SALT LAKE CITY — On a bone-chilling January morning in Yucca Valley, California, 23-year-old Katie Tagle woke up to an email that made her heart stop. 

It was from Stephen Garcia, her ex-boyfriend. She had left him five months before in August 2009, after he had beaten her so severely she was knocked unconscious. He had recently petitioned the court successfully for shared custody of their 9-month-old baby, Wyatt. 

The email subject line was “A Necessary Evil.” She opened it, her heart pounding in her ears as she tried to make sense of the words, her head still foggy from sleep.

It was a story he had written her, but it wasn’t fiction: the characters were Tagle, Garcia and, their baby, Wyatt. 

Her stomach turned as she reached the fatal ending: the “necessary evil” he described was Garcia murdering Wyatt. It was revenge, he said, for Tagle abandoning him.

Tagle and Garcia had joint custody, and she was legally required to hand Wyatt over to Garcia for the weekend. But shortly after getting his letter, Tagle went to family court and pleaded with San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Robert Lemkau to grant her an emergency restraining order that would prohibit Wyatt from having unsupervised contact with Garcia. 

She presented the disturbing email Garcia had sent her, as well as dozens of subsequent text messages repeating his threat to kill their child. She put forward an email in which Garcia admitted to hitting her, and a sheriff’s report made after he pushed her down during a custody exchange and threatened to kill her.

Katie Tagle holds her son Wyatt shortly after his birth in 2009. Tagle’s ex-boyfriend, Stephen Garcia, who had joint custody of their son, murdered him in January 2010, before turning the gun on himself. | Tagle Family Photo

“It says it in the story that he will kill our son with Benadryl, that he will put it in his juice bottle and kill him,” she told the judge, according to a court transcript.

Garcia told the judge Tagle was making it all up. She wanted him out of her son’s life, Garcia said, and this was her way of making sure that happened.

“Mr. Garcia claims it’s a total fabrication on your part,” Lemkau told her.

The judge refused to grant the emergency restraining order. 

“My supposition, ma’am, is that you’re lying,” said Lemkau. (Lemkau did not respond to multiple interview requests by the Deseret News).

Tagle had no choice but to follow the judge’s order. She gathered Wyatt up in her arms, kissed his forehead, and said goodbye as she handed him over to Garcia. It was the last time she would see her son alive.

Ten days later, on Jan. 31, on an icy road in the snow-capped mountains of Twin Peaks, Stephen Garcia shot his infant son before turning the pistol on himself.

A family court ‘crisis’

What happened to Tagle and her late son Wyatt was not an isolated incident. 

Since 2008, more than 700 children across the nation have been killed by a parent or parental-figure during circumstances involving divorce, separation, custody, visitation or child support, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a national child advocacy nonprofit that promotes judicial accountability and child safety.



That figure represents about 15% of the estimated total 4,500 children who, according to FBI data, have been killed by a parent in the last decade.

Approximately 15 million children are exposed each year to domestic violence and/or child abuse, which are often linked. A child’s risk of abuse increases after parents separate, when feelings of anger and loss of control are most intense.

Family courts are in a unique, vital position: they are on the front lines of what can turn into a deadly fight for visitation or custody.

But a four-month investigation by the Deseret News found that in many cases family courts are failing to protect children, placing them instead in the hands of an abusive parent. 

Such cases are resulting in the physical and sexual abuse of children, and even child homicide.

Joan S. Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School, takes time for a portrait at her home in Takoma Park, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. | Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

“The harm to children in the nation’s family courts has reached crisis proportions.” — Joan Meier

“The harm to children in the nation’s family courts has reached crisis proportions,” said Joan Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University and a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and the law.

The Deseret News reviewed dozens of family court cases and spoke to 30 experts, including family court judges, lawyers, parents, politicians, policymakers, academics and advocates across the nation, and found: 

  • During the past decade, at least 98 children in 40 American states have been killed by a parent or parental-figure after a family court allowed them unsupervised contact with the child, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence. In these cases, the family court was told beforehand about the parent’s or parent-figure’s violent history, mental illness, and/or risk of harming a child, according to CJE.
  • More than 58,000 children are ordered by family courts into unsupervised contact with physically or sexually abusive parents following divorce in the United States, according to the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.
  • Forty-seven percent of custody evaluators still recommend unsupervised visitation even when there are reports of violence in the family, according to a 2011 National Institute of Justice study.
Photographed in his courtroom in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, Judge John J. Romero Jr. serves on the bench for the Children’s Court Division of New Mexico’s Second Judicial District Court. He is also a past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. | Craig Fritz, For the Deseret News

There is no government agency that tracks the number of children that are killed by parents in the midst of family court proceedings, or the number of children that family courts place in the hands of an abusive parent, on a national scale. While family courts operate differently from state to state, for the purposes of this story, a family court is a court of law that adjudicates domestic matters including marriage, divorce, child custody, child support, domestic violence and child abuse cases.

