Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why entrust a child to a father guilty of domestic violence?

Michaela's '10 years of hell'
Happiness was fleeting amid turbulent home life
Kirby, Cassondra, Lexington Herald-Leader, March 18, 2007, pg. A1.

WINCHESTER -- "Oh my God," Rachel Samuels repeatedly whispered when she saw her dead baby girl laid out on a stretcher early last week in a funeral home in Lexington.

Samuels searched for traces of the daughter she knew: the blond-haired, brown-eyed angel with an innocent, ivory face and dreams of being a cheerleader.But a year had passed since Samuels last saw her, and that Michaela Watkins was gone.

In her place was a sickeningly skinny 10-year-old girl. A few cuts and large black bruises covered her face. Her cheeks were distorted and sunken. Her lips had been split, and chipped teeth were visible. Her nose was dented and unnaturally turned.

"There are no words to describe what my baby looked like," Samuels said. "It wasn't her -- her face -- it just wasn't her."

Michaela was found dead last Sunday in a Winchester apartment. Michaela's father, Patrick Watkins, and stepmother, Joy -- who had custody of Michaela for about a year -- have been charged with murder.

It was a harsh ending to a harsh life that one relative describes as "10 years of hell."

"I like to think that now Michaela's in the arms of the Lord," said Audrey Stokley, Joy Watkins' mother. "She doesn't have to be afraid any more."

When Samuels went to the funeral home to view Michaela, the girl's body was wrapped in a sheet. She was visible only from her shoulders up.

Authorities told Samuels that under the sheet the girl was "bruised from head to toe," had broken ribs, and severe burns on her lower body.

Samuels -- her whispers turning to screams -- had seen enough in her daughter's face. She didn't want to look at the rest of the girl's injuries. Samuels' husband of nearly four years, Keith Samuels, practically carried her from the funeral home.

"The picture that's in my mind of her. ... I'm a 42-year-old man, and I have not ever seen anything like that before," Keith Samuels said.

Authorities have not yet released the cause of death for Michaela. But the Watkinses -- who have declined interviews with the Herald-Leader -- have said her death was an accident. They told police Michaela burned herself last Saturday in hot water in the bathtub and then slipped and fell down the stairs.

The Watkinses said they didn't think Michaela's injuries were severe enough to warrant medical treatment. They found her dead Sunday in her bed.

Police have not said whether they believe the Watkinses' account. Authorities say the Watkinses are charged with murder for failing to get medical help for the little girl.

Witnesses told police Michaela had been dead for 45 minutes before anyone called an ambulance.

School was her refuge
Relatives and others who know the family said Michaela's short life was filled with hardship.

They described how Rachel Samuels used to leave Michaela home alone in Fayette County with her baby brother, Michael, sometimes all day and night. They talked about alleged drug use and filthy living conditions. They said the children slept on a dirty mattress on the floor. Their hair often wasn't combed, their clothes weren't clean and they often weren't bathed.

"But she was still a beautiful little girl," said Robin Jenkins, who taught Michaela while she attended Dixie Elementary in Lexington. Michaela first came to Dixie in October 2004, when she was in the third grade.

Jenkins, who teaches students with learning disabilities, said Michaela worked hard and went out of her way to please teachers, seeking hugs along with their approval. Jenkins still has a birthday card that Michaela made for Jenkins' dog.

On multiple occasions, school administrators called Rachel Samuels to pick up Michaela because the girl had head lice. Jenkins and other teachers suspected that Michaela's home life was a lonely one.

"That's probably why she really seemed to enjoy school," Jenkins said. "She was so starved for positive attention. I think she just wanted someone to love her. And we did."

In the fall of 2005, Michaela and her brother were placed in foster care after authorities discovered the girl home alone.

"I'll never forget it," Jenkins said. "Michaela came in and looked gorgeous. Her hair was shiny, and she was clean. She came to me and said, 'Mrs. Jenkins, I had a bath. Do I smell good?'"

Jenkins cried as she recalled how Michaela just couldn't stop smiling that day. Jenkins said she never knew the name of the family who cared for Michaela and Michael during that time.

"I just want people to know that there was a little bit of time in her life that she did have happiness," Jenkins said. "But it was a very brief happy time."

Keith and Rachel Samuels maintain that Michaela and Michael were healthy and happy while living with them. They say they both have kept steady jobs and are working in Lexington. Rachel has an associate's degree from Central Kentucky Technical College in medical administration.

