Monday, April 7, 2008

Deaths of 3 Children Test Md. Legal System

By Dan Morse and Katherine Shaver
Updated: 04/06/2008

One thing seemed clear to Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael
Mason: The man in front of him had trouble controlling his anger.

"You're your own worst enemy," Mason said.

"I'm not," Mark Castillo shot back.

"Yes, you are," Mason said. "You should hear yourself."

But a social worker's report indicated that Castillo posed little risk
to his three young children. And the law set a high bar for denying
visitation rights. Mason, like another judge before him, allowed
Castillo to continue unsupervised visits with his children.

The hearing last year was one of many pivotal moments in Amy Castillo's
21-month battle to protect the three children from their father. Last
weekend, police said, Mark Castillo drowned the children one by one in
a bathtub inside a Baltimore hotel room and then tried to kill himself.
He has been charged in the killings.

"It was very frustrating," Amy Castillo said Thursday of the court
system's handling of the case. " . . . Definitely there were certain
people that did [listen] and certain people that didn't listen."

As with all Maryland cases in which children are killed, a "fatality
review" team of police, social workers and court personnel will examine
whether the legal system fell short and, if so, how it could be

A review of the case files, stuffed into four court folders in
Rockville, reveals what experts in family law and domestic violence say
were warning signs: Mark Castillo's diagnosis of mental illness,
coupled with his resistance to treatment; his reportedly telling his
wife that the worst thing he could do to her would be to kill their
children; his repeated talk of suicide, including a trip to Home Depot
to buy ant poison and duct tape to keep his mouth shut after ingestion.

The Home Depot purchases in particular signaled danger, said Richard J.
Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy
and Practice and an expert on family violence.

Fathers who fight for custody with obsessive zeal often begin to see
their children as part of themselves, Gelles said. For some who become
suicidal, Gelles said, "killing their children is part of a broader
process of killing themselves."

In the trenches, court officials often are overwhelmed by the sheer
number of custody disputes and must sort out real threats from simple

In the Castillo case, court filings show nasty e-mails from Mark
Castillo to Amy Castillo, an occasional terse text message from Amy
Castillo to Mark Castillo, and dueling versions of a dust-up over the
children at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, which drew police officers.

Further complicating the picture: There were no reports of physical
abuse, and Amy Castillo initially agreed to unsupervised visits.

"It's an area where there is no magical bright line. These are cases
that challenge even the best judges," Gelles said. "The trouble is that
hindsight is perfect."

The case began July 19, 2006, when Amy Castillo filed an emergency
request for sole custody of her children, saying she feared for the
safety of Anthony, Austin and Athena, who were then 4 years old, 2
years old and 8 months, respectively. Her filing said Mark Castillo
appeared to be suffering from mental dissociation and a month before
had placed bracelets on the children's wrists while they slept as a
remembrance of him after his imminent death.

The couple's relationship itself was troubled. They had met about nine
years earlier, when Mark Castillo came through Charleston, S.C., as
part of a traveling gymnastics and trampoline show. After they married,
Amy Castillo, a pediatrician, became the primary wage earner. By 2006,
he had moved out and was staying in his car, with friends or in rented
rooms nearby.

Amy Castillo secured a court-ordered psychological evaluation of her
husband. The 18-page, single-spaced report detailed a host of erratic
behavior: Castillo once tried to sell a Furby robot toy along a busy
roadside, displaying it in a bird cage; he increasingly had talked
about suicide as his 40th birthday approached and had hatched the Home
Depot plan; he seemed to hold repressed anger.

The psychologist, C. David Missar, noted indications of mood disorder
and narcissistic personality disorder.

But Missar also noted that Castillo spoke of his love and commitment to
his children.

"While there is no absolute certainty regarding predictions of future
behavior," Missar wrote, "from my review and assessment, the acute risk
of harm Mr. Castillo poses to his children is low, providing he
continue with his psychotherapeutic treatments."

The couple devised an agreement allowing Mark Castillo to have
unsupervised visitation. Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson signed
off on the plan.

Because the cases are so stressful, many jurisdictions, including
Montgomery, limit judges' time in family court to 18-month rotations.
That has judges cycling in and out of cases, making larger patterns
harder to discern. In the Castillo case, at least four judges issued
key orders.

"You have very little time to make a very important decision," said
Paul McGuckian, a retired 16-year Montgomery County Circuit Court judge
who had no role in the Castillo case. "We literally talk about this
often at lunch, about domestic violence issues, and what do you do? In
the vast majority of cases, you err on the side of protecting, but you
also have to protect the rights of the other party."

Cases that turn out like the Castillos', McGuckian said, "are judges'
greatest fear."

Maryland requires circuit court judges to attend a three-day family law
seminar at least once every five years. Advocates for domestic violence
victims say some judges need more training to help them recognize the
more subtle signs of abusive relationships, including nonviolent but
controlling behavior. They say judges also should use the kind of
detailed checklists that many police officers use to determine
lethality risks after violence in homes.

"Getting a letter from a therapist isn't the same as following a
15-point questionnaire for risk factors," said Eugene Morris, manager
of the Montgomery County Abused Persons Program.

As Amy Castillo's case moved through the system, according to court
records, she expressed concern that her husband had refused mental
health treatment.

"I'm no longer seeking therapy," he told a court official during a Dec.
2, 2006, hearing. "I'm just trying to make it clear so nobody bugs me
about it."

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