The Case from Hell Part 5

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

In late 1991, when Metro-Dade Police Sgt. David Simmons was assigned to investigate the latest child abuse allegations lodged against physicians Lisette and Andres Nogues, his colleague Det. Ellen Christopher issued an ambivalent sigh. On the one hand, she was thrilled an officer as competent as Simmons had inherited the Nogues case from her. On the other, she flat-out pitied him.

In the two years since state social workers had removed the Nogueses' seven minor children from their Kendall home, the "Case from Hell," as Christopher dubbed it, had devolved into the most tortured and time-consuming custody battle in Dade County history.

The ordeal, Simmons would learn, was rooted in a bitter feud between neurologist Lisette Nogues (pronounced no-guess), a strong-willed mother of nine, and her psychologically troubled eldest daughter, Michelle Porras. It had begun in September 1989, when fifteen-year-old Aimee Nogues accused her parents of abuse. Aimee soon confessed to police that she had fabricated the claims, at the bidding of her sister Michelle, in order to escape her mother's strict household. But juvenile court judges who believed her abuse story had forbidden the Nogueses from visiting their children, and entrusted care of the four youngest ones, aged four to nine, to 21-year-old Michelle and her husband Rick. By late 1991, when Simmons was handed the case, these children had begun alleging that they had been abused by their parents more than two years earlier, when they still lived at home.

A supervisor in Metro-Dade's child exploitation unit, Sergeant Simmons prided himself on being the sort of cop who could make sense of such quagmires. In two decades with the department he had won acclaim as a dogged and detailed investigator. Cautioned about the volatility of the Nogues case in a special meeting with prosecutors, Simmons set down three ground rules: He would bring along a witness to every interview, record all statements, and attempt to reconstruct the case from its outset.

It took just one interview for Simmons to gauge what he was in for. On December 4, 1991, he met with June Shaw, the court-appointed advocate, or Guardian Ad Litem, for the four youngest Nogues children. In the course of a six-hour interview, Shaw assured Simmons that the Nogueses represented a "textbook incest case." She branded Aimee Nogues a "compulsive liar" and declared that the parents were "mentally unstable." When Simmons raised the possibility of removing the children from the Porras household, Shaw uttered one menacing sentence: "Over my dead body."

"I was shocked," Simmons says now. "She knew the mother and Michelle were sworn enemies. She knew state law requires that kids be placed in a neutral setting. And yet she was ready to fight against it to the death."

Thus far Shaw has won. The Nogueses have not seen their four youngest children, who still live with Rick and Michelle Porras, in more than three years. Whether the kids will ever be returned to their parents A who have devoted their lives to that cause A is an issue slated to be resolved, once and for all, by a two-week evidentiary hearing in juvenile court commencing this Monday, April 12.

But whatever the outcome, Simmons says the Case from Hell has exposed the state's child-protection system as a bureaucracy so out of touch with the human consequences of its actions that it can hold kids captive to an alleged sociopath, imprison innocent parents, and ultimately destroy a family -- all supposedly for the sake of the children.

Even back in 1991, before he began his investigation, Simmons says he was dumbstruck by what he discovered in a review of the case history:

Det. Ellen Christopher, who spent seven months scrutinizing Aimee's claim, had concluded there was no evidence that Andres or Lisette Nogues abused any of their children.

In March 1990, just weeks after her parents had been found guilty on three of ten counts at a juvenile court trial, Aimee had confessed to Christopher that she concocted the allegations, with Michelle's encouragement.

Michelle Porras had a documented history of psychological problems, including sociopathic tendencies. As a teenager she had lodged false allegations of sexual abuse against Andres Nogues, an aspiring pediatrician.

After a second investigation, Christopher determined that the youngest Nogues, a five-year-old girl, may have been sexually abused while in the Porras home.

In the spring of 1990, Aimee and two of her siblings had run away from the Porras household, claiming that Rick was physically abusive to them and that Michelle had tried to turn them against their parents.

A few months later the Nogueses had been arrested for allegedly trying to contact their children. Andres spent five months in jail, Lisette two.

Christopher had filed a criminal complaint against June Shaw and Guardian Ad Litem attorney Robin Greene, alleging they had tried to sabotage her investigation. (Both women are currently targets of a criminal probe by a special prosecutor in Fort Pierce.)

Following an inquiry by the Governor's Office of the Inspector General, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) had filed a set of emergency motions in November 1991, urging immediate removal of the four Nogues children from the Porras home.

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.