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Judge John J. Romero Jr., past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges who is a judge in New Mexico and was involved in custody cases for 18 years as a lawyer, said that family court judges have extremely difficult jobs in which they are tasked with making quick decisions in complex cases, sometimes with little evidence. 

Judges are people and people sometimes make mistakes, said Romero.

“We’re fallible human beings, our systems are fallible systems as well,” he said. “And things fall through the cracks that should not have fallen through the cracks.”

But it is children who often pay the price for such mistakes, sometimes with their lives:

In October 2012, Hera McLeod pleaded with a Maryland family court judge to keep her 15-month-old son, Prince, away from her abusive ex-boyfriend. She told the judge about the man’s fits of rage and the night he held her at gunpoint and threatened to kill her. The court allowed him to keep Prince for unsupervised visits. On one of the visits, he murdered the toddler at a friend’s home. In 2017 he was convicted of capital murder.

In August 2018, 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso was killed by her father during a court-ordered visitation in Philadelphia. Kayden’s father had been granted unsupervised visitation despite the fact that he had a felony conviction for aggravated assault and after a court-ordered mental-health evaluation had revealed he suffered from a depressive disorder with suicidal tendencies. 

In June 2019, 5-year-old Bella Younkin was drugged and strangled to death by her mother, who then shot herself in the head, according to preliminary autopsy reports. Bella’s mother had been awarded physical custody of the child, despite the fact that the father, Nathan Younkin, had told a Michigan court that she had a history of mental illness and had abused Bella in the past.

These cases, and hundreds of others like them, have generated increasing national attention and have pushed leaders at the state and federal level to take action to insure child safety in family courts.

Kathleen Russell, director of the Center for Judicial Excellence, poses for a portrait at the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. | Ramin Rahimian, For the Deseret News

“For decades, family courts across the country have been placing children in unsafe homes. How many more must die before we get meaningful leadership here?” — Kathleen Russell

“We believe that if family courts across the country were held accountable for operating as they should, with child safety at the forefront of their decision-making, then many of these children would be alive today,” said Kathleen Russell, director of the Center for Judicial Excellence.

In 2018, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging that “abusive parents are often granted custody or unprotected parenting time by courts, placing children at ongoing risk,” and urging state courts to make child safety the first priority of court decisions involving custody and parenting.

In 2019, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed Senate Bill 568, which mandated the formation of a first-of-its-kind workgroup, which includes parents, state legislators, and experts in domestic violence, child abuse and custody issues, with a mandate to study the problem and make recommendations to the governor.

“Courts and the entire state apparatus should do everything in their power to reduce the likelihood that children are placed with abusive parents,” said Maryland Sen. Susan Lee, who sponsored the original legislation creating the workgroup, in a recent press release. “This workgroup will explore best practices to identify trauma behavior and mitigate preventable, life-altering harm.”

These efforts to acknowledge the problem are encouraging as first steps, said Russell, but they are not enough to solve a crisis that often leads to lethal consequences for children. 

“For decades, family courts across the country have been placing children in unsafe homes,” said Russell. “How many more must die before we get meaningful leadership here?”

A ‘troublesome epidemic’ of disbelief

In custody proceedings, family courts often see a parent’s allegation of child abuse as no more than a tactic to undermine the other parent’s custodial rights to the child — and therefore not a credible accusation, said Russell. 

There is a growing recognition of this phenomenon and its adverse impact on child safety. A recent press release by the Maryland governor’s workgroup on family courts called it a “troublesome epidemic.”

“This workgroup is based on a heightened awareness of a troublesome epidemic, where evidence suggests children and the protective parent are not seen as credible when reporting abuse in the midst of a custody proceeding,” the press release read. “Outcomes from these cases are impacting the future of our children, and in some cases have resulted in death.” 

