In the sometimes confusing world of the child welfare system, Carrie Johnson's love for granddaughter Molly Koch may be both her best quality and her biggest obstacle to ever seeing the 2-year-old again.
Police found Molly unconscious, severely beaten and not breathing at a Super 8 hotel in St. Charles nearly a year ago. An investigation led to the arrest of her mother, Cathleen Koch, and her mother's boyfriend, James C. Cooper. Police believe Cooper inflicted the beating while the girl's mother let it happen and then lied to police to protect Cooper. Criminal cases are still pending against both Cathleen Koch and Cooper.
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In the meantime, Molly has recovered enough from her trauma to leave the hospital after enduring several medical procedures. The most complicated of those involved the removal of a portion of her skull to address severe brain swelling. That part of her injuries will likely leave the little girl with some level of disability for the rest of her life. The Department of Children and Family Services is charged with recommending to a judge what the best environment for Molly will be from now on.
Carrie Johnson believes that environment is her Elgin home. Molly's father, David Koch, believes it's with him. David Koch has chosen to work through the court system to secure his rights. He and his attorney have rejected interview requests. Johnson, since she isn't a biological parent, typically finds herself sitting on a bench outside the juvenile courtroom during legal discussion of Molly's future.
With no voice in the courts, she's come to the media to voice her concerns about David Koch's history with arrests for DUI, reckless driving and domestic battery, and allegations of a death threat he made against Cathleen Koch. Johnson believes the system is considering only his blood ties to Molly and not his criminal history in making a decision about Molly's future.
"Molly lived with me almost every day of her life," Johnson said. "In my heart, Molly comes first. I don't care what either parent thinks. I know what kind of life Molly had with me. I'm angry it was taken away from her. I can't change what happened to her, but I sure can change the future. If at the end of this I can't say I did everything I could possibly do to protect her, then shame on me."
"They don't know Dave like I do. The records show he is a deadbeat who hits women," she said. David Koch has been convicted of punching in the face the mother of his other daughter, according to court records.
It's those statements that move Johnson further away from ever being in Molly's life, said Deb Condotti, president of Easter Seals Joliet Region.
"She has very, very emotionally charged differences with her son-in-law," Condotti said. "She is afraid she won't be able to see her granddaughter. And when it comes to that, she is like a tigress. She's like a mother lion with a cub out there that she just wants to bring back into the fold. And that's our barrier, in some ways, to facilitating contact with her and Molly."
Easter Seals is part of the fold Molly is in. The organization specializes in child disability services. As such, it has a contract with DCFS for specialized foster care and the placement of children with special needs in new homes. Doing that for Molly is one of the hardest things Easter Seals has ever tried to accomplish, Condotti said.
"I don't know of another case in the 33 years we've been doing child welfare where there's been this much animosity among family members coupled with such heinous circumstances of abuse," Condotti said. "These are just an uncontrollable group of people. They are filing orders of protection against each other. It's getting to be a circus, frankly."
Condotti and Johnson met in June to try to facilitate a visit with Molly. Easter Seals has no court order or legal obligation to allow or encourage visits with any children in their system and their extended relatives.
"Whether that's right or it's wrong, that's how the system is," Condotti said.
Easter Seals caseworkers recommended against Johnson visiting Molly during the custody battle. They believe Johnson's ongoing feud with Molly's father and his relatives is a detriment. But Condotti was moved enough by the grandmother's love for her grandchild that she decided to overrule that recommendation and arrange a visit. It never happened.
Johnson has a message on her cellphone that explains why. The message informs Johnson she must sign a legal document forbidding her from speaking with the media about Molly. She's also not allowed to have an attorney come with her to the visit to review the legal document, the message states. If she doesn't agree to the terms, "there won't be any visits. Let me know. Media or no media."
Johnson is unwilling to accept those terms. She believes child welfare officials just want her to be quiet because she's shining a light on flaws in the system that put children back in dangerous environments.
"Since when is the freedom of my speech any of their business?" Johnson said.
Condotti said the idea wasn't to silence Johnson's speech but to set boundaries for the speech that could deepen the divide between Molly's relatives.
"The more the details of the family would be expressed in public, the more divided the family would become and, in our mind, the less people this little girl has that she's going to be able to count on to help her," Condotti said. "I believe Carrie is a wonderful asset to that girl. She would do anything to make sure that little girl would recover as much as possible. But the minute she tried to discredit the father (it was a problem). We were quite sure if she continued to say such things the father would get a court order to stop Carrie's visits. The bottom line is the father wasn't present during the abusive incident. Maybe he wasn't the best father, but he wasn't the abuser."
Condotti said she hopes Molly's family will make amends with each other and stay in Molly's life. She said Easter Seals officials frequently sees relatives with no history of any contact with a child step up and become good parents. Johnson said she's open to that possibility.
"Show me you really want to be a good dad, and I'll back off," Johnson said. "Show me you're in counseling, and you want to be a better person. Take some parenting classes. I'll back off. If that doesn't happen, all the system would be doing by giving Molly to Dave is putting a meal in a hungry lion's den and telling the lion not to eat the meal."