ATHENS, Tenn. - Tristen Leamon was 15 days old when he was taken from his parents because of child-abuse accusations that were never proved. Now, six years later, he is back home.
Julie and Nathan Leamon have always denied hurting their baby, but the state gave Tristen to his grandmother to be raised, and his parents could see him only on supervised visits.
After a battle prolonged by legal mistakes and turnover among child-protection workers and attorneys, a judge decided in late August that Tristen, now 6, should live with his parents.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services will not appeal.
Tristen, who is now a first-grader, returned home Monday to live with his 5-year-old brother, Julian.
“I can’t believe this has gone on this long,” Julie Leamon said. “I just want to see Julian and Tristen grow up together. We missed every single day for six years.”
Tristen is not the only child trapped in lengthy court battles with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. According to state records, the average time a child is in state custody during litigation for abuse or neglect charges is more than two years.
Children’s Services took custody of Tristen in 1997 — placing him first in foster care, then with his paternal grandmother — after a medical report showed bleeding in his brain.
Tristen’s parents and grandparents said from the outset that the bleeding and seizures were not caused by abuse. A doctor later concluded that a rare stroke caused the internal bleeding.
“There was not enough clear and convincing evidence that the child was the victim of child abuse,” said lawyer Judith Hamilton, the court-appointed guardian for Tristen.
A Children’s Services attorney involved in the case declined comment. Department spokeswoman Carla Aaron said a different judge ruled in 2001 that Tristen had been abused, but there was not enough evidence to determine who abused him.
Miss Aaron said Tristen’s case never should have dragged out for six years, but she said one reason for the duration of the custody fight was that the parents’ attorney mistakenly appealed to the wrong court.
“Six years is way too long for any child to be in limbo like that,” Miss Aaron said.
Allen Murphy, an attorney who previously represented the Leamons, said Children’s Services “was pretty vehement about the guilt of one of the parents.”
“It was really the perseverance of the Leamons and the children’s grandparents. They would never admit it was child abuse. Because they wouldn’t admit it, they were forced to litigate it,” he said.
Nathan Leamon said the state was supposed to have 30 days to decide whether Tristen was abused, and then either return the child or prosecute them.
“Neither thing was done,” Mr. Leamon said. “We were supposed to go to court, and they kept postponing and postponing.”
Tristen’s parents, who are both 26, have now divorced, a breakup they partly attribute to the stress of the custody case. They will share custody of Tristen.
Judy Sorah, the grandmother who raised Tristen, said the boy’s parents missed “watching him take his first steps, watching him open his Christmas presents.”