A wind chime made of spoons hangs over the dinner table at the home of Katie Tagle, left, pictured with her daughter Karlee Rodriguez, 8, and son Dakota Tagle, 14, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Las Vegas. Tagle’s son Wyatt, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, liked spoons as an infant. | Isaac Brekken, For the Deseret News

“This is not a father’s rights issue, this is not a mother’s rights issue, this is a child safety issue.” — Anne Hoyer

This issue crosses gender lines, said Anne Hoyer, the founder of the workgroup, as both mothers and fathers abuse and kill their children.

“When allegations of abuse come before our court system, we should have a court that understands and has a protocol in place to address these issues,” said Hoyer. “This is not a father’s rights issue, this is not a mother’s rights issue, this is a child safety issue.”

Nevertheless, mothers are at a particular disadvantage when raising allegations of child abuse by the father in family court, said Joan Meier with George Washington University.

The Deseret News talked to five mothers whose children were killed by the father during unsupervised visitation, after they warned family court that he was dangerous, and reviewed dozens of other similar cases. 

In these cases, a common theme arose: the mothers stated that the courts did not take their allegations of child abuse by the father seriously, and that’s why the children’s fathers were granted the unsupervised access.

Some echoed Katie Tagle’s experience of being told directly by a family court judge that he or she did not believe her. Others recall their claims being dismissed as “vengeful” or “irrational,” fueled by a desire to punish their ex-husband or boyfriend. 

But Meier said the notion that women frequently lie in family court is not backed up by research. Instead, she said, studies show the opposite: most women in family court do not intentionally fabricate claims of child abuse.

“There is a big misconception that women make up claims of child abuse, but there is no independent research to support that.” — Joan Meier

The most substantive analysis of this phenomenon as it relates to family court was a 1998 study from the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work which documented the rate of intentionally false allegations of abuse and neglect investigated by child welfare services in Canada. The study found that 12% of allegations of child maltreatment made in custody cases were intentionally fabricated. Of the intentionally false allegations of maltreatment, mothers and children were much less likely than fathers to fabricate reports of child abuse or neglect.

Joan S. Meier, professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School, takes time for a portrait at her home in Takoma Park, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. | Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

“There is a big misconception that women make up claims of child abuse, but there is no independent research to support that,” said Meier.

The idea, she said, comes from a now widely discredited theory from the 1980s called “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” which asserted that in the context of child custody disputes, a “disorder” arises in which vengeful mothers, in an effort to turn their child away from their father, brainwash their children into believing that their father has abused them.

These mothers, according to the theory, employ false child sexual abuse allegations in court in order to undermine their ex-husbands and ensure custody for themselves. The theory — which lacks scientific support — holds that these kinds of allegations are rampant in custody litigation, and that the majority of them are false.

“The idea that women fabricate these claims out of vengeance is a widespread myth,” she said. “I’m not saying it never happens. But it’s not the norm.” 

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges advises judges in custody cases “not to accept testimony regarding parental alienation syndrome or PAS” because “the theory positing the existence of PAS has been discredited by the scientific community.”

Nevertheless, Meier said the idea of “parental alienation” is still used as a basis for family court judgments which often discredit mothers who accuse fathers of child abuse, whether sexual, physical or both. 

“Parental alienation theory has fueled this whole ideology in family court that women who raise abuse allegations are just vengeful or pathological.” — Joan Meier

“Parental alienation theory has fueled this whole ideology in family court that women who raise abuse allegations are just vengeful or pathological,” said Meier.

This may be why women who report child abuse in family court have a substantial risk of losing custody of their child, according to a new study from George Washington University, led by Meier and funded by the National Institute of Justice.

When mothers allege child abuse by fathers in family court, they have approximately a 34% chance of losing custody of their child, according to the study. 

The risk that mothers will lose custody goes much higher when the father invokes “parental alienation” as a defense. In cases in which the court believed that the mother was an “alienator,” the mothers lost custody 73% of the time, the study found, including cases in which the court acknowledged that the father had a history of abuse.

“Parental alienation syndrome planted the seed that you can’t trust mothers’ claims of abuse,” said Meier. “And the courts have been widely misled by this.” 

Several of the women the Deseret News spoke to were instructed by their lawyers not to raise child abuse allegations at all in court, for fear it would compromise their case or even result in loss of custody to the man they feared was abusing their child. 

