Catherine Gana arrived at CYF offices Downtown in 2014 with chocolates to share and hopes of finally meeting in person the niece she wanted to adopt.
Instead, “They told me, ‘You’re too late,’” she said. Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families officials informed her the girl was about to be adopted by her foster mom.
And 21 months later, the child remains in a Penn Hills home where the foster mother’s adult son, a man convicted of attempted murder and a life-time registered sex offender, visits regularly.
A child’s best interest
Catherine Gana, of Cameroon, tells her story of trying to adopt her niece from a foster family in Greensburg. (Video by Andrew Rush; 4/7/2016)
Judge Guido DeAngelis, the Allegheny County Family Court judge who is handling the contested adoption, criticized Ms. Gana’s attorneys during the trial for raising the issue of the son’s criminal background.
And a CYF caseworker testified that “it doesn’t have any bearing on the adoption.”
Even after the caseworker, a guardian with the child advocacy group KidsVoice and Judge DeAngelis learned about the man’s conviction, they contended that there was no proof he was violent — despite court records showing that he held his girlfriend at knife point, cut her clothes off of her, sexually assaulted her and then seven weeks later shot her in the chest through the door of her home.
Also revealed at trial, a CYF caseworker overseeing the foster mother’s adoption of the child admitted that she failed to check three of four references provided by the woman as part of her adoption petition.
Despite the already closed nature of family court proceedings, Judge DeAngelis went a step further, issuing a gag order in the case, repeatedly threatening to jail and/or deport Ms. Gana for contempt of court for speaking about the case outside of the courtroom — including her discussion with local police to express her concerns about her niece being in a home visited by a sexual offender.
Because of her extended absence, Ms. Gana lost her job as a school teacher in her home of Bamenda, and missed nearly two years in the lives of her husband, four sons and the two nephews that are being raised as members of her family.
Ms. Gana does not regret her decision.
“My conscience and my heart will be at peace that I did everything I needed to do to save this child,” Ms. Gana said. “I promised her I would come.”
After reviewing thousands of pages of court transcripts and documents, the Post-Gazette has identified a number of issues that raise questions about how the contentious adoption case has thus far played out.
• CYF did not check the criminal records or histories of immediate family members who live outside the adoptive or foster home in this case.
• The judge, CYF and KidsVoice have downplayed the importance of the potential kinship placement for the child — despite the stated goals in Pennsylvania’s court system for keeping family connections and using kinship care as well as the widely accepted standard nationwide that kinship adoption should be sought if at all possible.
• Both the judge and the attorneys in the case have expressed what Ms. Gana and her attorneys consider to be prejudicial comments about her home country of Cameroon, including the KidsVoice guardian saying during a court recess, that Ms. Gana wanted to adopt the girl so she could pick “[expletive] cocoa beans for KitKat.”
Judge DeAngelis has heard trial testimony across 16 days between February 2015 and February 2016. On Monday, the parties are scheduled to file their findings of fact and conclusions of law. After that, the judge is expected to issue a decision about where the girl should live.
Answers not simple
For Ms. Gana, the answer seemed to be simple.
In 2008, she learned that her younger sister — with whom the family had lost contact — had two young sons in foster care in Westmoreland County.
“The boys did not even know I existed,” Ms. Gana said.
She came to the United States to get them as soon as she found out about them.
Ms. Gana got to know Hoshea, then 11 months, and Ephraim, who was 5, and was granted legal custody of them through the Westmoreland County court system and with the permission of her sister, who could not care for them for medical reasons.
Ms. Gana took them with her to Cameroon in January 2009, and they quickly assimilated with her own boys, she said. They have thrived, she continued, doing well in school, speaking four languages, and excelling in sports.
So four years later, when Ms. Gana learned her sister had given birth to a daughter who also had been taken into foster care — this time in Allegheny County — she thought she would do the same thing if the child could not be reunited with her mother.
CYF caseworker Lawrence Walter contacted Ms. Gana in February 2013 after he learned of the Westmoreland County case. He requested a copy of her family’s home study — an evaluation completed by a social work agency in Cameroon in 2008 — for the boys’ placement and told her that he had informed the court that she wanted to be considered as a placement resource if necessary.
Over the next several months, Ms. Gana said she believed that CYF was working to reunite her sister with her daughter, and several official court permanency review orders state that as a goal.
