When Lisa Mothee and her fiancé went before Family Court Judge Lyris Younge last September, the 31-year-old mother of five thought she was just going for a compliance hearing.
But nothing could have prepared her for what happened.
“After a sidebar, my fiancé and I were told that we were being detained,” Mothee said. “We were handcuffed and strip searched. I passed out and I woke up crying. I couldn’t believe what was happening — it went from 0 to 100 real quick. I woke up in a cell but my kids were gone.”
Mothee and her fiancé were released later in the day after her children were taken into custody by the Department of Human Services. The Olney resident said she came to family court prepared to demonstrate that she had been in compliance with DHS. However, she alleged Younge never gave her the opportunity to present her side of the story and supporting documents. Since that day she has gone through three lawyers in a futile attempt to regain custody of her children, ages 9, 7, 6, 3 and nine months. They are currently living with a relative.
“It has been an ordeal; physically, emotionally and mentally I’m drained,” said Mothee, who is allowed four hours of supervised visitation per week.
Mothee and other parents and grandparents who believe that Younge has denied them their rights to due process and subsequently seen their children placed into the custody of family or in foster homes in the two-plus years Young has been on the bench have turned up the pressure on her recently. With protests, they are calling for her removal from the bench.
Earlier this month, the state Judicial Conduct Board got involved, launching an investigation into Younge’s handling of cases following a series of articles that appeared in the Legal Intelligencer examining alleged due process violations.
The investigation was launched shortly after the State Superior Court issued a ruling reversing an earlier Younge decision to hold a child in foster care to force a confession of alleged child abuse from the parents. There have been no charges leveled against her.
“That is a very serious contention,” said a lawyer who has tried cases before Younge speaking anonymously. “But I can tell you this — I’m not surprised. From my experience, it’s something that needed to happen because she is out of control. It’s never about the law; it’s about how she’s feeling that day. It’s not about due process. It’s an abuse of authority.”
Younge has retained West Chester-based attorney Samuel Stretton. Stretton said that Younge was thrown into a difficult situation adjudicating many parental separation cases left over from a retiring judge.
“Judge Younge, I believe, is an excellent judge, and I believe she is being unfairly accused,” Stretton said. “Her guiding star has always been what’s in the best interest of the children. I see her as a good, fair judge who was thrown in a very difficult situation. She is a fair judge and I don’t know why they are going after her.”
Younge, 51, took the bench in March 2016, and she began by handling many parental separation cases, some of the most difficult in the court, according to Stretton.
By the second anniversary of her tenure, Younge had amassed 156 appeals, 77 of which are active, 79 of which are closed. Eight of those closed appeals resulted in her rulings being at least partially overturned in Superior Court. Three of those violations were based on violations of parents’ or caregivers’ due process rights.
A fourth was the result of relying on insufficient DHS testimony that three children would not suffer irreparable harm if their mother’s parental rights were terminated.
Judge Joseph Fernandes’ 148 appeals are second to Younge. However, of his 112 closed appeals, just two have be reversed.
On Wednesday of last week, Mothee spent part of the afternoon visiting with her children.
She is grateful her children were placed with a relative and not in foster care. However, she is part of a support group that meets regularly, and many of the horror stories she’s heard from the parents and grandparents of children in foster care “are frightening, the sort of things that no one wants to believe goes on.”
On this afternoon she is happy because of a court appearance scheduled for Monday in which she says she could get custody of her children. She is relieved Younge is under investigation — “It lets you know somebody was listening, hopefully something good will come out of it” — and she is encouraged by the news that on Monday she will go before Fernandes and not Younge.
“We will see,” said Mothee, sounding relieved.