HUNTINGDON – Mary Winkler will be able to visit her three daughters again, starting a week from Saturday, after more than a year with no physical contact with them.
Carroll County Chancellor Ron Harmon granted Winkler limited supervised visitation with the children Wednesday. His decision followed a long day of conflicting testimony, mostly from psychologists on whether it is safe for Winkler to have visitation with the children, Patricia, 9, Mary Alice, 8, and Brianna, 2. They have been in the custody of her former in-laws, Dan and Diane Winkler, since she was arrested and charged in the shooting death of their son, Church of Christ minister Matthew Winkler.
Wednesday’s hearing was held on a motion by her attorneys asking that the children be returned to her or for visitation rights.
Dan and Diane Winkler still have a pending suit seeking to terminate Mary Winkler’s parental rights and to adopt the children. The judge has not indicated when he will rule on that case.
Dr. Robert Kennon, called by an attorney for Mary Winkler’s in-laws, testified Wednesday that he had interviewed the Winkler children five days earlier. Kennon spoke of Winkler’s oldest daughter, Patricia, expressing fear of Winkler during that visit.
Kennon quoted the child as having told him, “She (Mary Winkler) killed my father. I don’t know if she will kill me. …”
But Lynne Zager, a forensic psychologist who testified on Winkler’s behalf at her trial, said Mary Winkler has made good progress on coming to terms with a post traumatic stress disorder that began in her childhood.
Zager said Winkler’s main stressor had been her marriage to Matthew Winkler but that now she’s gotten treatment, has a good support system of family and friends and knows how to recognize what triggers the dissociative episodes.
“I don’t consider her a significant risk of hurting herself or others, including the children,” Zager said.
Harmon stated that Tennessee law says parents have “paramount rights to children” in rendering his decision. Only a threat to their safety could prevent that, and it would have to be a real threat, Harmon said.
He granted Winkler phone contact every other day and said she could have supervised visitation for “a limited time under limited conditions.” The attorneys in the case will now work on proposals for visitation that will determine the time, place, dates and duration of the visits.
The judge asked to have the proposals by Monday. Harmon said the visitation will occur in or around Carroll County.
“I’m just grateful that Mary’s going to get to see her children and the children are going to get to see her,” her attorney, Kay Farese Turner, said following court.
Harmon heard about eight-hours of testimony from Mary Winkler, Dan Winkler and four psychologists. Mary Winkler first took the stand at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
She spoke of her treatment in what she called a “group home” to satisfy a portion of her sentence in the shooting. Winkler said she’s now renting a home in anticipation of her daughters returning to her.
Winkler said she’s renting the McMinnville home from a friend for $150 a month. She also does not have to pay for food, medicine and some other expenses because of friends who are helping her.
Dan Winkler testified that he still loves Mary, but is fearful about the warnings of psychologists about her mental condition. He said he also has noticed drastic changes in the behavior of the children when they have visited with their mother.
The Winklers’ attorney, Bill Neese, declined comment on the hearing’s outcome. Their family spokesman, Eddie Thompson, also declined to comment at this time, he said.
Zager testified that she diagnosed Mary Winkler with having mild depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Winkler had a dissociative episode, or a break with reality, as a result of the ailment at the time she shot her husband, Zager testified.
That ailment stemmed from Winkler’s loss of her younger sister when she was 13. The illness had gone untreated until after Matthew Winkler’s death, Zager said.
Kennon, of Jackson, expressed concern because of the longevity of Winkler’s disorder and because it had resulted in a dissociative episode that led to someone’s death. He said only 30 percent of patients with the illness get better with medicine and treatment.
He said 70 percent experience mild to severe symptoms, with some getting worse, Kennon said.
Kennon testified that the children have expressed a desire at times to see Winkler.
Turner also called John V. Ciocca, a clinical psychologist from Germantown, who spoke about how the children’s separation from Mary Winkler was possibly hurting them.