI or disorderly conduct charge, she would bail him out -- she keeps an envelope stuffed with his jail receipts. Malone also gave him money for a pickup and boat trailer. "I thought I could help him," she says. "I really did."

If she imagined that carrying his baby might change Michaels for the better, he apparently proved her wrong again. A psychological test Malone underwent last November refers to hospital records from baby Brianna's birth. The report states that Malone confided to medical staff that "her boyfriend had threatened to slit her throat and to kill her children." Still, she resisted shunning him.

"I included him in my life because it was his child . . .," Malone says. "She's a gift from God. I wanted him to share in that."

Malone, 40, tiptoes around what's happened between her and Michaels since, afraid the county will use anything she says to deny her bid for custody. But Aurora police confirm that she filed a complaint two weeks ago accusing Michaels of harassing her by phone -- he called her house 42 times in one day, records show. "I don't want to live like that anymore," she says.

Reached at the auto-wrecking service in Lima where he works, Michaels, 37, declines comment, other than to knock Malone. "I don't know why she'd want to open a whole can of worms on herself."

Despite Michaels's violent history, Malone asserts that, by living three hours away, he poses little danger to her family. The opinion would perhaps sound both self-delusional and reckless, except that her supporters -- including ex-husband Tony, who admits to a strong dislike of Michaels -- agree with her.

The county "kidnapped this baby, and now they're holding her for ransom," he says. "[Michaels] isn't a problem as long as he's not living at the house."

"If he's such a threat," adds Geraldine Keith, a longtime friend, "then why leave three other children there?"

Malone's family and friends argue that, for all the mistakes she's made, the stay-at-home mom swaddles her children in love, providing a home that feels as ordinary as any in suburbia. Her kids' bubbly energy bears out such sentiments. Michael, 6, keeps busy sorting his Pokémon cards and drawing pictures of butterflies to hang on the fridge. Leigh, 10, loves softball and Girl Scouts, while 14-year-old Tony Jr. recently was confirmed at church and named to his school's honor roll.

Though all three youngsters remember the night Michaels wrecked their home and prefer he stay away, they think Brianna belongs with them. "She should be here," Tony Jr. says. "She's our sister."

County records show Michaels has talked about seeking custody of his daughter. Yet his actions, according to a caseworker's report in February, belie his words: He's failed to submit to drug and alcohol screening, enroll in a domestic abuse program, or take a psychiatric test. As of last month, he'd attended just one of eight visitation sessions with Brianna.

Dawn Michaels suspects her would-be ex-husband already has lost interest in the infant -- he last visited their two kids in 2001, she claims. If that's true, it may be that the person who's safest from his fists would be the person holding his baby. "He's never taken responsibility for anything in his life," Dawn says. "He's the kind that runs away."

John Witkosky flips a quarter high in the air. It's his way of answering a question about how the Department of Job and Family Services ever really knows when domestic abuse no longer shadows a home.

"Sometimes you gotta make a decision and let go and pray that nothing happens. That's the chance every child welfare agency takes."

But in matters of chance, Witkosky brings to his work the wariness of a cop -- a job he held for 17 years before joining the Portage County agency as director in 1984. "It's every child welfare worker's worst nightmare to have a child go back into a house and something happens to that child."

Sifting through the shades of gray in custody struggles, caseworkers abide by one black-and-white rule: Protect the young. State law essentially hands them a crowbar to crack open the private lives of parents and search for abuse or neglect. In theory, their prying serves an ideal. In truth, it can back battered women into an impossible choice.

"If victims don't talk, they're seen as complicit with their abuser," says Cathleen Alexander, interim executive director of the Domestic Violence Center in Cleveland. "If they do talk, what you've just disclosed is used against you to take custody of your child."

Malone appears squeezed in that vise. Her concerns about Michaels at the hospital gave officials leverage to seize custody; her reluctance to share much else since then has stoked suspicion. In a recent report, her caseworker wrote, "Valerie has not been cooperative about signing [agency] releases."

Malone fumes: "Everything's about Tom -- Tom, Tom, Tom. Why did I ever give them any information? The more I give them, the more they do to me. If I hadn't said anything, my baby would be here."

Hers represents more than a lonely lament. Last year, a federal judge in New York rebuked that city's family services agency for too often taking kids from their mothers simply because the women were battered. Judge Jack Weinstein ruled that the dozen mothers involved in a class-action suit suffered "pitiless double abuse" -- first from their attackers, then from caseworkers who blamed the women for "exposing" their children to violence.

A study last year at the Wellesley Centers for Women unearthed similar bias in a review of Massachusetts custody cases. The report pinpointed a trend among judges, social service workers, and court-appointed psychologists of "blaming women for the abuse [and] its impact on the children." The findings lay bare the flawed logic wielded by child welfare agencies, says Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.

"The county's approach is 'We can't control this really bad guy -- you better do it, and we'll keep your child until you do,'" she says. "You're faulted for not being a good mother because you chose a bad relationship. How long do they get to hold that against somebody?"

Almost 4,000 children pass through Portage County's family services agency in a year. Cuyahoga County, by contrast, handles 43,000. Neylon thinks Malone would have never lost Brianna if they lived 30 miles north. "In Cuyahoga, they'd say, 'See ya later, we got bigger fish to fry.'" That may or may not speak well for Cuyahoga, but it does testify to the inherent whims of the custody system.

