How a custody fight spilled out of court, and exploded online
Saturday, August 18, 2012
WENATCHEE — The child custody case started out like many others: He said, she said, and the judge decided.
But when an online community sprang up around an inflammatory photograph of the mother and child, the matter took on an entirely different life — one that burned bright and hot for five days in the realm of social media, then collapsed.
The photo, taken five months ago, shows the 19-year-old Wenatchee mother cradling her infant daughter on her lap, with an apparently unlit glass bong against the child’s face. It was the centerpiece of a hastily set-up Facebook page — and upon seeing it, many commenters there argued that the woman deserved to lose custody of the child, now 6 months old, for exposing her to marijuana use.
“Wenatchee WA judge returned this baby to her mother,” read the Facebook page’s mission statement. “I think this is wrong.”
But that didn’t tell the whole story. By the time the page went up, a Child Protective Services investigation — prompted when the photo was emailed anonymously to the agency last month — had already found no signs of drug use in the mother’s home and no evidence the baby had been exposed to marijuana.
The page ballooned quickly after its Aug. 8 launch, accumulating about 860 likes at its peak. The photo was shared to message boards like Craigslist and 4chan, and spread across Twitter. The effort inspired an oppositional Facebook page, urging its removal and encouraging users to flag the photo as inappropriate.
The photo itself was removed from the page after two days. The online campaign ended completely on Monday, after the two opposing Facebook groups finally reached detente.
“It’s been a wild week,” said Shannon McVay, whose 13-year-old daughter launched the page and posted the photo.
The mother in the photo — whose face was clearly shown, whose identity and daughter’s name were disclosed on Facebook and elsewhere, who was told by online users that she deserved to die — refused to comment for this story.
McVay, 43, said when her family heard of the judge’s decision, “The adults were all flabbergasted. ... What could we do?”
McVay’s daughter created the page about 10 p.m. Aug. 8, the same day Chelan County Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan sided with the young mother in a custody claim brought by the child’s 20-year-old East Wenatchee father.
The Facebook page asserted that Allan — who like the parents were not named by the page administrators — erred when she granted the mother primary custody of the child.
In her introductory post, the 13-year-old administrator wrote: “I hope that maybe we can get enough likes (and) posts about this picture and we can get this little girl into a good home where the family cares and isn’t letting her hold a bong!”
McVay’s Wenatchee family are close friends of the father. When they heard of Allan’s decision Wednesday — they were not at the hearing — McVay posted the photo on her own Facebook profile, and her daughter borrowed it to create the campaign.
The page accumulated nearly 800 likes within 24 hours — many users expressing disgust at the photo, others attacking the page manager for shaming the mother. Interviewed Aug. 10, the 13-year-old page administrator stood by her decision to create it.
“I don’t see how it could do more harm than good, because we just want that baby in a safe environment,” the girl said, interviewed alongside her mother.
But the CPS investigation found no evidence the mother’s home was unsafe for the baby, according to court records. The mother’s sworn affidavit said the agency found no issues at her home, and she passed a urinalysis requested by investigators. She asked the court to appoint an independent guardian ad litem to ensure the baby’s needs were being met.
A second urine screening later that month was also negative, and in Allan’s court the mother agreed to take parenting classes and meet a schedule of further drug testing. Her attorney, Neil Fuller of Wenatchee, said hair follicles taken from the baby’s head also showed no trace of pot exposure.
Prior to the CPS investigation, the two parents had shared the child on alternating weeks under an out-of-court agreement. The father filed for primary custody July 30, and told Allan he did so on CPS agents’ recommendation.
While the baby-and-bong photo was not introduced for Allan to consider, it was described in the father’s initial court filing as “a picture of respondent holding a bong to (the child’s) face.”
But in court Aug. 8, both parents admitted to past marijuana use. The father at first denied using pot with the estranged mother, according to court minutes of the hearing. When Allan placed him under oath, he recanted and said he last smoked marijuana “months ago.”
Allan ultimately named the mother as the primary custodian, and assigned the father a visitation schedule. She ordered marijuana testing for both parents, with the results filed under seal with the court. She further barred both parents from using or possessing drugs, drug paraphernalia or alcohol, or allowing the child near anyone using illegal drugs. Fuller suspended his request for a guardian ad litem.
Through her office, Allan said Aug. 9 the case was ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment.
Devon Thiele, a 27-year-old former East Wenatcheeite, saw the campaign online soon after its launch. Among the comments left on the page, one user wrote: “YOU NEED A LETHAL INJECTION FOR DOING THAT TO THE BABY.”
“What I saw was just something that I found disturbing,” said Thiele, who does not know the people involved personally. “It was too open, it was too public, there were too many people who within five minutes got swept up in this sort of mob mentality.”
The page administrators deleted threatening comments as time allowed. “At no time did we want (the mother) to be threatened physically,” McVay said. “The girl’s got problems. She needs help.”
Thiele and others registered displeasure in the comments, but the page moderators soon deleted them. From his home in Post Falls, Idaho, Thiele set up a counter-page on Aug. 9, arguing for the campaign to be removed. He showed users how to report the photo to Facebook’s corporate moderators under the terms “harmful behavior” or “harassment.”
Thiele’s page said the baby-and-bong photo campaign set out to “publicly harass and provoke a member of the community who has paid for her mistakes. Don’t let them fool more people into joining up and taking arms with this lynch mob!”
Thiele went without sleep for about 36 hours while managing the effort. Along the way, his campaign dredged up and posted the Facebook profiles of all the users who managed the campaign against the mother — showing how easily they could be exposed in a similar way.
“All this kind of stuff is archived,” Thiele said. “It never goes away. It’s not good for anybody. You don’t want to go to college and have them find out later on that you have hate speech in your background.”
On Aug. 10, the photograph of mother, baby and bong vanished from the Facebook page. McVay said the page operators deleted the photo “due to the threats that we were receiving,” and were never contacted by Facebook corporate offices. The page admins said they would refocus their campaign on “father’s rights” rather than the specific custody case.
On Monday, Thiele exchanged Facebook messages with the page administrators, and offered to take down his own page completely if they would reciprocate. Both the Facebook communities went offline Monday night.
McVay said the campaign, however brief, has taught her daughter about taking action for change.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society where the shocking is gonna get the attention,” McVay said. “... I think she’s learned that you can stand up and make a point.”
The family will now take action in family court, filing declarations on the father’s behalf. Another hearing is set for September.
Thiele said he hopes McVay and her daughters confine their efforts to legal channels rather than future online campaigns.
“If there is any lesson to be learned through this whole thing, it’s that the Internet is a very scary place, and people who don’t have respect for that can get themselves or other people hurt,” he said.
As for the young mother in the photo, Thiele said, “I really hope that she’s able to find a place and get past this. I don’t honestly think that she’ll be able to do it in Wenatchee now.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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