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Deaths of 3 Children Test Md. Legal System
Judges Let Father Keep Visitation Rights

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.

In the Castillo case, court filings show nasty e-mails from Mark Castillo to Amy Castillo, an occasional terse text message from Amy Castillo to Mark Castillo, and dueling versions of a dust-up over the children at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, which drew police officers.

Further complicating the picture: There were no reports of physical abuse, and Amy Castillo initially agreed to unsupervised visits.

"It's an area where there is no magical bright line. These are cases that challenge even the best judges," Gelles said. "The trouble is that hindsight is perfect."

The case began July 19, 2006, when Amy Castillo filed an emergency request for sole custody of her children, saying she feared for the safety of Anthony, Austin and Athena, who were then 4 years old, 2 years old and 8 months, respectively. Her filing said Mark Castillo appeared to be suffering from mental dissociation and a month before had placed bracelets on the children's wrists while they slept as a remembrance of him after his imminent death.

The couple's relationship itself was troubled. They had met about nine years earlier, when Mark Castillo came through Charleston, S.C., as part of a traveling gymnastics and trampoline show. After they married, Amy Castillo, a pediatrician, became the primary wage earner. By 2006, he had moved out and was staying in his car, with friends or in rented rooms nearby.

Amy Castillo secured a court-ordered psychological evaluation of her husband. The 18-page, single-spaced report detailed a host of erratic behavior: Castillo once tried to sell a Furby robot toy along a busy roadside, displaying it in a bird cage; he increasingly had talked about suicide as his 40th birthday approached and had hatched the Home Depot plan; he seemed to hold repressed anger.

The psychologist, C. David Missar, noted indications of mood disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

But Missar also noted that Castillo spoke of his love and commitment to his children.

"While there is no absolute certainty regarding predictions of future behavior," Missar wrote, "from my review and assessment, the acute risk of harm Mr. Castillo poses to his children is low, providing he continue with his psychotherapeutic treatments."

The couple devised an agreement allowing Mark Castillo to have unsupervised visitation. Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson signed off on the plan.

Because the cases are so stressful, many jurisdictions, including Montgomery, limit judges' time in family court to 18-month rotations. That has judges cycling in and out of cases, making larger patterns harder to discern. In the Castillo case, at least four judges issued key orders.

"You have very little time to make a very important decision," said Paul McGuckian, a retired 16-year Montgomery County Circuit Court judge who had no role in the Castillo case. "We literally talk about this often at lunch, about domestic violence issues, and what do you do? In the vast majority of cases, you err on the side of protecting, but you also have to protect the rights of the other party."

Cases that turn out like the Castillos', McGuckian said, "are judges' greatest fear."

Maryland requires circuit court judges to attend a three-day family law seminar at least once every five years. Advocates for domestic violence victims say some judges need more training to help them recognize the more subtle signs of abusive relationships, including nonviolent but controlling behavior. They say judges also should use the kind of detailed checklists that many police officers use to determine lethality risks after violence in homes.

"Getting a letter from a therapist isn't the same as following a 15-point questionnaire for risk factors," said Eugene Morris, manager of the Montgomery County Abused Persons Program.

As Amy Castillo's case moved through the system, according to court records, she expressed concern that her husband had refused mental health treatment.

"I'm no longer seeking therapy," he told a court official during a Dec. 2, 2006, hearing. "I'm just trying to make it clear so nobody bugs me about it."

Case evaluator Ann Hurwitz, who spoke to 11 people and reviewed medical reports, noted that he appeared to have no job or place to live: "When I met with him, he seemed to spurn the idea that either was a necessity of life," she said.

Hurwitz said in court that Amy Castillo was mainly concerned about the safety of her children and treatment for her husband. She didn't think divorce was an option because of her religious beliefs.

Audio recordings reveal that Amy Castillo generally maintained a straightforward and measured tone in court. Her husband sometimes grew testy and argumentative with judges, speaking quickly and at great length.

Tensions grew outside court, too. On Christmas Day 2006, the children were with Mark Castillo, and Amy Castillo didn't know where they were, according to her statements in court records. She asked the court to halt visitation and sought a protective order.

She told Circuit Court Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. that her estranged husband had recently busted out the front lock and a window and that he had told her the worst thing he could do to her was kill the children.

"Are you fearful today that he may at some point harm you and the children?" her attorney, Vanessa Atterbeary, asked.

"Yes," she said.

Dugan called the case "very disturbing," saying both parents had credibility problems. He denied the protective order and allowed unsupervised visitation to continue but required Mark Castillo to provide proof that he was attending psychological counseling and appointed a lawyer to look out for the children's interests.

Maryland law might have made it more difficult for Dugan to grant the protective order. The law mandates "clear and convincing" evidence of abuse to issue permanent protective orders. Other civil court matters require "a preponderance of the evidence." Efforts to apply that standard to protective orders have failed in the legislature.

The case was costing Amy Castillo a lot of money. She was required to pay alimony and cover her husband's earlier legal bills, even as she said he showed little interest in seeking full-time employment.

By last April, Amy and Mark Castillo were representing themselves in court, with Mark Castillo using a Silver Spring post office box as his mailing address. He soon would be filing legal motions that cited case law and demanded documents from his estranged wife. Amy Castillo told the court she had forked out $57,000 in attorneys' fees and was insolvent.

Mark Castillo also e-mailed her directly, in one instance refusing to allow his wife to have the children on one of his visitation days, which fell on a day she had taken off from work. "Please learn to take no for an answer and not bug me again about it," he wrote, according to the case file.

Three weeks later, in a text message, Amy Castillo told her husband that she would cut off his contact with the children: "They will not be available for visitation until this matter can be heard in court."

For two stretches -- 43 days and 40 days -- she kept her husband from seeing them, according to a court filing by Mark Castillo's counselor. At one point, she was held in contempt of court and faced a $2,500 fine.

"Sometimes you just have to be aggressive and proactive," Amy Castillo said Thursday at a news conference. "And do what you think is right, even if it doesn't fit in with what the courts are saying. Sometimes I took the children and hid them in someone's home until the court could make a further decision because I truly was scared, and I was willing to accept the consequences."

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