Third in a three-part series.

When a child is removed from a home, placement with a relative — kinship care — is a regular procedure in Maine.

During 2007, the year the Russell and Eleanor Handlers’ parental rights involving their son David were terminated, the Department of Health and Human Services removed 381 children from homes after parental rights were terminated. According to documents provided by the department, 101 of those children were placed with relatives on the date of the termination.

“It is the expectation … that relatives will be given priority consideration as placement resources, both temporary and permanent, for children involved with the child welfare system,” according to the Office of Child and Family Services’ kinship care policy. It has been in effect since 2000.

Brenda Harvey, former DHHS commissioner, said in a 2010 interview with The Portland Press Herald that the department focuses more on kinship care, or keeping children with relatives, than foster care.

The Handlers’ lawyers, Eric Mehnert and Joseph Baldacci, also assert the best place for a child who has been removed from his or her home is with relatives. Studies demonstrate that children placed with relatives have better mental and emotional well-being than those placed in homes without a relative, they said.

So why wasn’t David placed with a relative?

Court records indicate neither Russell nor Eleanor Handler asked for kinship placement for David during the proceedings that led to the termination of parental rights.

After David was removed, relatives and friends of the Handlers, at their request, petitioned to take custody of David. By then, however, court records indicate a foster family had started the adoption process.

The Handlers, though, filed paperwork in 2005 to become David’s legal guardians and in 2007 visited Maine to seek placement, said Russell’s mother, Marjorie Brickman Kern. Now in her mid-80s, Kern is a former teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City and herbalist who lectured at the New York Botanical Garden.

In a child protective transcript dated Feb. 4, 2009, in Maine District Court in Rockland, Rosemary Fowles, attorney for the state, said kinship placement for David with Russell’s mother was investigated.

“The only family name we were ever given was Mr. Handler’s mother, and she was blind — I believe blind or — I can’t remember the details now, but this child was placed with a fictive kin,” Fowles said, according to the transcript.

Fictive kin are people unrelated by birth, adoption or marriage, but who have an emotional relationship that has characteristics of a family relationship.

Russell contended that his mother has been legally blind since he was a child and that did nothing to stop her from being independent, accomplishing a great deal and traveling extensively to Europe.

In 2007, when David was removed from the Handlers’ care, Kern and Russell were embroiled in a bitter legal battle involving their family’s 21-acre estate on Long Island’s Gold Coast, the tragic details of which would be compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.”

The estate’s address was Gatsby Lane, after all.

Family ties

The family dispute started in 2006, according to The New York Times, and involved Kern, Russell and his brother, Frederick.

Russell and his mother sued Frederick, claiming he had fooled Kern into selling him her share of the vast estate — which features a vineyard, a lily pond, tennis and squash courts, a horse paddock, a greenhouse and gardens — as well as putting the family nearly $2 million into debt.

According to Baldacci, Russell’s family’s wealth was, in part, amassed by his grandfather, a prominent attorney involved in real estate.

It was alleged that Kern discovered the trickery when she and Russell tried to transfer her share of the estate into a trust for David Handler.

Frederick, an attorney, told the Times that Kern was well aware she had sold him her share of the property and scoffed at his brother’s claims.

“He’s (Russell) coming to her rescue? It’s absurd,” Frederick said. “I wish my brother well. I just don’t want to have anything to do with him and the madness that seems to surround him.”

Seven months later, Frederick was found dead on the estate’s lawn.

According to New York press reports, Frederick, who reportedly had health problems, including cancer and a bout of toxic sepsis, was found lying on the ground March 5, 2008. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Another New York newspaper, Newsday, cited police sources as telling the family it appeared Frederick had slipped and fallen.

Russell was at the estate at that time, visiting his mother. He told The New York Times he learned of his brother’s death around midnight when police knocked on the door. Calls for comment to the Nassau County Police Department, which investigated the case, were not returned.

“It’s a tragedy,” Russell told Newsday about his brother’s death. “It’s a tale that is almost unbelievable.”

The Handlers said it would be in David’s best interest to be with them. They said he loved spending time with Kern in Long Island and that he has his own suite of rooms at the estate.

They said they love David and can assure he will be financially secure and have ample resources to attend college.

Russell said he and David are sole heirs to his mother’s estate. Eleanor has a multimillion-dollar trust established by her father, Dr. Richard Bellucci, that is set aside for her child upon her death. If she dies without a child, according to court records, terms of the estate dictate it be divided among charitable trusts.

Mutual distrust

The Handlers’ public advertising campaign against DHHS has apparently exacerbated the state’s suspicion of the couple.

During a 2009 child protective proceeding about David, the state’s attorney referenced 2008 newspaper ads bought by the Handlers and said, “We are concerned about them taking the child.”

The state’s attorney, Rosemary Fowles, said during the same proceeding that Eleanor was discovered looking through David’s records at a school after he was removed from their care.

