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A Mother’s worst nightmare

By David Jaques

AJ with her son, Liam, and daughter, NakotaLosing a child is without a doubt the worst fear of any mother, or father for that matter. On Friday, November 16, 2007, that fear became reality for Geraldine K. Eckel when five uniformed, male officers appeared at her home and stripped her 7 week old infant Nakota Ruth Eckel from her arms. What ensued over the next two and a half years can be described as nothing short of a living nightmare for the young mother.

The scene in AJ’s (Geraldine’s nickname) home that evening was nothing short of confusing. The single, 18 year old mother, who was still living at home with her own mother, Kathy Perry, was caring for her daughter when a disruption in the household occurred, involving Geraldine’s brother Jared, who allegedly was under the influence of a controlled substance and had brandished a firearm.

Neighbors who had been in AJ’s home at the time called 911, upon which medical and law enforcement personnel were dispatched to the scene. Eckel’s brother, Jared, was arrested and taken into custody. As the officers conducted their investigation at the scene, according to Eckel, “The officers came in the house and told me they needed to take my baby.”

When a friend of Eckel’s mother stepped in front of the officers stating that they couldn’t take the child, he was arrested as well. Eckel said the officers then asked if anyone else had any questions; their tone implied if they spoke out, they’d be arrested too.

Eckel recalled that on that night “I asked the officers why they were taking my baby, and they wouldn’t tell me a reason.” It’s important to note that Eckel was not charged that night with any crime, nor have any charges been brought against her in the 2 ½ years since her child was taken from her. AJ said she went to bed and cried constantly throughout the night.

Documents filed by the Oregon Department of Human Services alleged that the home Ms. Eckel and her infant child were living in at the time, were “below minimum community standards” and that the “mother has no other resource for safe housing for herself and the child”.

Nakota Eckel now lives with Mike and Kim Root, both Douglas County deputies, who are serving as court appointed foster parents to AJ’s daughter, Nakota (known as Kota). Nakota was returned to her mother for a brief period in 2008, until a case worker for DHS came to the Safe Haven, the shelter home where Eckel was required to live under DHS order, and again removed her child from her.

Still not charged with any form of abuse or neglect, this time the reason cited for taking her baby from her was that she hadn’t bonded sufficiently. This however runs contrary to the eventual court testimony of virtually every staff member at Safe Haven, who had direct observation of the mother and her infant.

During the year and a half since the second removal of Kota from her mother, AJ gave birth to a second child, Liam Dale Pichette. AJ and Robert Pichette are married and raising their seven month old together while battling the system for the return of young Kota.

Though no charges were ever filed against either of the young parents, DHS opened a case on the Pichette’s baby boy Liam, and threatened to take him from the couple in the hospital at his birth unless they agreed to sign papers and follow DHS instructions.

Again, neither mother nor father had been accused of any illegal activity or endangerment of either of their children nor had they been in any other trouble with the law. The case file involving their newborn son Liam has since been closed.

Meanwhile in June 2010, the Pichette’s were subjected to three days of court proceedings to determine the fate of young Kota and who would be allowed by the state to raise her.

AJ with her son, Liam, and daughter, NakotaOregon Department of Justice lawyer, Herb Harry was brought in to represent the DHS. Another attorney, Thomas Bernier was hired to represent 2 year old Nakota and Kareen LaValley, with the Umpqua Public Defenders office, represented Geraldine (AJ) Pichette.

During public testimony it was disclosed that Judge William Marshall had worked with the Foster parents during his tenure in the District Attorney’s office. Marshall stated in court that the relationship was routine and part of the conduct of his office.

After several days of testimony by DHS case workers and expert witnesses called by the state, the only testimony offered in opposition to returning Nakota to her natural mother came from the DHS caseworkers and their legal counsel and none of it was based on allegations of abuse or neglect.

Virtually all other witnesses, including Douglas County Mental Health Specialist Vicki Roner, offered testimony in support of the natural mother keeping her child.

Roner, during her six interviews with the mother, Ms. Pichette, observed “she did not exhibit any symptoms” of depression as suggested by DHS staff. She also said she did not “meet mental health criteria” for treatment. She stated she was “concerned that there had even been a case opened”. Her final assessment was “No risk”.

Others who testified on behalf of DHS, including Corey McGovern, a case worker assigned to the case for over two years, offered repeated testimony that they believed a central issue involving the question of returning Kota to her mother was “bonding”.

Perhaps the two most damning accusations against AJ, revealed during court testimony, were her failure during a supervised visit to wipe Kota’s nose before the social worker could, and when during a Christmas visit, she failed to force Kota to open her presents in an “orderly” fashion. Kota was two years old at the time.

Meg Eastman a clinical psychologist hired by DHS didn’t agree. She offered a plan to DHS to gradually expand visitation, including contact with Robert Pichette, AJ’s husband and father to Liam, so that the family could develop a relationship together. Eastman wrote in her report “It is recommended that Ms. Eckel’s [Pichette] visitation be gradually expanded to include visitation in the parent’s home, at DHS with coaching, and in the foster home [Roots] and daycare setting.”

Eastman also wrote, “Ms. Eckel will be able to integrate effective parenting information and implement this, provided that she has a consistent nurturing support group and that the living environment/relationship[s] she has are stable, healthy, and has positive parenting values and priorities.”

Apart from having difficulty fastening a car seat “properly”, and being accused of insufficient bonding (even though her child had been removed from her care), AJ Pichette has never been accused of any form of neglect or abuse of either of her two children, nor has she or her husband been accused of any crime. Yet the fate of this young family, and that of 2 ½ year old Kota, hangs in the balance.

Closing arguments from the state and the defense were due to Judge Marshall by June 21. A decision is required within twenty days.

The foster parent, Deputy Kim Root, was asked in court by Tom Bernier; “You don’t want her [Kota] going back to her mother?” Root replied, “No I don’t”.

AJ Pichette isn’t wealthy, nor is she politically connected, but she faces what seems like insurmountable odds in her effort to simply get her daughter, Nakota, out of the clutches of the state. In 20 days AJ faces the real possibility that she may never be allowed to raise her own daughter as the state moves for permanent placement in a foster home.

What appears to be at issue is whether a young mother can withstand the forces of DHS, the Department of Justice, and two foster parents who don’t want to let go of her beautiful healthy young daughter.

The larger question some may ask is; without ever being charged with neglect or a crime, could this happen to you?