“The #MeToo movement has broken open the ways society has denied women’s true reports of sexual abuse on the job. But that same awareness has yet to permeate the legal system, where women’s and children’s reports of abuse are still too often denied.” — Joan Meier

To Meier, family courts’ resistance to believing women’s reports of abuse echoes a similar phenomenon at the heart of the #MeToo movement.

“The #MeToo movement has broken open the ways society has denied women’s true reports of sexual abuse on the job,” she said. “But that same awareness has yet to permeate the legal system, where women’s and children’s reports of abuse are still too often denied.”

But Walter Richardson, U.S. legislative manager for the Father’s Rights Movement, an Alaska-based nonprofit organization that advocates for fathers who feel they have been treated unfairly by family courts, said that in his experience, “parental alienation is alive and well.” 

Richardson, a father himself who has been through a custody dispute, said his organization frequently receives calls from fathers who say that the mother is falsely accusing them of child abuse in order to get an edge up in a family court custody proceeding.

“I think it’s a very deep-rooted psychological inability for one parent to feel empathy or sympathy for the other parent and child,” he said. “They are solely focused on winning and getting the last word at all costs.” 

(The Deseret News spoke to some child psychologists, custody evaluators and family lawyers who said that in their experience, some parents — both mothers and fathers — do make false abuse claims and alienate children by pressuring them to take sides in custody disputes, but that this phenomenon should not be characterized as a psychological “syndrome” and should not be used as a justification for disregarding allegations of child abuse raised in family court.)

Richardson said he takes issue with the notion that family court is prejudiced against mothers. Instead, he believes that family court is actually biased against fathers, pointing out the fact that more mothers in the United States are custodial parents than fathers. (In 2015, 80% of the custodial parents in the United States were mothers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

“There’s this stigma that fathers aren’t as good of parents as mothers,” he said.

Many family court professionals — judges, lawyers, psychologists — point out that in their experience, the problem isn’t as simple as judges not believing a litigant’s abuse allegations, or a bias against mothers or fathers. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough evidence to back up child abuse allegations, said John Myers, family law attorney and professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law.

In addition, experts point out that the system is overloaded. Judges have to see as many as 20 cases a day and may have to make a decision after spending no more than 20 minutes on a case. 

“You’re making these decisions fast and furious with just the tip of the iceberg of information,” said Utah Third District Juvenile Court Judge James Michie, who has adjudicated child welfare cases for more than 12 years. “There’s no way a judge gets it right every time.”

‘It’s gut-wrenching’

The Deseret News found that family court is not just placing children in the hands of an abusive parent when abuse is alleged

They are also placing the child with that abusive parent when abuse is substantiated.

“If there is something that could be fixed in the family court system, it could be this: that we are too willing to give visitation to people with a proven track record of violence.” — John Myers

Forty-seven percent of custody evaluators still recommend unsupervised visitation even when there are reports of violence in the family, according to a 2011 National Institute of Justice study.

Myers said he currently has a number of cases in which he believes there should be no contact with the parent because of their history of violence. But he has little hope of convincing a judge to revoke visitation rights.

“It’s extremely difficult to get a judge to award no visitation,” said Myers. “In family court, they just bend over backwards to try to maintain parental ties and give visitation.”

In his Utah courtroom every day, Michie sees cases in which one parent has a proven history of physically abusing the child, and said his decisions are guided by a fundamental tension between parent’s rights and child welfare at the heart of juvenile court law.

A parent’s right to raise kids the way they see fit, he said, must be balanced with the child’s right to be raised by competent parents, free of abuse and neglect.

“The philosophy is, if a parent-child relationship can be preserved, we have a duty to try to preserve it, despite the fact that there may have been findings of abuse,” Michie said. 

If a judge determines that a parent has a history of child abuse, the next step is to reduce risk and then, if the judge determines it is in the child’s best interest, work to “reunify” the abusive parent with the child, Michie said.

Katie Tagle holds her son Wyatt in 2009. Tagle’s ex-boyfriend, Stephen Garcia, who had joint custody of their son, murdered him in January 2010, before turning the gun on himself. | Tagle Family Photo

“Reunification” is a process by which the court provides services to the family with the goal of “reunifying” the family so that the state’s involvement is no longer needed. These services include substance abuse treatment, domestic violence assessment, psychological counseling, anger management and assistance with housing and employment.