Today Gievers says she entered the Nogues case for one simple reason: because four children were unjustly languishing in the foster-care system. "They needed an attorney," she explains. "And since I don't believe any child should be stuck in foster care, I said, 'All right, I'll represent them.'" Judging from court documents that chronicle her involvement, however, Gievers's explanation doesn't quite ring true.

In her initial appearance before a judge, July 11, 1991, Gievers identified herself as counsel for guardian June Shaw, not as an attorney representing the children. According to a memo sent that same day from Guardian Ad Litem program director Joni Goodman to Judge William Gladstone, "Karen Gievers has agreed to represent June Shaw and the Program in any depositions of June by the Nogueses' attorney, Edward Carhart."

Her more specific duty, Carhart asserts, was to keep Shaw -- whose actions in the case are now under criminal investigation -- from giving a sworn statement. As Guardian Ad Litem attorney Robin Greene explained a few months after Gievers entered the case: "I'm a separate attorney for the children. Karen Gievers, as a result of the criminal case, represents June."

In recent months, Gievers's claim that she represents not Shaw but the four youngest Nogues children, has led her to press relentlessly for the parents to be cut off from their kids altogether. While Gievers dismisses the shift as a semantic quibble, the Nogueses' lawyers argue that she is attempting to distance herself from June Shaw and the Guardian Ad Litem program specifically because federal law prohibits a guardian's attorney from presenting evidence in court of child abuse or neglect.

More telling, Carhart says, Gievers's actions have tainted her reputation as a child advocate. "If Ms. Gievers wants these kids out of what she calls 'foster care,' why has she served as the chief impediment to reunification of this family?" Carhart wonders. "Why did she lobby Judge Gladstone to disregard evidence that the children she calls her 'clients' are in danger in the Porras home?" Time and again, Carhart insists, Gievers's fiercely adversarial courtroom style has distracted attention from the real issue: the painful fracturing of the Nogues family. One such incident occurred last May, after New Times published a story detailing Diane Schetky's testimony. Gievers demanded an emergency hearing to hold HRS attorneys, the Nogueses, and their lawyers in contempt, based on her contention that someone had leaked Schetky's confidential report to the media. To Carhart it was just another example of Gievers's ability to shift the focus from human suffering to legal haggling.

Gievers, who is president of the Dade County Bar Association and an announced candidate for state insurance commissioner, stresses that she is merely defending her clients' rights. But Carhart says he has trouble understanding how her clients are served by maneuvers such as Gievers's recent demand for a hearing to determine if Andres Nogues's parents should be allowed to visit their grandchildren, whom they have not seen for almost two years. "What the hell have the grandparents done?" Carhart roars. "What is Karen Gievers doing trying to cut these four small children from every single member of their family? Is she afraid any outside contact will break Michelle's control over these kids?"

Yet despite her strident advocacy and long involvement in the Nogues case, Gievers appears surprisingly unfamiliar with some of its most important details. For example, when asked recently by New Times about Ellen Christopher's 1990 investigation of alleged abuse against the youngest Nogues child, which suggested the five-year-old had been sexually abused while in the Porras home, Gievers stated that she didn't have "a present recollection of that specific report."

Rather than address obvious mistakes made early in the case, she has repeatedly emphasized to reporters that her "clients'" wish to remain in their current placement. "Children have rights," she says. Gievers insists the Porras home is a healthy, "nonadversarial" setting.

For those who have watched the psychic transmutation of the four youngest Nogues children, that claim is dubious. Videotapes taken over the past five years reveal children who have had their identities slowly, mercilessly turned inside out. The parents they once adored have become objects of murderous hatred at the same time that a severe dependence on Michelle Porras has prompted one daughter to suggest that she would rather commit suicide than return home.

While the three older siblings are now living happily with their parents, their three younger sisters and brother remain phantom pawns, hidden from the press, shielded from the courtroom drama that swirls around them, and thanks to Gievers, forbidden from seeing any relatives besides each other and Michelle.

Home videos taped while the Nogues family was still intact picture all four children cavorting happily around their Kendall home, in company of parents, siblings, and numerous pets. Videotaped depositions taken in late 1989, just six weeks after their forced departure, reveal them to be in good spirits, if somewhat disoriented. Indeed, during these sessions, and in subsequent statements to police and HRS investigators, the youngest children repeatedly deny that their parents ever abused them. They express confusion about why they've been taken from their parents, and a desire to return home.