They deny allegations of drug use and say that although they allowed Michaela to pick out her own clothes, she was clean.

"When the kids were with us, they were treated fine," Keith Samuels said. "She was sent home for head-lice, but when kids are going to school they are going to pick up things like that from other kids. That's normal."

Rachel Samuels does admit to leaving the children alone from time to time, for brief periods. She said she would have neighbors look in on them. The day that social workers came, Rachel said, she left Michaela home alone for about two hours while she went to a job interview. Michael was in day care. State officials placed both children in foster care.

Father given custody
After the children were placed in foster care, Rachel said, Patrick Watkins, who had not seen Michaela since she was 3 months old, gained full custody of the girl, who was then 9. Patrick and Joy Watkins also adopted Michaela's half-brother Michael, who isn't related to either of the Watkinses. Patrick and Joy Watkins have two children of their own, Zachary, 4, and Mariah, 6.

"I begged and pleaded with the judge not to give them to Patrick," Rachel said. "I said, 'If I can't have them, leave them in foster care.' But no one would listen."

She believes her pleas were ignored because she and Patrick had gone through a messy divorce, and court officials probably thought she was being vengeful in trying to keep the children away from him.

Rachel and Patrick were married in 1995, two weeks after she graduated from high school. They met while working at Hoover's Furniture in Lexington and dated only about six weeks before getting married, she said.

They moved in with Patrick's family, and Rachel soon became pregnant. Right away, she said she realized Patrick was not the man he had seemed to be. She said he was extremely jealous and would not allow her to leave the house. She said he threatened her, wouldn't buy groceries and would take food away from her while she was pregnant.

"A bully, a very angry man," Rachel says.

Rachel filed for divorce in 1996. The divorce petition mentions two incidents of domestic violence. In one, the petition alleges, Patrick "beat her about the head, stole her personal belongings, including her driver's license and all forms of personal identification."

The divorce was granted in July 1997, and Rachel got sole custody of Michaela. Patrick was ordered to pay child support of $332.58 per month. The divorce decree also mentions a domestic violence order against Patrick in Powell County. It ordered him to stay 500 feet away from Rachel or her house or members of her family for three years, until April 2000.

According to state records, Patrick Watkins has also been convicted of burglary and failure to pay child support. In February 2000, Patrick obtained a domestic violence order against Joy Watkins after she allegedly threatened him at home, busted his nose and called his work, threatening him and yelling obscenities.

At the time, he said he believed Joy Watkins "to be armed and dangerous."

Joy Watkins was found guilty of disorderly conduct. Patrick and Joy were ordered to stay away from each other until March 2003, but family members say they quickly reconciled.

Rachel Samuels and child welfare advocates have said that because of the domestic violence allegations involving Patrick and Joy Watkins, they should not have been awarded custody of Michaela or allowed to adopt Michael.

"They should have seen that he had a history of violence," Rachel said.

Moving to Winchester
Michaela was halfway through her fourth-grade year at Dixie Elementary when she told teachers she was moving to Clark County to live with her father. Jenkins -- who did not know the Watkinses -- said Michaela was excited about the move.

There was no way of knowing the girl would be dead in a year.

Last week, more than half a dozen neighbors and family members described acts of verbal and physical abuse by the Watkinses against the children, particularly Michaela. They said they had seen the couple slap Michaela, curse at her and call her names.

"She always looked so sad and lonely," said neighbor Nancy Bowling, 60.

Betty Stokley -- Joy Watkins' grandmother, who lives next door to the couple -- said she had seen Patrick kick Michaela in the back, knocking her down. Stokley said Michaela was often not allowed out of her bedroom. A potty was placed beside her bed because she wasn't allowed to use the bathroom.

Neighbor William Deaton's 10-year-old niece attended Shearer Elementary in Winchester last year with Michaela. He said Michaela told his niece that "her dad was being mean to her and beating her up."

Deaton said his niece told teachers and a guidance counselor about what Michaela had said. He did not know what came of it.

But Shearer Principal Ed Sigmon said there were "no signs that raised any red flags with us." Sigmon described Michaela as "an overachiever" who was sweet and loving.

The Watkinses withdrew Michaela from public school over Christmas vacation. Betty Stokley said the couple decided to home-school the child because she had health issues, including a problem with urinating on herself.

