The Case from Hell Part 6

False accusations. Emotional breakdowns. A system demonstrating its own incompetence. s just what happened in the courtroom.

The moment of truth had arrived, and attorney Karen Gievers was losing her grip. Her voice was cracking. Her eyes kept misting over. Much to the astonishment of lawyers and laymen alike, her questions were barely coherent. And those that did make sense were being summarily overruled by the judge. In this, the final week of a bruising month-long hearing to determine the fate of four young children, Gievers's customary command of the courtroom was crumbling.

The Nogues case had begun in September 1989, when fifteen-year-old Aimee Nogues accused her parents, Kendall physicians Andres and Lisette, of abuse. The state immediately removed the seven minor Nogues children and placed them with their older sister, Michelle Porras, and her husband Rick. Aimee soon admitted the allegations were not true and were concocted at Michelle's bidding, but state investigators and a juvenile court judge believed Aimee's claims, and prohibited the Nogueses from any contact with their children.

Since then Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) officials, two police teams, and a court-appointed national child abuse expert have investigated the case and concluded that the Nogueses were innocent. More disturbing, they had warned that the four youngest Nogues children were at risk in the home of Michelle Porras, who had a history of psychological problems and a deep-seated animosity toward her mother. Child advocates, led by guardian ad litem June Shaw, the children's representative in court, had opposed all efforts to reunite the family and clung to their original theory -- that the Nogueses were abusers. One police detective had become so infuriated by efforts to thwart her investigation that she initiated a criminal investigation against Shaw and other case workers.

In July 1991, Gievers volunteered to represent Shaw. But her attention gradually shifted to the children. In their name, she pressed for all ties to be severed with the parents. Juvenile Court Judge Ralph Person, the sixth judge to inherit the so-called Case from Hell, had pledged to settle the matter once and for all, either by reuniting the family or setting the stage for permanent separation. Gievers, already famous for suing the state on behalf of neglected foster children, now faced another high-profile opportunity to defend children's rights.

But the proceeding, which ran from April 12 to May 10, instead cast light on a system as dysfunctional as the families it sought to mend. In hour after hour of unassailable testimony, police and child abuse experts detailed how advocates ignored evidence of abuse in the Porras home, and helped manufacture the case against the Nogueses. Gievers's own witnesses had proved largely ineffectual.

At a juncture in her career when she could least afford a challenge to her competency, when she was edging toward the stage of statewide politics as a candidate for insurance commissioner, Gievers's advocacy had begun to look like misguided fanaticism.

Then, on May 4, as the most grueling day of the hearing wore down, even the judge had begun scolding her. The indignity was too much to bear. "I have been defamed publicly," Gievers lamented. Falsely accused. Slandered. "I am just trying to do everything I can to protect what's left of my professional integrity." Her quavering tone left little doubt: Karen Gievers, tough advocate for the protection of children, past president of the Dade County Bar Association, and a litigator celebrated for her clinical demeanor, appeared to be disintegrating.

Legal Armageddon is now over. Two weeks ago Judge Person issued a carefully worded order calling for the four youngest Nogues children to be returned to their parents -- who have not seen them since November 1989 -- after a period of readjustment and therapy. "The efforts to reunify this family," the judge declared, "must equal or exceed those used to keep them apart."

Reconciliation will not come easily. In three and a half years, the Nogues affair has become one of the most expensive and tortuous custody battles in U.S. history. Despite Person's early efforts to limit the scope of the hearing, it soon became clear that virtually every rancorous aspect of the case was going to be exhumed. In dramatic fashion.

Det. Ellen Christopher, the Metro-Dade sexual battery officer who had investigated Aimee's original claims, recounted that she had quickly grown to doubt the girl's vague and contradictory allegations. She also related how guardians ad litem June Shaw and Robin Greene had reacted when she questioned Aimee's credibility: by withholding vital evidence and denying her access to Aimee.

Christopher, who briefly considered arresting June Shaw, instead filed a complaint with the Dade State Attorney's Office in 1990. Janet Reno declined to investigate, citing a conflict of interest. But last year prosecutors in Fort Pierce launched a criminal investigation whose targets include Shaw, Greene, and HRS investigator Shelly Snodgrass. (The inquiry continues.)

Christopher also discussed a second investigation, involving the youngest Nogues children. Just six weeks after they had been moved to the home of their sister, Michelle Porras, one of them, a five-year-old girl, was examined at Jackson Hospital's Rape Treatment Center and found to have vaginal redness indicating a recent trauma. Case workers ignored this ominous finding and the children stayed with the Porrases.

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