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Court Slams Family Judge for Holding Baby in Foster Care to Force Confession

[caption id="attachment_15754" align="alignnone" width="620"] Family Court of Philadelphia building. Photo: P.J. D'Annunzio.[/caption] Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris F. Younge "did everything in her power" to rip an infant away from her parents with almost total disregard for their rights, an appeals court said, adding the judge was at best negligent or, at worst, intentionally trying to tear a family apart. Notably, the court said Younge was out of line for keeping the baby girl in foster care — instead of allowing her to live with her grandmother while the case went on — as a way to make the parents "'cop to'" alleged abuse. "If I leave her [in foster care] maybe I get closer to an answer as to what happened instead of moving her to grandmom," Younge said at a December 2016 hearing. In a stinging ruling issued by the state Superior Court on Friday, Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus said, "The fact that a trial judge tells parents that unless one of them 'cops to an admission of what happened to the child' they are going to lose their child flies in the face of not only the [child protection laws] but of the entire body of case law with regard to best interests of the child and family reunification." The three-judge appellate panel reversed Younge's 2016 order putting the 5-month-old into foster care, where she remains as a toddler. The ruling was in response to an appeal filed by the parents of a child identified in court papers by the intials N.M. This is the latest of several due process violations that Younge has committed and comes after a Legal Intelligencer investigation into her history of violating parents' rights. In this case, N.M. was removed from her parents, a nurse practitioner and a graphic designer, when the Department of Human Services got involved after the baby's mother took her to the doctor for rib fractures. DHS blamed child abuse, but the parents argued it was from her older brother running into her. Regardless of the cause, Lazarus wrote Younge was wrong to deny the parents' request that N.M. be cared for by her grandmother, denying the parents the chance to present crucial evidence, and in having her mind made up before all the facts were in. "Despite record evidence that the trial court allegedly relied upon, the one factor, the elephant in the room, is that the trial judge was and remains the cause of the deteriorated bond between parents and N.M. in this matter," Lazarus said. Lazarus said that the record was replete with evidence that the parents cooperated with court-assigned goals so that they and their son, who Younge allowed to continue living with them, could be reunited with N.M. Despite that, Lazarus said Younge seemed to have a "fixed idea" about the case. "We find that the record herein provides example after example of overreaching, failing to be fair and impartial, evidence of a fixed presumptive idea of what took place, and a failure to provide due process to the two parents involved," Lazarus said. "Finally, the most egregious failure in this matter is the refusal to allow kinship care, despite the paternal grandmother being an available and approved source for same. The punishment effectuated by the trial judge was, at best, neglectful and, at worst, designed to affect the bond between parents and N.M. so that termination would be the natural outcome of the proceedings." Additionally, Lazarus said Younge should consider stepping away from further proceedings in the case. "We strongly suggest ... that the trial judge give serious consideration as to whether her apparent bias warrants that she recuse herself," Lazarus said. Claire Leotta and Brandi McLaughlin, lawyers for the parents, said in a joint statement that they were pleased with the Superior Court's ruling. “We believe that our clients' rights have been vindicated and that the Superior Court saw this case for exactly what it was and recognized the 'judicially created parental alienation' that this family suffered throughout the life of this case. We are hopeful that moving forward this family will be reunified in accordance with the law,” they said. Since the April 2 publication of The Legal's investigative story, Younge has retained West Chester-based legal ethics attorney Sam Stretton, who did not return calls seeking comment for this article. Stretton writes an ethics column for The Legal's sibling publication, the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. The May 4 Superior Court ruling is the ninth of Younge's rulings to be overturned on appeal and the fifth involving a due process violation. Lawyers and families have spoken to The Legal about their treatment by Younge, who they claimed ruled by intimidation and lacked an interest in hearing all of the facts. The judge's alleged conduct recently sparked a protest. On April 24, roughly two dozen demonstrators gathered on a downtown corner to rally against Younge, most of them with cases in her courtroom involving a child or grandchild.