However, email exchanges with Mr. Walter also show he sought updated home studies and asked whether and when she could travel to the U.S.
In the meantime, Ms. Gana requested that CYF arrange Skype sessions with her niece, which took place every two or three weeks starting in October 2013. During the calls, the participants talked and sang and became familiar with each other, court testimony showed.
At the same time, the girl was forming a bond with the woman caring for her, Deborah Cutrary.
A foster mom
Ms. Cutrary, 61, of Penn Hills became a foster parent in 2008 through social services agency, Greater Valley Community Services.
The next year she fostered a boy whom she later adopted in 2011. He is now 7, and she is also raising her grandson, who is 11.
Ms. Gana’s niece, who was then 2 1/2, was placed with Ms. Cutrary in July 2012. At that time, according to testimony from CYF caseworkers, the little girl was withdrawn, quiet and not emotionally expressive. Over the next months, she flourished with Ms. Cutrary, testified adoptive caseworker Heidi Hysong, who regularly visited. “She’s a happy, well-adjusted little girl. She’s beautiful.”
Ms. Cutrary, who works at her sister’s day care, said she bonded with the child quickly. Her son and grandson consider the girl to be their sister.
When the biological mother’s rights were terminated in March 2014, Ms. Cutrary decided she wanted to adopt the child.
“And as time goes on, then you kind of look at it that this child or person is going to be in your life, in your home for a long period of time,” Ms. Cutrary testified. “So you accept it. And I accept that.”
She filed a petition to adopt the girl on June 30, 2014.
About two months before that, Catherine Gana had begun seeking a visa to come to the U.S. to meet her niece. She made the 24-hour round trip from her home in Bamenda to the capital, Yaounde, five times between May and July before she finally got the paperwork on July 8, 2014.
“I told God that, ‘Father, if it is your will, and you know what I’m doing is right, it will work out,’” Ms. Gana said. “Behold, I got my visa at 6 o’clock that night and checked in for my flight at 6:30.”
But when she arrived at the CYF office July 10 with Cameroonian chocolates to share with the caseworkers she’d come to know, Ms. Gana learned that she would not be permitted to meet her niece. A day earlier, the KidsVoice attorney representing the child, James Gallagher, had filed a request without explanation to prohibit any visitation with the girl.
The court was moving forward with Ms. Cutrary’s adoption, and Mr. Walter, the CYF caseworker, no longer would work with Ms. Gana.
The hearing to finalize Ms. Cutrary’s adoption of the girl was scheduled for July 15, 2014.
But Ms. Gana filed a petition to intervene in the case and her own petition to adopt. In it, she laid out her family history — that her husband is an architect, she is a teacher, and together they earn more than $200,000 a year; that they are raising the girl’s two American brothers in Cameroon. She noted that her visa had been delayed by the embassy, and that both CYF and KidsVoice were aware that she had been trying to get to the U.S. since May 1.
In September 2014, Judge DeAngelis granted Ms. Gana’s motion to intervene, moving the contested adoption to trial. But he denied the motion for visitation with her niece — the first of many times the request was denied — without explanation.
The trial began Feb. 4, 2015. Before the first witness began his testimony, Judge DeAngelis went on at length, questioning Ms. Gana’s attorney, Irene Lubin, about her qualifications, knowledge of case law and her trial strategy.
He questioned proposed testimony about Ms. Gana’s relationship with her nephews — saying “I fail to see the relevance in that” — before permitting the testimony.
The proceedings focused on CYF’s due diligence in vetting Ms. Cutrary, Ms. Gana’s due diligence in traveling to the U.S. and the issue of biological vs. foster parent.
The actions of a son
According to court records, Charles Cutrary attacked his ex-girlfriend on March 19, 2006, threatening to kill her and cutting off her clothes while their 18-month-old son was in the home.
Seven weeks later, police reports show, Cutrary knocked on the door of the woman’s apartment and then fired a single shot through it. She was struck in the chest.
When police were looking for her son, Ms. Cutrary went with him to turn himself in, she testified.
Charles Cutrary, now 31, pleaded guilty in November 2007 to attempted homicide, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and aggravated indecent assault.
He was released from state prison on Oct. 18 to a halfway house in McKeesport. He remains on parole until 2022.
During Ms. Cutrary’s testimony, she acknowledged that Charles visits her home, often watching television or playing with the kids. But she denied knowing the details of the crimes for which he was convicted.
