Ella Vitalis was only three weeks old when her parents brought her to the hospital with two broken ankles, a fractured skull and a brain hemorrhage.
The couple, who had been visited by police after a domestic-violence incident, offered no explanation for their daughter’s injuries.
After an investigation, the Administration for Children’s Services took Ella and her brother, who was a year older, into foster care because they were at “substantial risk of death.”
That risk didn’t seem to matter to Judge Erik Pitchal, who — even after another incident a few months later in which Ella’s tongue was lacerated when her father was left alone with her during a visit — decided to reunite these children with their family.
Within a few weeks, Ella, 1, was dead from cardiac arrest.
Police says she suffered a blunt force injury to her head while with her parents.
Doctors found bruising, cuts, a swollen eyelid, bite marks and a broken jaw.
If there were any justice in this city, Pitchal would be run out of town.
The ideology of “family preservation” now plagues city Family Court.
Ella isn’t the only tot to wind up dead after a clueless judge put this idiocy ahead of all common sense, nor even the first we know about: Julissia Batties was beaten to death after another family court judge sent her back to her abusive mother, over ACS objections, after she’d been living safely with her grandma.
While ACS and other child-welfare agencies reasonably take much blame for child fatalities when the children are known to the system — agency workers are responsible for keeping tabs on what is going on in the home after families are reported for abuse or neglect — judges ultimately decide if and when a child should be removed from her family and whether she should be returned.
To understand Pitchal’s decision — one that should baffle any sane observer — it’s worth looking at the philosophy this Yale Law School graduate laid out in a 2019 essay in the Children’s Rights Legal Journal called “From Paternalism to Process.”
After a whopping five years on the bench, Pitchal reflected on “having essentially grown up, professionally speaking, in parallel” with the field of family law.
You see, Pitchal understands what kids like Vitalis were experiencing because when he was 11 his parents went through a contentious divorce and he felt like his own lawyer didn’t listen to his concerns.
Never mind that his case had nothing to do with child abuse and that he was old enough to voice those concerns.
Earlier in his career, as a lawyer for children at the Legal Aid Society, Pitchal determined that his role was to “advocate for the client’s goals, not for what [I] thought was best for them.”
And he proudly notes that when he followed this path, “I discovered that I was regularly fighting to get kids who were already in foster care out, and to prevent those who were not yet there from going in.”
He explains: “It turned out that children wanted their parents to get help and support, and to do a better job raising them, but they did not want to be separated from their families.”
It’s true that kids, even kids of abusive or neglectful parents, love their parents and often want to be with them.
Unfortunately, they are children and can’t assess the risks of abuse or severe neglect from parents who are violent or suffering from drug addiction or mental illness.
Pitchal wasn’t even willing to make such a determination for young children, though.
“I still remember the first time I refused to take a position [on the best interests of a child]. It was an abuse case, and my two-year-old client had been severely burned.”
“The parents asked for the child to be returned from [foster] care. . . I had no idea what happened to my client.”
Pitchal proudly reports that the judge “thanked me for my integrity.”
Pitchal regularly cites NYU law professor Martin Guggenheim, who argued that child protective services regularly take children away from their families unnecessarily, and for reasons that usually boiled down to poverty — an idea for which there is scant compelling evidence.
Guggenheim concluded that family preservation and family reunification is almost always the right course of action for children.
(Even he allowed that in cases with serious threats of violence, that might not be a good idea, but apparently Pitchal tuned out that part.)
Much of Pitchal’s idea of family-court jurisprudence is complete nonsense and has little to do with kids who actually need intervention from the judicial authorities.
“Around the world,” Pitchal muses, “children are active participants in youth assemblies, school advisory councils, and other quasi-legislative arenas, helping adults decide matters of direct importance to young people.”
He cites environmental-activism and gun-control protests and notes that Americans are very far behind the rest of the world in letting kids tell us what to do.
Pitchal thinks he is expressing humility when he talks about how “I was a twenty-something white man and did not think I was in much of a position to say what was ‘best’ for most of my clients, who were so different from me in so many ways.”
True, Pitchal’s privileged uprbringing — Rye Country Day School, Brown University, Yale Law School — means he probably can’t imagine what it’s like to be a child trapped in a home with abusive drug addicts, for example.
But the reason we have family-court judges, lawyers and ACS caseworkers is that when children are reported to be in danger, we need grown-ups to investigate, reach conclusions and determine where the kids will be safe.
If Judge Pitchal is unwilling to do that, maybe he should find another line of work.