Home again? The court is set to decide if Mattingly Foster can have custody of her young children
The child welfare case involving Heidi Mattingly Foster and polygamist John Daniel Kingston may be resolved today when a juvenile judge makes a long-awaited ruling on whether to return six of the couple’s 11 children to their mother.
Then again, whatever Judge Elizabeth Lindsley of the 3rd District decides may just trigger more legal wrangling in a case that centers on child abuse and neglect but also has skirted religious belief in plural marriage and its effect on children.
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If Lindsley decides it is safe for six children in foster care to return home, joining three siblings now in Mattingly Foster’s custody – the state may appeal. If she decides it is not, and were to pull some children from the home, the couple’s attorneys could do the same. Such appeals likely would be pursued within hours.
The fate of the couple’s two oldest children may be Lindsley’s easiest decision. Both girls, now 17 and 14, have said they do not want to return home, and their parents have said they will not object.
Lindsley also has said she will set a date to hear a state petition that seeks to terminate the couple’s parental rights, though a state attorney concedes proving such a case would be “really tough” if the judge sends the six children home.
“If she says it is safe for the children to return home, that sends me an indication that she thinks it is OK for them to be there,” said Asst. Attorney General Carolyn Nichols.
The complex case began 18 months ago when the two oldest girls got their ears pierced without their parents’ permission and in violation of a family prohibition on body piercing.
Kingston ordered the girls to remove the earrings or, according to his daughters’ testimony, he would rip them out. One distraught girl fled to a convenience store and called a relative; a concerned store clerk contacted police.
So began the first high-profile child welfare case to test the juvenile court system, newly opened to the public and the press by legislative mandate. And it has proved a doozy.
The twists and turns in the 18-month-old case include revelations about plural marriage within one of Utah’s most insular polygamist communities and an order that Mattingly Foster separate herself from her family and church. One boy briefly escaped from a juvenile facility where he’d been kept for five months to issue a plea for help. There were allegations of death threats and kidnapping plots, picketers outside the courthouse and the withdrawal of two judges from the case.
All of that was peripheral to the real matter at hand: the safety and well-being of the couple’s 11 children.
As the case unfolded, 3rd District Juvenile Judge Andrew Valdez found that Kingston had physically abused and neglected the children and their mother, and that she had failed to protect them.
Last October, Valdez removed eight other children from Mattingly Foster’s custody after a caseworker complained the couple was not cooperating with him. He left an infant, born in July and the couple’s 11th child, with Mattingly Foster.
Valdez then approved a plan that sent Mattingly Foster into the YWCA’s domestic violence shelter, a move aimed at getting her to show independence from Kingston and the Davis County Cooperative Society.
He directed Mattingly Foster to get therapy and attend domestic violence education classes. She did so, and also found a new home.
The legal rounds continued. In November, the judge barred Kingston from contact with his children. And in January, Valdez found that Mattingly Foster had physically and emotionally abused her children in the past.
As he had earlier, Valdez based his new ruling largely on testimony of the couple’s then 13-year-old daughter, who testified their mother called them “buttheads” and had struck the children with enough force that they “ended up bleeding.”
Nichols and Guardian ad Litem Kristin Brewer, who represents the children, asked Valdez then and there to end efforts to reunite the family and begin the process of terminating their parental rights. Given the family’s long history with DCFS, Brewer said, “enough is enough.”
DCFS had investigated the family four times since 1994, finding the children inadequately supervised and living in squalor.
Valdez refused. Telling Matting Foster she was on “borrowed time,” he ordered the state to provide more therapy and parenting help.
In mid-April, Valdez decided Mattingly Foster deserved another shot at parenting her children. He ordered therapists to set up a schedule to gradually return the children home and set a review hearing for June 28.
Almost immediately, state attorneys questioned Valdez’ ruling. DCFS said it couldn’t find a peer parent willing to assist Mattingly Foster. DCFS caseworkers never moved beyond weekly visits, claiming no one had created a visitation schedule.
Days before the June 28 hearing, Nichols asked Valdez to step down from the case, alleging impartiality because of pending charges over a scuffle between his son and Kingston supporters months earlier.
Valdez denied any bias, but stepped aside. So did the next judge appointed to the case – Dane Nolan, a former Salt Lake County attorney who had prosecuted Kingston’s brother for incest and sexual contact with a minor.
The case then came to Lindsley, who held hearings in July to determine whether the children could be safely sent home.
Nichols and Brewer offered Lindsley the same argument they’d made to Valdez: Mattingly Foster has jumped through legal hoops, but hasn’t recognized that her own behavior – and her devotion to Kingston – still imperils her children.
Mattingly Foster, her therapist, her attorney Gary Bell and attorney Daniel Irvin, Kingston’s attorney, say she has done everything the court has asked and has learned new skills that will enable her to be a better parent, provide a safe home for her children and protect them from any harm – whether from Kingston or any one else.
As for Mattingly Foster, she describes herself as “numb” but puts on her game face. “I’ve done everything to win, so I have the right to expect to win,” she said.
So she’s moving ahead on as though she already has. She has registered the children at a private school run by her community.
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