Instead, she described her son as a “very loving person,” who interacts well with her foster daughter.
CYF attorney Diann McKay and Mr. Gallagher repeatedly objected to Ms. Lubin’s line of questioning.
When the details of the crime were discussed, Judge DeAngelis said, “So, we are not even talking about a murder. We are not talking about a killing. I’m assuming the point is being made, of this gentleman having some exposure to this child.”
Ms. Hysong, the adoptive caseworker, testified that she did not know the charges upon which Charles Cutrary was convicted or that he is a Megan’s Law offender.
When asked why she never learned that information, Ms. Hysong said that Ms. Cutrary didn’t tell her.
“I asked her if he has a criminal record, and she said yes. And she really doesn’t like to talk about it. So I didn’t push any further than knowing that he has a criminal record,” Ms. Hysong testified.
Both Ms. Hysong and Mr. Walter testified that the criminal records of adult children who don’t live in the home are not relevant to whether a child is placed in a foster, or adoptive, home. It is not necessarily illegal for a Megan’s Law offender to have contact with children; it depends on the details of the particular case and terms of the convicted person’s probation or parole. Based on the circumstances of Charles Cutrary’s conviction, state police said, it is not a violation of his parole to be around children.
“What her adult children do is up to the adult children,” Ms. Hysong said. “It doesn’t have any bearing on the adoption.”
Ms. Hysong also testified concerning Ms. Cutrary’s references in her adoption petition, saying that she only checked one out of four and said that “we take what the references tell us at face value.”
Another issue of concern to Ms. Gana’s attorneys throughout the trial was a possible bias or prejudice expressed by Mr. Gallagher, the KidsVoice attorney.
During a recess in the trial on Oct. 30, according to the transcript, Mr. Gallagher said, while still in the courtroom, “You’d have [the child] picking [expletive] cocoa beans for KitKat,’” relayed Karen Kiefer, who was also representing Ms. Gana. “That’s a quote. That’s what he said.”
“That wasn’t on the record?” Judge DeAngelis asked.
“It was not on the record,” Ms. McKay answered.
“Okay, because I was going to say, if it was, I would have certainly been very taken aback. And it certainly would have been very alarming and troubling and a number of other things, as well.”
The issue was never addressed by Judge DeAngelis again.
Mr. Gallagher, who did not appear at the hearing where Ms. Kiefer raised the issue, no longer works for KidsVoice.
Jennifer McGarrity, the KidsVoice attorney who replaced Mr. Gallagher, said during the case that she believed Ms. Gana’s attorneys were putting CYF on trial.
“Exactly,” Judge DeAngelis responded.
“It’s not about the aunt’s efforts. It’s not about what CYF did or did not do. It’s about what is in [the child’s] best interest based on the current circumstances.”
Judge DeAngelis agreed, saying Ms. Gana should have filed a civil suit if she had an issue with CYF.
Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said he could not specifically comment about the ongoing adoption because of the gag order.
“In any case that involves the court, all sides have representation — the parents, the child and the agency,” Mr. Cherna said. “The judge gets all of that information and makes a determination. There are checks and balances in the system.
“Ultimately, the judge makes a call of what’s in the best interest of the child.”
Working with CYF
During her testimony, Ms. Gana told the court about her efforts to work with CYF to come to the United States. She described the problems she faced trying to get a visa, including requests twice to CYF’s Mr. Walter, the child’s foster placement caseworker, to get a letter on her behalf to present to the embassy. She said she believed she would get step-by-step directions, as she had from Westmoreland County in her nephews’ case.
But Mr. Walter testified that there were long delays between when he asked for Ms. Gana’s home studies completed by Cameroonian authorities, and when he received them, as well as delays in her answering his emails.
What he did not know then, though, was that Ms. Gana had been communicating with another CYF caseworker, Adrienne Winters, during that time period. Between October 2013 and March 2014, there were 27 emails among the parties and about a dozen Skype visits. Ms. Winters did not testify at trial.
While Mr. Walter was being cross-examined by Ms. Lubin, Judge DeAngelis interrupted, spending some 20 pages in the transcript criticizing Ms. Gana for hiring an attorney at the “eleventh hour” and not earlier in the process of trying to gain custody of her niece.
