New Father's Sex-Offender History Sparks Custody Battle

A hearing Monday will decide whether Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County was right to take away the newborn son of Melissa Wolfhawk of Pottsville, Penn., because of sex crimes the father was convicted of two decades ago.

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In an eastern Pennsylvania town, a hearing today will help to determine whether their county was right to take away a newborn son from his mother because of sex crimes that the father was convicted of two decades ago. NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Melissa WolfHawk gave birth to her third child, a son, October 18th. Three days later, Schuykill County, Pennsylvania, took the baby after convincing a judge the boy was better off separated from his own mother. Today county officials will argue in court they should keep custody of the child, mainly because of the father's history. In 1983, DaiShin John WolfHawk pled guilty to raping two teen-age girls. He also pled guilty to assaulting his own daughter. He denies that charge now. Mary Catherine Roper of the American Civil Liberties Union is representing the mother, Melissa WolfHawk.

Ms. MARY CATHERINE ROPER (ACLU): To seize a child, a newborn baby who is breast-feeding, and separate that child from his mother because of what his father did 23 years ago is just such an extreme action.

LEWIS: Schuykill County officials declined NPR's request for an interview. In court records, county officials say they have questions about Melissa WolfHawk's fitness as a mother. But those questions didn't crop up until she married DaiShin WolfHawk, who spent 10 years in prison. Two weeks after she did marry him, the county moved to take custody of her first son from a previous marriage. He's now eight, and he's in foster care. Then she became pregnant with DaiShin WolfHawk's child, and the county acted with a neighboring county to have that baby, a daughter, taken from her. That child is now in the custody of another couple. Now the county is fighting for custody of her third child. Her lawyer says Melissa WolfHawk is living apart from her husband, and she's pledged to abide by any restrictions the county asks her to meet to try to keep her child.

Ms. ROPER: Whatever they think about the risk that her husband may pose to this newborn baby, there is simply no reason to believe that she is not a fit parent.

LEWIS: Frank Servone(ph) is a child advocate in Philadelphia. He says the county may not trust Melissa WolfHawk's pledge to keep the baby away from her husband.

Mr. FRANK SERVONE (Child Advocate): What they must be seeing in this case is that the father's presence in the mother's life--that is that they're still married--that suggests that this man may have access to the little boy.

LEWIS: And that raises the question the county must prove to keep custody of the child: Is DaiShin WolfHawk a threat to his own son because of his past?

Mr. SERVONE: This is the real question, not just did he do it then, but will he do it now?

LEWIS: Just last week, a federal judge rejected Melissa WolfHawk's argument that her constitutional rights had been violated by the county's actions. The judge wrote of her husband's horrendous past. Servone said the pendulum has swung far on behalf of doing everything to protect children from potential predators.

Mr. SERVONE: We're at a time when agencies and advocates are moving very aggressively to, you know, protect kids and then I think to ask some of the questions later.

LEWIS: At the federal court hearing, Melissa WolfHawk said she was not sure if she could survive the loss of another child. If that happens, she said, `It will be the last part of my heart, the last part of me that will be destroyed.'

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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