Deaths of 3 Children Test Md. Legal System

Amy Castillo, right, with friend Cheryl Wharton at McLean Bible Church. Castillo is the mother of the slain children.
Amy Castillo, right, with friend Cheryl Wharton at McLean Bible Church. Castillo is the mother of the slain children. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Morse and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 6, 2008

One thing seemed clear to Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Michael Mason: The man in front of him had trouble controlling his anger.

"You're your own worst enemy," Mason said.

"I'm not," Mark Castillo shot back.

"Yes, you are," Mason said. "You should hear yourself."

But a social worker's report indicated that Castillo posed little risk to his three young children. And the law set a high bar for denying visitation rights. Mason, like another judge before him, allowed Castillo to continue unsupervised visits with his children.

The hearing last year was one of many pivotal moments in Amy Castillo's 21-month battle to protect the three children from their father. Last weekend, police said, Mark Castillo drowned the children one by one in a bathtub inside a Baltimore hotel room and then tried to kill himself. He has been charged in the killings.

"It was very frustrating," Amy Castillo said Thursday of the court system's handling of the case. " . . . Definitely there were certain people that did [listen] and certain people that didn't listen."

As with all Maryland cases in which children are killed, a "fatality review" team of police, social workers and court personnel will examine whether the legal system fell short and, if so, how it could be improved.

A review of the case files, stuffed into four court folders in Rockville, reveals what experts in family law and domestic violence say were warning signs: Mark Castillo's diagnosis of mental illness, coupled with his resistance to treatment; his reportedly telling his wife that the worst thing he could do to her would be to kill their children; his repeated talk of suicide, including a trip to Home Depot to buy ant poison and duct tape to keep his mouth shut after ingestion.

The Home Depot purchases in particular signaled danger, said Richard J. Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice and an expert on family violence.

Fathers who fight for custody with obsessive zeal often begin to see their children as part of themselves, Gelles said. For some who become suicidal, Gelles said, "killing their children is part of a broader process of killing themselves."

In the trenches, court officials often are overwhelmed by the sheer number of custody disputes and must sort out real threats from simple acrimony.

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