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Man who lost son hopes to win appeal

The boy was placed in foster care after a brain injury rendered his father, a convicted sex offender, unfit to be a parent, according to a family court.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If Paul Warren hadn't fallen off a ladder at work four years ago, he almost certainly would still have his son. Instead, Warren's brain injury made him an unfit parent in the eyes of the Jefferson County Family Court. His boy wound up in foster care and is now on the verge of adoption.

That much about the case is simple.

But the rest is a tangled dilemma that the Missouri Supreme Court has been asked to unravel.

Caught in the middle is a 6-year-old boy whose memory of his biological father fades with each month he spends with his prospective adoptive family.

To hear Warren and his lawyer tell it, the case boils down to a man losing his child solely due to bad luck.

Others say there's more to the story, not just the question of whether Warren's brain injury makes him a risk to his own son.

That's because Warren also is a convicted sex offender, who served eight years for abusing two female relatives who were juveniles at the time.

But whether that criminal history even has bearing in the case is one of the decisions the Supreme Court must make. As it is, Warren cannot visit his son and has lost all legal rights as a father. A ruling is expected this summer, perhaps as early as today.

In the meantime, Warren keeps a room ready for the boy in a trailer that the father shares with his sister in Old Monroe in Lincoln County. It's a modest, unadorned bedroom with a dresser full of clothing the boy has never worn and probably has long outgrown.

"I would do anything to get my son back, " Warren said. "I just want to know how tall he is."

Warren's parenting troubles began when he lost his footing on a 40-foot ladder while installing brick around a window in January 2000. The injury landed him in the hospital for three months and in 24-hour rehabilitative care for nearly two years beyond that.

After the accident, Warren's wife was left to care for the couple's 2-year-old son alone. According to court records, it was a task that she could not handle.

In May 2001, the state Division of Family Services took custody of the boy after the mother, living in Jefferson County, was found to be "incoherent, intoxicated, and unaware of the juvenile's whereabouts." The child has been in foster care ever since.

Warren has since divorced his wife and doesn't take issue with the fact that the boy was removed from her care. Nor does he believe that he could have taken custody of his son while he was still in rehabilitation.

The problem, says Warren's lawyer, is that the father was never allowed to recover from his injuries before having his son taken away for good.

"It's absolutely clear that this gentleman can take care of this child, " said Craig Kallen, in arguing for his client before the Supreme Court last month.

The circumstances of Warren's case are unusual, but the questions raised by it are not.

The Missouri Supreme Court is often asked to overturn cases where children were taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect. Typically, parents like Warrenturn to the high court after their parental rights have been terminated -- a legal act that cuts off all ties with their children, clearing the way for adoption.

In reviewing such cases, the standard isn't whether a parent is perfect. Poverty, a lack of education and even past crimes shouldn't on their own disqualify a parent from being reunited with his or her own children.

The question is whether a parent's legal rights were severed based on "clear, cogent and convincing evidence" that to do otherwise would harm the child.

The abuse factor

In Warren's case, the Jefferson County juvenile officers and the Division of Family Services both argued that the accident permanently reduced Warren's mental capacity and made him a risk to his child's safety.

"The father has a mental condition that renders him cognitively unable to parent, " said Theodore Allen, a lawyer representing the Jefferson County court, in his oral arguments before the court last month.

A key witness in the lower court's decision was a psychologist who determined that Warren suffers from a "cognitive disorder" and "could make errors, bad decisions, and exercise poor judgment and place the child in danger."

Warren was portrayed as lacking even a basic understanding of what's required of parenting. His own court testimony was offered to the Supreme Court as evidence.

When asked how he would support his child financially, Warren testified: "I was planning on supporting him by having his own toys, a swing set. . . . And I'd just always have him play, and I would buy him toys for the house and everything he wanted."

But Warren's lawyer said the same exams used as grounds to take Warren's son show his IQ at 81, which is below average, but not considered mentally deficient.

Other tests found he has only a moderate level of psychological difficulty.

At the home he shares with his sister, Warren appears to live a largely independent life. But he doesn't work. Half of his monthly disability check of $1,100 covers rent and a few other bills.

The head injury has left a large dent near his left temple. His speech is often slow, his words simplistic, but he has a command of every detail of this court case and can easily lay out its detailed chronology.

During Supreme Court oral arguments, Chief Justice Ronnie White wondered whether Warren's disabilities were enough to deny him his son.

"How is this case different, say, from a 14-year-old who has a child and lives at home with her mother and maybe has a low IQ?" he asked.

The answer to that question, in the eyes of some, has to do with Warren's criminal history.

In 1986, Warren was convicted of sexually abusing two girls in his extended family. He served eight years in prison on three counts of sexual abuse, two counts of rape and one count of sodomy.

He offered police a confession but today says it was forced from him.

Because those crimes took place before Warren's son was born, they were not formally part of the decision to keep him from reuniting with the boy. Even so, his criminal history was enough to tilt the scale for the expert witness who offered the psychological assessment.

That psychologist, James Powers also was troubled by an incident that occurred while Warren had a visit with his son from foster care.

According to court records, Warren joined his 4-year-old son in the shower after the boy asked for help getting clean. Warren said that the shower was innocent and that his own mother was in the next room. Since the incident in February 2002, all visits between the father and son have been cut off.

In assessing the father's parenting skills, Powers said the past crimes and the showering incident changed his perspective on Warren's diminished mental condition.

"When I combine all those together, in my opinion it raises serious questions regarding his son's safety if he had primary responsibility for his son, " Powers said, according to court documents.

But Kallen said the lower courts gave too much weight to his past crimes. And he argues that even if those crimes are factored in, it's unjust to deny Warren his son. After all, he said, criminal sentences don't include edicts that a parent shall never care for children again.

Kallen is asking the Supreme Court to restore Warren's parental rights, clearing the way for a reunion. Barring that, the lawyer wants a new trial so Warren's parenting ability can receive a more thorough review.

At least one Supreme Court judge expressed sympathy for Warren during oral arguments.

"None of this was his fault, " said Judge Richard B. Teitelman. "He was trying to be a conscientious father. There's no evidence whatsoever that he wouldn't continue trying to be a conscientious father."

Hope for reunion

As Warren waits for the Supreme Court to rule, he said he recognizes that his son may now be living with a family with more money and a better education.

But he said that can't replace the biological bond between a father and son.

As the case drags on and the boy enters his third year without seeing his father, Kallen said a quick resolution is critical.

Warren, meanwhile, has structured his life on the premise that his son is returning to it.

He has slowly outfitted the room that he imagines his son filling one day.

His sister has to keep him from buying new outfits for the boy. And when told that it's possible that his son will have forgotten him after two years, he defiantly disagrees.

"No, no, I know he'll remember me, " he said. "I know he will. I have the faith in God that I'm going to get him back."

Warren has invested that confidence in the room that awaits his son.

Propped in a corner are two new fishing poles, eager for their first outing.

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