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Kids in Crisis

When does discipline cross the line becoming abuse?  It’s a tough challenge for the child welfare system to weigh the protection of children against the rights of parents.   With extraordinary access from the Indiana Supreme Court, MSNBC TV took an unprecedented look inside the complex world of child abuse investigators.   This is the story of one family torn apart when one of their children makes a claim that ultimately causes trauma for them all. 
Michelle Pitcock and her daughter Amber
Michelle Pitcock and her daughter AmberMSNBC TV
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Watch the premiere of this riveting documentary on MSNBC TV Sunday, October 9th at 9 p.m. ET

When does discipline cross the line to become abuse?  It’s a tough challenge for the child welfare system to weigh the protection of children against the rights of parents.  In the United States there are only 25,000 caseworkers charged with investigating nearly 2 million child abuse claims each year.  With extraordinary access from the Indiana Supreme Court, MSNBC-TV took an unprecedented look inside the complex world of child abuse investigators.   This is the story of one family torn apart when one of their children makes a claim that ultimately causes trauma for them all.  You can decide who is telling the truth and ultimately whether the state’s actions were in the children’s best interest.

It was a quiet spring night in Indianapolis in a blue-collar neighborhood on the city’s south side.  A phone call earlier in the day had set off a chain of events.  The call brought a child welfare investigator to the home of Cary and Michelle Pitcock.  Michelle’s 13-year-old daughter Amber accused her stepfather of abuse; he claims it’s Amber that is causing the family turmoil. The drama that played out over the next year shows what a fine line there can be between protecting parents’ rights versus the welfare of children. 

Michelle and Cary Pitcock are married with 3 children, Amber, Michelle’s daughter from a previous marriage, and two sons, Karl and Brent.  The Pitcocks have been a blended family of 5 for 10 years, but the last year has been especially tough. 

Cary Pitcock, Amber’s step dad says he and his wife Michelle are at a loss about how to handle their teenage daughter. They said she’s running wild and out of control. And that night was a perfect example.

Jackie Bean, the child welfare investigator assigned to this case, follows up on a report from 13-year-old Amber who says her step dad hit her.  Amber was put in protective custody at a local hospital that night with cuts and bruises she received just hours earlier. At 9 p.m. on a school night Jackie showed up, with a police escort, at the Pitcock’s Southside Indianapolis home to check out the story. 

It had only been a matter of hours since this crisis escalated, set in motion with a phone call to police from Cary and Michelle asking for help with the daughter they claim was out of control.  Cary assumed Jackie and her police escort were there to haul him off to jail because of Amber’s claims he beat her earlier in the day.   Instead of Cary being removed from the home - he learns the truth: they’re here to take away his other two kids.   Investigator Bean fears Pitcock’s younger children are in danger.

This is the most gut-wrenching part of a child welfare investigator’s job…

Cary and Michelle Pitcock are in a state of shock. They’ve just been told their two kids will be taken away and the news hasn’t sunk in yet.

As Karl and Brent are taken away from the only home they’ve known they and their parents have no idea of the turmoil ahead.

The two boys face a long night and investigator Jackie bean has hours of phone calls and paper work. 

At the heart of her case is 13-year-old Amber who also has no clue about the months and years of chaos this one night has brought on.

So, just who is telling the truth on this night?  Is it Amber, who has accused her step dad of abuse?  Or is it Cary, her stepfather?  At this point, Jackie doesn’t know for sure. Just how far can the government go to learn the truth?

Balancing the rights of parents with the welfare of their children: it’s not only complicated it can be explosive.  Taking a child from his parents is one of the most intrusive acts our government can make.

When a parent is accused of child abuse there are no easy solutions and often it’s the most innocent of victims caught in the middle. According to the child welfare league of America, nearly 60,000 children are removed from their homes each year for their own protection, even though they are not alleged to have been abused.  Karl and Brent are two such children.

The removal of these children raises a critical question about our society:  when is too soon to remove or too late to protect a child?  Child welfare investigator Jackie Bean had to walk that fine line when she crossed the threshold of Cary and Michelle Pitcock’s home, a home with a frustrated step dad who Jackie suspects may have crossed the line from discipline to abuse of his 13-year old stepdaughter. 

It was a Thursday night when the boys were taken from their home and unfortunately for the Pitcocks, the courts are closed on Friday.  It would be Monday before they faced a judge.  At 11 p.m. Jackie Bean had to find a foster home for Karl and Brent.  The fate of 3 children hung in the balance, and one judge will decide how things go from here.

Cary was faced with a dilemma. If he signed the legal papers he admits hitting Amber.  That could speed up the process, but Cary felt strongly that his actions were justified as a parent.  If he doesn’t sign, the court process could take even longer.  It’s clear the events of the long weekend have shaken Cary but he’s optimistic his family will be back together soon.  

13-year old Amber sits motionless across the room. Amber hadn’t seen or talked to her parents since the night of the alleged abuse.  She was living in the children’s guardian’s home  - a shelter that houses at-risk kids.  From her seat in the courtroom, Amber refused to look at Cary and Michelle.

Even though Cary maintained Amber is at fault for causing the chaos in his family, he signed the legal papers admitting he hit her.  As Amber’s parent and legal guardian, Michelle is also required to sign the papers.  Cary and Michelle realized they’ll have to go through counseling, but they also hope their admission will speed along the process to get Karl and Brent back soon – hopefully today.  Judge James Payne, the one who’ll decide what happens to these children, isn’t so sure.

