“Fighting fires, you can do something about what’s going on, and you’re trained to. There’s always the possibility of bringing something terrible to an end. But the fact that my child was hurt . . . it’s like being handcuffed and made to watch it. ” – Eric Barrow
I never got the opportunity to meet Eric Barrow. He passed away before I had the chance. A good friend (and fellow child advocate), Eileen King, had the chance to get to know him through her work with The Center For Judicial Excellence and Child Justice. When I read about Eric’s story through Eileen, I automatically felt a connection to him. I have no doubt that Prince is up in heaven hanging out with this good man. I write from the perspective of a protective mother, but I want to share Eric’s story so that we all don’t lose sight that fighting for children should be gender blind. Sadly, dangerous parents can come in either gender. Eric is an example of a protective father.
Below is a summary of Eric’s case that was prepared by The Center For Judicial Excellence back in 2008:
Eric and his son’s mother never married, but he willingly gave her child support, bought clothes for his son and visited him often during his first year. When the boy was around one, she began refusing to let Eric visit him, so he was forced to file for custody, since the Maryland courts won’t allow parents to file just for visitation. The court granted him three and four day visits in alternating weeks.
After the boy’s mother married another man, Eric knew that something was wrong. His two-year-old son would cry, kick and scream, and try to run away when Eric returned him to his mother and stepfather’s house. It got so bad that Eric reportedly had to give him candy to get him to go back. A few months later, the boy told Eric, “he keeps beating me, Daddy . . . make him stop.” Eric called Child Protective Services (CPS), but without photos or evidence of bruises or cuts, he was told that he was required to turn the child back over to his mother.
When the boy was about three years old, he disclosed to Eric that his stepfather was molesting him. Eric was dressing his son after a bath, and the boy said, “[Stepfather] kisses my penis, Daddy. I don’t want you to kiss my penis.” This time, CPS agreed to investigate, but they informed the boy’s mother first, and about three days later, Eric was charged by the boy’s mother with child abuse. The investigation found that the molestation claims were substantiated, but they couldn’t determine who the perpetrator was. The boy’s mother made him call his stepfather “Daddy,” which complicated the investigation. CPS and the court ordered the mother to take the boy to therapy, and the boy was eventually sent to live with his grandmother on his mother’s side.
A Guardian Ad Litum was appointed by the court to evaluate the custody situation, but Eric says he “acted more like the mother’s attorney and had an attitude.” The court then placed Eric’s son back into custody with his mother and stepfather. A few months later, the boy disclosed more physical and sexual abuse. Eric let his son tell the police about it, but they called his mother and sent him back with her. Three days later, the police followed up to investigate, but by then, the boy had changed his story. Eric later learned that the boy’s mother had threatened to beat him if he ever told anyone about the abuse.
Eric was forced into court many times to urge the court to enforce its order that the mother find therapy for their son. She eventually complied, but the therapist she found apparently informed the boy’s mother each time he disclosed about his abuse. After each disclosure, he was allegedly beaten by his mother and/or stepfather, and his therapist never reported the disclosures to the authorities, as the law requires. Needless to say, Eric’s son soon stopped talking about the abuse altogether.
Eric was forced into court to get a new therapist appointed to work with his son. After a year and a half, the therapist determined that their seven-year-old son was suicidal, and that he was vulnerable to gang violence, drug abuse and alcoholism. The therapist then blamed Eric for going to court to try to get the boy into appropriate therapy, saying that those court appearances about therapy were a big part of the boy’s problem.
Eric faults the whole system, including the police, who repeatedly placed his son in harm’s way. Eric knows that he “can’t give him back his innocence. I can’t make him see the world the way he saw it before.” Now he sees his son every other weekend, and they have a good relationship, despite their seven-year ordeal in the family court system.
What the above story doesn’t capture is that Eric was an American hero. On September 11, 2001, when a plane flew into the Pentagon, Eric was one of the firefighters whose unit put out the fire. A year later, on September 11, 2002, Eric’s his unit was at the Pentagon being honored for their incredible work to putting out the fire at the pentagon. Eric, however, couldn’t attend the event because he was stuck in family court, feeling helpless, unable to protect his son.In March 2013, Eric passed away from a heart attack. He died in the arms of his son, now a young man – the same some he fought so hard to protect.
There are many reasons that this story struck me when I read it. Beyond the obvious bond that I have with this man whom I have never met, his story is another example that no matter what sort of life you lead, Family Court remains senseless and humbling. Here is a man who showed incredible courage in the face of a terrorist attack that shook our nation to its core, and he so elequently explained how nothing was as terrifying as not being able to protect the very person he loved the most – his son.
Many people involved in Family Court reform often get bogged down in gender wars. They spend hours upon hours arguing which gender has the advantage when it comes to Family Court. What I have realized, however, is that there are cases across this nation where you see terrible things happening to parents and families of all kind. At the core of this movement, however, is what is most important – children.
My fellow warriors – please stand with me to protect our future – our children.