As for the timing of Ms. Gana’s travels, Mr. Walter acknowledged not sending the letter for her to obtain her visa to the embassy in Cameroon until the end of March 2014 — even though an email from Ms. Winters to Ms. Gana six months earlier acknowledged documentation would be necessary.
“I believe the key issue here was really one of timing,” Mr. Walter said on cross-examination. “I believe that it’s possible that there could have been a different result in this case had Ms. Gana come here much sooner.”
Family vs. Foster
Mr. Gallagher argued that Ms. Gana’s efforts to get to the U.S. were not relevant, because too much time had passed.
“[The child] has been out of her natural mother’s home for 1,220 days of which she has spent 931 of them in her current placement,” he told the court. “[I]t will be shown that this child is deeply bonded and attached to [Ms. Cutrary], just as [Ms. Cutrary] is bonded and attached to her.
“Yes, there is something to be said of blood relatives. However, blood is not everything, and as this court unfortunately has to deal with from time to time, blood can actually be a problem in a family.”
In 2013, the state legislature passed Act 55, Family Finding and Kinship Care, which sets standards and guidelines for child welfare agencies to follow when placing dependent children who are removed from their parents. It requires those agencies to search for extended family members who might be able to provide support to youth entering the child welfare system.
The idea, experts say, is that children who remain with a family member experience less trauma than if they are placed in the care of a stranger.
Joseph Crumbley, a Philadelphia-area expert in kinship care called by Ms. Gana’s attorneys, said preference should go to the family and that the child’s attachment to a foster parent wasn’t enough reason to keep the child there.
But court-appointed psychologist Terry O’Hara, who works in Allegheny County, said that it is, and recommended the child be placed with Ms. Cutrary.
Removing the girl from the “secure attachment” with Ms. Cutrary, Mr. O’Hara wrote in his report, “would be psychologically devastating” and forcing her to “adjust to a foreign culture” would be “extremely difficult.”
Mr. O’Hara evaluated the child and Ms. Cutrary, as well as with the child and Ms. Gana during her first in-person meeting with her niece. He said the interaction between aunt and niece was positive and suggested in his report that the girl be able to Skype weekly with her relatives and possibly spend one month per summer with her family in Cameroon.
Judge DeAngelis said during the trial that, if he places the girl with Ms. Cutrary, she cannot be forced to create a relationship with the maternal aunt, though he also had proposed that the parties stipulate to Ms. Gana’s “fitness” as a parent and character.
“We can probably do some stipulations on that. That she’s a good woman and is committed, which is why she has been here all this time and all those other virtuous things,” the judge said. But her role as mother to the girl’s brothers is “irrelevant,” he said.
“[T]hey are not lawful siblings. Because the mother’s rights have been terminated. So, if mother is no longer mother to [the girl], then she is no longer a legal sibling to the two boys. And we want to make that clear.”
Judge DeAngelis said that he was not applying a balancing test in the case.
“It’s not between the foster mother and the maternal aunt,” he said to Ms. Lubin. “This is about the best interest of the child.”
The right to family
Ms. Gana, who has been living with a host family that is part of a Greensburg Presbyterian church that she attends, has remained in the United States since her arrival in July 2014. She has not seen her own children since then outside of regular calls on Skype.
After having been threatened with contempt of court twice by Judge DeAngelis, Ms. Gana knows she is risking possible incarceration by speaking out about the case.
But she won’t give up.
In the Cameroonian culture, family is of utmost importance. Women consider nieces and nephews to be their own children — using the phrase “of the same womb” to refer to them.
“Family for us is until somebody dies,” Ms. Gana said. “There’s no excuse on earth before God and man not to take care of my niece. She has biological brothers. She has a family. I can give her history, her culture — everything that will make her whole.”
Ms. Gana’s experience during the trial and subsequent proceedings, she said, has been difficult for her — particularly in how she said she has been treated. “I have never felt so humiliated, downgraded and marginalized,” she said. “I have been treated like a criminal.”
Ms. Gana has no ill-will for Ms. Cutrary, whom she compliments for caring for the child so well.
“’Thank your other Mommy,’ Ms. Gana told the girl to relay to Ms. Cutrary during her one meeting. “’She does your hair really well, and give her a big hug and kiss for me.’”
“I did not come here to destroy anybody’s life or harm anyone,” she said. “I just came here to take my family.”