- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Does the name Evelyn E.C. Queen ring a bell? No? Well, the name Brianna Blackmond should jolt your memory.

Retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen is the much-maligned jurist who signed a routine consent order that allowed the 23-month-old little girl to be returned to her supposedly supervised, mentally retarded mother during the Christmas season of 1999.

By now, everyone knows the sad ending to this story. Brianna was killed by the very person who was charged with her supervision her godmother, Angela O'Brien, who was convicted of second-degree murder in February. Her mother, Charrisise Blackmond, is pending trial on charges of obstruction of justice and child abuse.

"This was heart-wrenching because a child died and the whole purpose of the abuse-and-neglect calendar is not to have a child die," Judge Queen said during a recent interview.

In the Blackmond case, Judge Queen came away with the "horrible feeling of failure because I didn't pick up on the possibility that what was presented might not have been accurate."

But she adds, "There's no such thing as an infallible judge," especially when you're dealing with "Solomonesque questions."

In exclusive interviews with The Washington Times, Judge Queen discussed for the first time her feelings about her decision. She stressed that she is precluded by the judicial canon of ethics from discussing specifics of Blackmond's case.

She consented to this interview because she has known me "for more than 30 years as a friend, not a reporter." Evelyn Queen was a novice assistant U.S. attorney when I was assigned to cover D.C. Superior Court as a novice reporter for the Washington Star.

It's evident that if Judge Queen has a regret, it's in not holding a hearing on the routine consent order which is a general agreement of all involved parties that sent the toddler back to her biological mother.

"I haven't been able to consider what I might have done differently other than whatever might have been presented, to hold a hearing," she said. "When it's a child, every, every, every action you take, hold a hearing no matter what's presented."

Unfortunately, Brianna's plight was not so routine. Her case raised serious questions and numerous hearings and independent investigations highlighted the fatal flaws in the D.C. foster care system, in which 199 children in city custody died that same year. Of those, 48 were reported as homicides, based on city records.

"The first time I read one of those reports, I said, 'Oh, my Lord, we're killing children.'" said Judge Queen. She noted at that point, that the number was already 55, while during 1995, there were fewer than 25 children who died under city custody. She subsequently blames the city's "inability to monitor and care" for the children's deaths.

She points to one example in 1999 of a 15-year-old boy who was gone for three days from a halfway house before anyone reported him missing. He was found later on a slab in the morgue with a gunshot wound.

Working in family court for several years, Judge Queen said, "Some days, you cry because of what's before you, or you smile because an adoption is granted and a kid's life is going to be stabilized."

While other judges shied away, Judge Queen volunteered repeatedly for the difficult and draining duty.

"I asked for that [assignment], so I'm a little crazy," she said. "But after my first assignment as a judge on the neglect-and-abuse calendar, it broke my heart, and I said, 'This shouldn't happen.'" Even so, "You have to be focused, but even when you're focused, a lot slips through the cracks."

A constant tension exists between the stated public policy that favors family reunification and the facts that may lean toward doing what's best for the child. "The law says: Preserve the family first," Judge Queen said, but she questions whether there is a need to "change the law to make the primary goal the placement of a child in a nurturing environment."

Most parents, even those with massive problems and pathologies, do love their children, she contends. So she saw it as her charge to "make sure that people who may not be in the mainstream have an opportunity to parent." After all, "Parenting is not a political act, it's an act of love."

Very often, judges like herself are called upon to be surrogate parents. It was not uncommon for family-court judges to raise money for prom dresses, luggage, college tuition and books. In one instance, she helped a teen-age girl get a kidney transplant in Pittsburgh and then ordered the city to locate the child's mother and pay for her transportation and lodging.

When the news broke of Brianna's death, Judge Queen said, "Initially, I was very disappointed that people who knew me would believe that I would act in a manner that would injure a child. Then, I said, 'You're a big girl. You chose that [duty].'"

Though an abysmal tracking system was reportedly at fault in Brianna's case, Judge Queen refused to blame city social workers. "I have a healthy respect for social workers, because they try to do an impossible task and, by and large, are committed people," she said. "If they weren't, they wouldn't stay, because it's a heartbreaking job."

The jurist ticked off a laundry list of bureaucratic problems for social workers that need improvement, including enormous caseloads that are impossible to manage, lack of supervision, high turnover rates and "not enough good foster homes where the goal is to nurture a child and not pick up a paycheck."

She also did not fault attorneys, on both sides of the Brianna case, who seemed "committed." "If I could change anything, it would be to hold a hearing even on a consent order whenever a child is involved but judges are not in the business of creating disputes between parties if something is presented as consent and you don't expect half-truths, incompetent service or lies."

Judge Queen, 57, a former prosecutor and hearing examiner, retired in July 2001 when her 15-year term on the D.C. Superior Court bench expired. She is currently seeking senior status, which she said she's "earned."

Since leaving the bench in July, Judge Queen has been resting and re-evaluating: "What do I have to give someone else?"

Yet, few days pass that she doesn't think of Brianna. "I'm a human being. This is painful and it hurts. It was not just the slip of a pen."

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