Kent attorney Ralph Megargel helped represent Malone early in her case. He maintains that carrying on with an alleged abuser should inflict no harm on a woman's custody rights -- so long as she doesn't invite him home. "What they do in their personal life is their business. It's the kind of home the child would be living in that matters."

Portage officials beg to differ. Assistant Prosecutor Tiffany Bird counters that a mother embroiled in a custody dispute and mixed up with a violent partner needs to make a choice: him or the kid. "One would question a victim of domestic violence continuing contact with the abuser. If a parent is placing themselves at risk with the alleged perpetrator, that can be cause for concern."

Early in March, Malone drove to Lima with two friends to see Michaels. She insists that, in seeking to avoid small-claims court, she arranged the meeting to collect money he allegedly owes her. When she arrived, Michaels called police on a cell phone and accused Malone of tailing his car for several blocks. Officers cuffed her on charges of violating a protection order, aggravated menacing, and resisting arrest.

There are smarter ways to settle a debt, says Cleveland family law attorney Carl Monastra. "If this is a guy who's caused you a lot of problems and your child is at stake, is that a rational decision?"

Maybe not. But considering how one court stripped away her daughter, Malone has ample reason to fear that another would screw her out of money, Alexander says.

"Anytime she's tried to disclose something, she's been burned by the system. If she really thought she could manage the situation better by trying to take care of it herself, I can see doing what she did."

It's at least worth the flip of a coin.

A narrow hallway on the second floor of the Portage County administration building leads to a cramped visitation room. Despite the pink hues and boxes full of toys, it radiates the cheer of a jail cell. A small wooden bench along one wall faces opposite a door with a large two-way mirror. A caseworker stands behind the glass when parents meet with their children.

Twice a week, Malone comes here to visit Brianna for an hour. Or rather, she's supposed to come here -- in recent weeks, she's missed several sessions.

"I feel like my baby is on display. It's degrading, it's humiliating. If you think about it too much, it kills you."

Malone realizes that skipping out could delay regaining her daughter, but she pleads self-preservation. While she's complied with some aspects of the county's case plan -- attending domestic abuse counseling, taking psychological tests -- her heart splinters whenever she hands Brianna back to a caseworker. Nor does it help that she purportedly overheard one employee tell another, "Is that the baby you're working so hard for to put up for adoption?"

Family law attorneys hear the complaints from almost every client flung into the maw of the child welfare beast. Their advice: Resistance is futile.

"They want you to jump through hoops -- and if you don't, stuff gets dragged out," says Westlake lawyer Stephen Daray. Caseworkers "are the No. 1 witness against you. If you give them any reason to use something against you, they will."

"It's like going through chemo," adds Akron lawyer Sharon Berg. "It's going to be horrible, but it's the price you have to pay."

After a quarter-century in the trenches, Berg portrays the limited visitation time granted Malone as all too typical. "They'll say the child isn't bonding with the mother. Well, no kidding. You see the postman more than your own child. They're destroying the very relationship they say they're trying to protect."

Such beefs are familiar to Witkosky. He knows that, for angry parents, the faces of caseworkers morph into bull's-eyes. If "a government agency takes your child from you, no matter the situation, you're not going to be happy."

Portage County bought and restored a two-story house near the administration building a few years ago. Most visitations occur there, Witkosky says. Only parents who argue or miss too many appointments end up with one hour in the pink jail cell.

"If they can't control their emotions with us . . . what are they going to do about a newborn that needs constant attention?" he asks. "Damn right, we're concerned about that."

The county requested that Malone submit to a four-hour psychological evaluation in November. The doctor diagnosed her as suffering from a "major depressive disorder" and displaying "inadequate energy to care for an infant child." His report noted that a doctor at Geauga County Hospital prescribed psychiatric medication for her; Malone says she refuses to take drugs.

The results of Malone's test, as much as uncertainty about Michaels, may explain why the county hedges on placing Brianna in her home, even as her other children remain. Jim McCafferty, executive director of Cuyahoga County's Department of Children and Family Services, says the younger the child, the higher the risk.

"A 14-year-old can feed himself, take care of his siblings. But if a baby goes a day without being fed, the result would be catastrophic."

At the same time, two psychologists sought out by Malone say any depression she's feeling would dissipate in an instant -- if that instant returned Brianna to her arms. Both reports declare her capable of rearing an infant, while one explained how Malone's rambling speech creates "the impression that she is somewhat less intelligent than is actually the case."

Assistant Prosecutor Bird questions the merit of evaluations in which the psychologist talks only to the parent. Witkosky puts it more bluntly: "Everyone knows you can go to a doctor, pay him $75, and get an excuse not to go to work -- and there's not a damn thing wrong with you."

Alexander counters that everyone knows that any woman in Malone's position would be devastated. "She's had her baby taken, she's recovering from an abusive relationship -- of course she's going to be depressed. Who wouldn't be?"

As she's coping with the county's decision, Malone also faces the death of her mother, who has cancer. Rebecca Palladino, her sister-in-law, has watched the last six months leach Valerie's spirit. "I've seen her stay up the whole night, saying the rosary and crying. I don't know how she's stayed as strong as she has."

By pushing aside her darkest thoughts, Malone says.

Standing next to her daughter's empty crib, she inhales deeply, eyes closed. "I can practically breathe her."