“You want to work with both parents to try to get them both healthy so when you close the case, they can co-parent together,” Michie said. “In an ideal world, it’s not about one parent versus the other parent, it’s about both parents if possible. It doesn’t always work out that way.”

But Myers said his experience has shown him that an abusive parent is at risk of abusing again, even after receiving help.

“The courts believe people can change, and so the judge will order the batterer to undergo treatment or counseling, and sometimes that works. More often than not, in my experience, it doesn’t,” said Myers. “I think our system does bend over too far backward to allow children in an abuser’s lives, without sufficient proof that they have changed.”

Ruth Glenn, CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, shares Myers’ concerns.

“There is a very high likelihood that an abuser will abuse again,” she said. 

Of batterers convicted on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, 31% were arrested again within a year of being released and 44% were arrested again within two years of being released; in both instances the most common re-arrest was for felony assault, according to a study by the Center for Court Innovation.

“It’s horrific. It’s gut-wrenching.” — James Michie

Placing a child with a parent who has a history of domestic violence can be dangerous even if the parent has never hurt the child in the past, said Glenn. That’s because the parent can hurt the child as a means of controlling or punishing the partner or spouse that the parent no longer has access to, she said. 

“Time and time again, children are used as a tool in domestic violence, and then become the object of a lethal act as a result,” she said. 

Michie said he is still haunted by cases in which he feels he made the wrong decision.

“When a case backfires on you, there’s nothing worse,” Michie said. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to know you had jurisdiction over a child and that child was injured, again, by the same person that you were trying to shield against from the beginning. It’s horrific. It’s gut-wrenching.” 

‘Happy, happy’

When Katie Tagle’s son Wyatt was killed, her case made national headlines. 

Major newspapers covered the story. She appeared on the “Dr. Phil Show.” She was invited to the nation’s capitol to meet with Lynn Rosenthal, the White House Adviser on Violence Against Women.

For a brief period, Tagle felt optimistic that something would change. That Wyatt’s death would mean something, because it would change the system that endangered him.

“When Wyatt died the way he died, people kept reassuring me that family law and everything was going to be exposed, and everything was going to be changed for the better,” she said. 

But now, 10 years later, the nation’s attention in her case has subsided, and with it, Tagle’s optimism.

“I thought everything was going to change. But I don’t feel there’s been any kind of change.” — Katie Tagle

Each day, she still must live with the wrenching memory of her son’s short life and brutal death — a tragedy she said was completely preventable, if only she had been believed. And the change she thought might give meaning to her son’s death never materialized. 

“I thought everything was going to change,” she said. “But I don’t feel there’s been any kind of change.”

Katie Tagle is pictured at her home Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Las Vegas. Tagle’s infant son Wyatt was killed by the boy’s father. | Isaac Brekken, For the Deseret News

But Wyatt’s death did give rise to at least one important shift that has catalyzed the beginnings of a newly emerging national movement for family court reform. Russell with the Center for Judicial Excellence said it was Tagle’s case and a spate of other child homicides close in time that inspired her to create a database to track similar cases.

Russell said the data has proved key in convincing state and federal leaders to recognize the problems with family courts across the country, and was instrumental in passing the congressional resolution in 2018, the first step the federal government has taken to address the issue of child safety in family courts.

Each year on Jan. 31, the anniversary of her son Wyatt’s death, Katie Tagle holds a balloon release in his honor. “It’s a sad day, but we try not to make it too sad,” said Tagle. | Katie Tagle

Every year on Jan. 31, the anniversary of Wyatt’s death, Katie Tagle gathers all of her friends, her boyfriend of four years, and her two children, Dakota, 14, and Karlee, 8, and go to a park.

Tagle remembers Wyatt as an exceptionally happy baby. Everything seemed to make him smile or laugh. She holds the party — complete with a theme and a cake — in Wyatt’s honor.

It’s a celebration of his life and the happiness he brought into the world for too short a time.

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“It’s a sad day, but we try not to make it too sad,” said Tagle.

They all hold balloons; blue and brown, Wyatt’s baby shower colors. Dakota and Karlee hold white ones, to represent heaven. They stand in a circle and say a few words to remember Wyatt. 

Balloons in hand, they shout “Happy, Happy,” the magic words that would make Wyatt giggle infectiously whenever he heard them.

And then they let go.

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