The Case from Hell Part 5

The most notorious child-custody battle in memory heads for its bitter end

It was in the wake of these motions -- which explicitly warned that Michelle might influence her younger siblings to fabricate new allegations against their parents -- that Simmons was called in.

As he set about investigating, the court proceedings dragged on. Juvenile Court Judge William Gladstone refused to rule on the HRS emergency motions, remarking at one point: "[The children] are settled in. Just like we said before. Even if [the Porrases] are abusing them, they're settled in." Instead the judge ordered a nationally recognized sex-abuse expert, Dr. Diane Schetky, to review the case and provide a definitive resolution.

On April 23, 1992, after four months of research, psychiatrist Schetky flew down from Maine to testify. She warned that the Nogues children risked physical and psychological harm in the Porras home and urged their removal. She described Michelle's "sociopathic tendencies," cited a "risk of sexual abuse by Rick Porras," and chided guardian June Shaw for "unprofessional conduct." (Guardian Ad Litem officials earlier had lauded Shaw for her "heroic" conduct in the Nogues case, and promoted her from a volunteer to a paid supervisor.)

Though all parties, including Shaw, had explicitly agreed to abide by Schetky's recommendation, Gladstone refused to reunite the Nogues family. The judge, a founder and vocal supporter of Dade's Guardian Ad Litem program, ordered that Shaw's attorney, Karen Gievers, be allowed to "cross-examine" Schetky.

"It was my impression they would pay some heed to my recommendation," a bemused Schetky says today. "In hindsight I can see the guardians were only interested in what I had to say in so much as they agreed with me."

Simmons finished his meticulous report in June 1992, two months following Schetky's testimony. After reviewing 6400 documents and conducting numerous interviews, he and fellow investigator Det. Dan Rivers concluded that the allegations made by the youngest Nogues children were untrue. Most likely, his report stressed, the vague claims of abuse were the product of "prolonged negative exposure of the four children" to Rick and Michelle Porras, June Shaw, and others with an "overt hostility" toward Lisette and Andres Nogues. "These kids were programmed by adults," says Simmons. "That came through real clear. They had rehearsed their stories."

Michelle and Rick Porras declined comment for this article. "I really don't think the foster parents have to defend themselves," says their attorney, Margarita Fernandez. "They were asked to take these children into their home. They have complied with every court order. There is no objective evidence that the children are in any harm. According to school counselors and health-care professionals, they've made improvements with the Porrases."

Like Ellen Christopher, Simmons quickly grew exasperated by judicial inaction. Two months after completing his report, he took the extreme measure of submitting an affidavit to Judge Gladstone, imploring him to relocate the children. But Gladstone, whom the Nogueses had accused of bias, removed himself from the proceedings this past June. In the ensuing months, the Nogues case bounced between judges, before landing earlier this year in the lap of Chief Juvenile Judge Ralph Person.

Simmons's frustration with HRS was even more demonstrative. The agency, which is the legal guardian of all foster children, responded to Schetky's report by devising and promoting a plan to reunite the family. But local officials have since balked at the crucial first step: removing the children from the Porras home.

Anita Bock, HRS's deputy district administrator, concedes that her agency has the statutory power to move the children to a neutral setting. But she insists "all hell would break loose" if she did so without a judge's permission. "HRS has done everything in its power to move this family closer to reunification," she contends. "But we're not in the driver's seat."

Local HRS officials have also backed off from the emergency motions filed by their superiors in November 1991. "I do not believe the children are at risk, physically, in their current placement," Bock notes, adding, "I can't speak to the psychological or emotional impact of all this."

Sergeant Simmons says he has never heard of a case in which HRS refused to act on a police warning that children are in danger. In the Nogues case, two such warning have been issued, Christopher's and his own. This past October Simmons grew concerned that the agency might not be acting in good faith. He says he received information from two sources indicating that HRS attorneys had conspired to undermine reunification of the Nogues family.

On October 6, Simmons met with HRS District Administrator Jim Towey to discuss this allegation. Simmons says the normally jocular administrator flew into a rage upon hearing the allegation, and implied that he could have Simmons taken off the Nogues case "with one phone call" to his well-placed friends at Metro-Dade Police.

Towey freely admits he was incensed during the encounter. "I felt like I'd been lured into a meeting under false pretenses," he says. "Here he presents this sensational claim and comes forward with not one shred of evidence. That's why I was upset and why I felt like telling his boss. He was way out of line."

The same combative spirit has prevailed in court, where Karen Gievers and the Nogueses' attorneys continue to file motions and countermotions, while HRS lawyers play the futile role of peacemaker.

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