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The Castillo Case

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

AMY CASTILLO went to court again and again to warn of the danger her estranged husband posed to their three small children. Once, she even defied the court's order allowing visits. Tragically, those efforts weren't enough for Anthony, 6, Austin, 4, and Athena, 3. Their deaths -- allegedly at the hands of the father feared by Ms. Castillo -- demand that Maryland officials figure out why layers of legal and health safeguards failed so terribly.

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Mark Castillo, 41, of Rockville, was charged with murder after he allegedly drowned the children in a Baltimore hotel bathroom. Records in the Montgomery County Circuit Court case attest to the ugliness of the Castillos' custody dispute; of the father's mental problems and of the mother's worries. "He told me what would be worse is if he killed all of us. Then he said actually worse than that would be if he killed the children and not me so that I would have to live without them," Ms. Castillo told Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. in an unsuccessful bid for an order of protection.

It's simplistic to blame the judge. During a two-hour hearing, Judge Dugan wrestled with conflicting "he said, she said" accounts. A court-ordered psychological evaluation had concluded that the "risk of harm Mr. Castillo poses to his children is low," while noting that he loved and cared for his children. The judge took the unusual steps of requiring Mr. Castillo to provide proof that he was in psychological counseling and appointing a lawyer to oversee the best interests of the children. Nonetheless, he was constrained by the strict standard of proof that Maryland has set for a protective order to be granted. For the past 20 years, there have been efforts to change the current standard of "clear and convincing evidence" to that used in many other states, "a preponderance of the evidence." The reform, a priority for those who work with victims of domestic abuse, has repeatedly fallen victim to the defense attorneys who control key legislative committees.

We are under no illusion that this one remedy would have averted the tragedy of the Castillo case. It is for that reason that this case should be reviewed by the General Assembly and the Maryland judiciary to see whether laws and procedures need changing. It is striking, for instance, how many judges cycled through this case over its nearly two-year course. Would there have been a different outcome if one judge had dealt with all aspects of the case and had the benefit of continuity? Similarly, does it make sense to rotate judges in and out of family court? A series of tragedies involving children in the District prompted the assignment of judges specifically trained to handle the complexities and nuances of family law. New programs are being developed to assess the risk of violence; some question whether the traditional adversarial system of justice is best suited to deal with emotional family matters.

All these issues are worth studying. And just as the legal system should examine its practices, so should mental health professionals do their own soul-searching. Expert after paid expert was called in to study the Castillo family. But none recognized the signs that Amy Castillo so clearly saw.


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