Virtually all that is known about life in the Porras household during the children's first year of exile comes from their older siblings, who describe Rick Porras as a bully who threatened to banish disobedient kids to a shelter, and Michelle as a master manipulator who waged a tireless campaign to vilify her parents. "I know what Michelle was able to do to my head," says Aimee, now a mature eighteen-year-old. "I was old enough to know better and get out of there. But I'll always regret leaving the little ones behind."

With good reason, according to court-appointed therapist Sim centsn Miranda, who evaluated the children on December 22, 1990. After fourteen months with the Porrases, Miranda found, the children's loyalties were woefully divided. The seven-year-old son, for instance, immediately identified his mother as the person he loves most in the world, but claimed he didn't want to see her. When Miranda asked why, he responded, "I cannot tell you." Asked if his mother spanked him, the boy answered, "No, she never spanked me but...yeah, she spanked me."

One daughter admitted she cried when she sees old family photos, but said she didn't know if she wanted to see her mother. "Because every time I'm next to her I start crying and then I cry for a long time," she explained. "I just don't want to lose my happiness." The eldest daughter, then eleven, swore her mother beat her and her father molested her, though she didn't have any memory of the molestation. Later she abruptly began to weep as she described her fear that her mother doesn't love her any more. Deeply troubled by the sessions, Miranda warned that, unless reunified with their mother, the alienation would deepen.

Fifteen months later psychiatrist Diane Schetky offered grim confirmation. "They are getting a very skewed picture of the parents," she testified. "[One child] at this point views his mother as Saddam Hussein. I find that rather extreme. I'm also hearing things that suggest they are parroting things they have heard from adults, such as, 'My daddy sex-abused us.' That's adult terminology, not something you expect from a seven-year-old child."

Schetky's bold testimony, in fact, prompted Rick Porras to dash off an ominous letter to Judge Gladstone. "I am willing to give my life for these children," he wrote in May 1992. "Now more than ever. I feel the doors are closing on us." Two weeks later the eldest of Porras's four foster children went a step further, phoning Lisette Nogues. "I'd rather die than go back with you," the twelve-year-old told her mother. "I wish you were dead."

In videotaped depositions taken this past July, all four children claim their father sexually abused them and their mother beat them. They insist they want to live with Michelle and Rick forever. The daughter who once cried at the sight of old family photos, now an extremely angry eleven-year-old, claims she doesn't want to see any of her older siblings, and echoes the threat of suicide if forced to return to her parents.

During the 1992 videotaped interviews, the eldest child is asked by her parents' lawyer to read a letter she wrote to her mother in March 1990, just six months after the state took her away. She recites the missive impassively, as if it were a court document: "We want to live with you. Every time we tell Michelle that we want to live with you she gets mad. [The two youngest siblings] always cry because they miss you. I love you and papa and so does everyone else. I hope the judge lets us see you soon. I am going to give this letter to someone to give to you because Michelle will not let us mail it to you." Asked about the letter in hindsight, the girl remarks: "I don't remember writing that.... People forge these days."

"It makes me cry to look at videotapes of these kids," says Ellen Christopher, a normally staid sex-battery detective. "To see what's happened to them in three years just kills me."

Ironically, Karen Gievers prepared these depositions for the express purpose of presenting them as evidence that her "clients" want and deserve to be placed permanently with Michelle and Rick Porras. Judge Ralph Person has declared that he intends to settle the Nogues affair with a two-week hearing set to commence April 12 in juvenile court. Each side has submitted a witness list in excess of 100 people.

An investigator from the prosecutors' office in Fort Pierce, meanwhile, will probably arrive in Miami amid this legal showdown to continue his probe of alleged wrongdoing by June Shaw, Robin Greene, and more than a dozen other child-protection officials who have played parts in the Nogues case.

Lisette and Andres Nogues, who have abandoned their medical practices and plunged into bankruptcy fighting to regain their children, frame the upcoming hearing in disturbingly simple terms: "We've got the facts," says Lisette Nogues, "and they've got the kids."

Aimee Nogues says she worries most about what will happen if Judge Person returns her siblings: "Michelle has got them convinced their parents hate them. She has them talking about suicide. I know Michelle. I don't want to think about what she's capable of if she gets desperate." Aimee, though, remains confident the kids will quickly readjust to their old home, if ordered by the judge to return.

But anyone who has witnessed the transformation of these children, the anguish and anger that has been poured into them, knows Person will not be able to attach a happy ending to the Case from Hell. In three and a half bruising years, the system charged with mending Florida's families has broken the Nogues family beyond repair.

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