Betty Stokley said she never saw such issues. State laws governing home-schooling prohibited officials from investigating why Michaela was being home-schooled or whether she was receiving an appropriate education.

"It broke my heart," Betty Stokley said. "That child loved school. She just wasn't the same after that."

She said the girl rapidly began losing weight when she was taken out of school.

Despite her concerns, Betty Stokley said she did not notify social workers because she knew Patrick Watkins would cut her out of her grandchildren's lives. - BAD MOVE

"I thought this way I could keep a close eye on them," she said. "I don't know, maybe I should have done more." - YES, YOU SHOULD

Others said they did not notify authorities because they were intimidated by Patrick Watkins, who was known to curse at neighbors. - COWARDICE

"I can't down anyone for not wanting to get in the middle of something like this," said Audrey Stokley, Joy Watkins' mother. She said she made reports to police and social workers, but nothing was done.

There is no way to know how many times social services visited the Watkinses. Officials with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services declined to release information about Michaela because of the police investigation and to protect the confidentiality of her three siblings, who have been placed in foster care. The cabinet has launched an investigation. - OF ITSELF

Winchester police received one anonymous complaint on Jan. 26 that the Watkinses were not feeding Michaela. The call, which did not mention physical abuse, led to two home visits. Officers said Michaela looked "very skinny," but a social worker told them she had an eating disorder.

Social workers continued to monitor the situation and took Michaela to a doctor to be checked out at least once, police said. Officers said they saw no signs of abuse.

But Rachel Samuels said something was wrong -- Michaela didn't have any health problems before moving in with the Watkinses. She said the girl, who weighed 95 pounds about a year ago, looked like she had lost about 30 pounds since living with the Watkinses.

At her funeral, lots of love
Rachel Samuel's father, Gary Adams, broke down in tears Friday as he stood with his wife Debbie in front of Michaela's casket.

"She looks like an angel," Debbie Adams whispered.

Michaela's body was dressed in a white sweater and pink princess dress. A bruised hand poked out from the sweater's sleeve, but there were no other obvious signs of trauma.

Funeral officials worked on the girl from Monday up until a couple of hours before the visitation, Rachel Samuels said. Inches of makeup and paste covered the trauma. Officials suggested that the family have a closed casket.

Instead, they put a sign next to the open casket, requesting that visitors not touch Michaela.

Teachers, neighbors and children flowed into Franklin Avenue Church of the Living God. Teddy bears, flowers and handwritten cards from the girl's classmates decorated the room.

On one note, a fifth-grade student wrote a haunting message: "I wish you was here but with a different mom and dad."


Blogger the truth hurts said...

This is sooooo crazy, i have not seen anything like this in my whole life. The social worker was called (by the officers own admission) she looked tooooooooooooo skinney and the social worker shows up once to take her to a doctor. But the fkn crazy thing is the social worker has showed up to my house 3 friggin times because my oldest daughter has 3 unexcused absents, wtf. I mean the dumb a** social worker must have eyes (OR DOES SHE?!?!) and seen what the officer seen but yet ONLY CHECK ON HER ONCE ONCE ONCE...OMGOSH SMH And because my 7 year old daughter misses a little school they come 3 times....all because the system DOES NOT CARE THAT A CHILD IS BEING TORTURED AND ULTIMATELY IS MURDERED..WHAT THEY CARE ABOUT IS NOT GETTING THAT MONEY THEY MAKE OFF MY DAUGHTER WHEN SHE IS NOT THERE!!! SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO PATHETIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Those dumb a** social workers should be sued or LEARN HOW TO DO THEIR JOB!! I hope alllllllllll the ppl SOCIAL WORKERS LIVE THE REST OF THEIR LIVES HAUNTED BY WHAT THEY DID NOT DO TO HELP THE THIS ANGEL!!! I THOUGHT THAT WAS THEIR JOBS...guess not. Most of them only are worried about what they look like period!! When they do show up at my house (im thinking is this prom night or did i miss a wedding because thats what they are dress for) That 5 hours it takes half of em to get dressed, (which btw isn't helping u ladies sry :{) u could have been saving MICHAELAS' LIFE PERIOD Can anyone tell me who i can call to complain about this too????? pleeeeeeeeeeeeez let me know...thank u!!

8:23 AM  

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