Judge Payne has no jury in his courtroom, he is the law.  His twenty years on the bench helped prepare him for difficult cases like this one, but there’s no exact science to human emotion.

So whom should Judge Payne believe, a tearful Michelle or a visibly bruised Amber sitting in front of him?  The judge decides not to release the children back to the parents – not today anyway.

Amber was overwhelmed by the court proceeding and prefers to be left alone.  After the hearing, the Pitcocks and Jackie Bean come face to face for the first time since Jackie removed Karl and Brent from their home.  Cary and Michelle now know Karl and Brent won’t come home today.  They accept the boys will instead have to stay in emergency foster care and work with Jackie to place them with relatives.  They feel certain that Karl and Brent will be returned long before their next court hearing in 30 days.

With their first court date behind them, Cary and Michelle rush across town for a supervised visit with Karl and Brent.  The night the boys were removed, Cary and Michelle were promised they could see Karl and Brent the next day.  That visit never happened. It’s now been four long days.  After four days of chaos in this case, things finally seem to be settling down.

It proved to be short lived…

Fast forward.  It has now been 30 days since 7-year-old Karl and 4-year-old Brent Pitcock were taken from their home after child welfare investigators determined they were at risk of being abused.  The boys remain in foster care with Cary’s grandparents. As they prepare for their second court hearing Cary and Michelle tell their caseworker they want their kids home today.  And there’s another shocking development to this already emotional story: 13-year old Amber has run away from the emergency shelter where she’s been staying.  No one has seen her for 3 weeks.  It was only 4 weeks ago that she first accused her stepfather of abuse, setting into motion a legal whirlwind that led child welfare investigators to remove her brothers from their home.

Cary’s temper is beginning to flare.  Michelle is nervous his outbursts will continue in the courtroom and knows Judge Payne holds this entire family’s future in his hands.

Cary has calmed down but Judge Payne is still skeptical about whether the boys should go home. And there’s no mistaking that a child’s safety is more important to Judge Payne than a parents rights…

Cary and Michelle are exasperated. They leave court again without Karl and Brent.

And Michelle is especially worried about Amber.  She fears the worst.

And in just one week, Cary and Michelle are scheduled to sit down with Amber for the first time since this ordeal began.  Will amber turn up or will she stay on the run? 

After a month of hiding out at a friend’s house, Amber does make it back to the guardian’s home.  She had reluctantly agreed to talk with Cary and Michelle at a local counseling center.  Cary and Michelle waited downstairs while Amber sorted through what she wanted to say.

Once Amber comes face to face with Cary and Michelle it doesn’t take long for tensions to mount.  At the end of their first counseling session, Amber, Cary and Michelle are no closer to reconciling their differences than they were more than a month ago.  All 3 Pitcock children are still out of the home. By law and by conscience, Judge Payne tries to resolve his cases quickly but when young lives are at stake, the pressure to make a good decision is intense. It’s the court that has the ultimate power to decide if any of the kids will ever return home

The removal sets off an agonizing process for the Pitcock family, state caseworkers and Judge Payne, who has the ultimate authority over when or if Karl, Brent and Amber will return home.

Karl and Brent moved in with their great grandparents.  Cary and Michelle get to see their boys twice a week. Even though the boys are with relatives, Judge Payne admits there is unknown trauma ahead.

And what about 13-year old Amber? She’s told her parents she wants to be placed in foster care with Cary and Michelle’s former neighbors, a couple her parents strongly object to.  But that’s exactly where Amber is sent.

Cary and Michelle split their time between their own home and visiting the boys at Cary’s grandparents.  They complete drug assessment classes, anger management and continue in family counseling. So why doesn’t Judge Payne return the boys home?

Everyone involved in this case admits it will take even more time to figure out what’s best for Amber. After all, it’s Amber who accused Cary of abuse, and there are hints that there is even more conflict to come for these stressed out parents.

Ninety days - that’s what it took for Cary and Michelle to complete court ordered counseling; Ninety days, the time it took for the state to report to Judge Payne that the Pitcocks were fit to be parents again.  Ninety days, the number of days Karl and Brent spent in relative foster care.

Exactly three months after the traumatizing night they were taken away, Karl and Brent Pitcock were finally back home with their mom and dad. 

Even though the boys are back, Amber remains in foster care.  No one can say for certain when – or if – she’ll ever return home.

MSNBC TV has been tracking the progress of the Pitcock family for more than two years. It’s no surprise the chaotic events that started with Amber accusing her stepfather of abuse and ending with the removal of her brothers from her parents custody had an emotional toll. Amber went through a year of intense counseling before she returned home.  And after months of trauma, turmoil and finally getting everyone back under one roof, the final chapter to this story may-- or may not -- surprise you.

Cary and Michelle Pitcock divorced shortly after the interview.  The couple shares joint custody of Karl and Brent. The boys live with Cary while Michelle and Amber live close by.  What happened to the Pitcock family highlights the debate raging between parent’s rights advocates and child welfare professionals about what is ultimately best for the kids. It’s impossible to know what might have been, if the state had never visited this one Indianapolis home.