This was a reference to a March 2008 incident in which Eleanor was charged with criminal trespass and passing a stopped school bus. She eventually was fined $250 for each charge.

Fowles also cited a protection-from-harassment order filed by a foster parent of David’s because of Eleanor driving by their house.

The distrust is mutual.

Russell is worried about what kind of environment David might be in and prays that he is not languishing, hungry, neglected or lost in the system.

Or worse.

Russell referred to 5-year-old Logan Marr, who was in foster care when she died Jan. 31, 2001, in an unfinished Chelsea basement after state child caseworker Sally Ann Schofield used 42 feet of duct tape to bind her in a high chair.

Schofield was convicted of manslaughter and sent to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Her manslaughter sentence, appealed several times, was 20 years in prison with three years suspended, then four years of probation.

“DHHS needs transparency and accountability” was the headline of the Handlers’ advertisement in the Aug. 7 Kennebec Journal and Maine Sunday Telegram and other newspapers across the state.

“We know most people think this story could never happen to their family, but it can,” began the 12-paragraph open letter in the Kennebec Journal ad.

“We don’t even know if he is alive,” Russell said.

Due process

In July, Justice Robert E. Murray rejected Russell’s motion seeking information from the Maine Children’s Alliance ombudsman’s report about whether DHHS had followed its policies concerning its evaluation of relatives who sought to adopt David.

Murray ruled that Russell had no right to review the information, because his parental rights had been formally terminated.

His attorney, Mehnert, countered that there was no legitimate reason that the state could not release pertinent portions of the document.

“There is no compelling state interest in limiting the disclosure of a report from the ombudsman, whose very purpose is to serve as a check on government action,” he said.

Dean Crocker, president and ombudsman of the Maine Children’s Alliance, reported that 259 inquiries were made last year to the ombudsman program. Of those, 89 cases were opened for review, 154 were provided information or referred elsewhere for services and 16 cases were unassigned. An unassigned case was one in which the person who initiated contact did not complete the intake process.

In the 89 cases opened, 170 complaints were lodged in the areas of the department’s investigation, policy, visitation, removal, placement and kinship care.

The 2010 report indicated the ombudsman program “reviewed several cases this year, which have resulted in findings that were found to be inaccurate, given the information presented during the assessment process.”

Crocker cited one case in which the DHHS assessment provided “ample information” of a mother’s neglect of her daughters, including the presence of perpetrators and sexual abuse of one the daughters by one of the mother’s previous partners. In addition, according to the report, there was medical neglect and domestic violence.

“However, the Department of Health and Human Services closed the case without findings,” according to the report. “The alleged perpetrator is now residing in Massachusetts and may likely provide a danger to other children. Since there was not a finding or indication of abuse and neglect in regards to this person, a referral was not made in Massachusetts.”

The Handlers hope that a federal judge will find that DHHS also erred with regard to David.

The federal lawsuit that will be filed by the Handlers will contend that when DHHS stripped the Handlers of their parental rights, it denied Eleanor — in the throes of mental illness — equal access to government services because of her disability.

Mehnert said he hopes the lawsuit results in DHHS re-examining the Handler case and providing them due process under the law.

Mehnert asserted if the state is going to go through the “draconian” process of removing the boy from his parents, it should have executed a thorough evaluation of the family’s life but did not.

The department, said Mehnert, should have appointed Eleanor a guardian ad litem, an advocate who would have represented her interests. Also, he said, because of Eleanor’s incapacitated mental state, her allegations that Russell had abused her should have been vetted better.

‘Dear David’

The Handlers recently wrote two letters — one to David and one to David’s current family. Baldacci forwarded the letters to Virginia Marriner, director of Child Welfare Policy and Practice with the Department of Health and Human Services for delivery to them.

The Handlers’ letter to David’s family includes, “I am sure you have come to see and enjoy his love, personality and charm. We always referred to him as ‘Our Charming Young Gentleman.’ “

It ends, “We are hopeful that the possibility exists to create some sort of cooperative relationship to serve David Handler’s best interests.”

The letter to David includes, “We love and miss you very much. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it? … We want to make sure you are safe, happy and secure. Our love for you has never and will never stop.”

The couple said they want to ensure that David, who was removed from their custody five years ago when he was 7, knows that they love him.

Baldacci, though, received correspondence from Marriner that David’s current family does not want to establish contact with the Handlers.

The Handlers pray that one day David will rejoin them and they’ll be able to tell him in person how much they love him.

Eleanor said she and David were about midway through reading “The Black Stallion” when DHHS took him away.

Russell said he is haunted by what he said were his son’s last words to him: “Dream of me.”

Eleanor said she longs for the couple to surround him in a hug to “make a David Handler sandwich, so that he knows he was never abandoned.”

Beth Staples — 861-9252

[email protected]


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