Couple fights to regain custody of Liberty Belle

I-TEAM uncovers criminal history with other adoptive family members

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects , Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM , Cassidy Alexander, I-TEAM intern

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The odds were against Liberty Belle Phillips from the day she was born.

On July 4, 2015, she was born with methadone and THC in her system, according to court documents. When she was 4 months old, she was found neglected at a trolley station with her mother, Davida Phillips, passed out nearby. Five days after that, she was found in her car seat in a public bathroom, her mother again passed out nearby -- with a cocktail of drugs in her system.

At that time, Liberty was living with her mother in a local safe house for domestic abuse victims to escape Bradley Hornback, Liberty’s abusive father, court documents said. He had been arrested recently and charged with beating Davida.

Bradley Hornback has a documented history of abusing women. In 2009, he was charged with beating another woman who was pregnant with his child, and was charged again in 2011 for beating that same woman in front of their child.

According to that police report, he was “enraged” over where the child would be sleeping. At the time, the Department of Children and Families stepped in for that child. It did the same for Liberty in October 2015.

Making a home

Last October, at 4 months old, Liberty was taken from her mother. Two months later, she was placed with Keenan and Ginger Phillips – Davida’s brother and his wife. It was then that things began to look up for Liberty.

For 10 months, Ginger and Keenan’s house was Liberty’s home. She took her first steps, said her first words and began to develop there as babies should, the couple says.

“She’s very happy. She’s energetic. She’s boisterous, funny. She’s independent. And all of that within a year,” Keenan and Ginger told the I-TEAM.

The Phillips’ son, Colton, thinks of Liberty as his little sister.

“We weren’t a foster home,” Ginger said. “We were a family.”

Liberty’s court appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) agrees. A confidential report from September says Liberty was “thriving” in her new environment.

“Liberty currently has a significant relationship with her uncle and aunt that grows stronger daily…the GAL would like the child to remain in her current placement until Liberty can be adopted by her maternal aunt and uncle,” the report states. 

The GAL also found that Davida Phillips’ and Bradley Hornback’s parental rights should be terminated, because each posed “physical, mental and emotional endangerment” to Liberty. 

“We were comfortable with the system,” Keenan said, adding that he and Ginger depended on it to keep Liberty safe and in their home.

But a week after that report from the guardian ad litem was filed in court, everything changed again for Liberty.

Moving to the Hornbacks’

On Sept. 29, Liberty was placed in the backseat of a car to be taken to her new home. She was screaming while Keenan Phillips says he walked away from a situation he couldn’t bear to watch.

Liberty’s biological parents -- a drug addict and convicted abuser, who were found by the state to be a harm to the baby -- had suddenly filed motions to surrender their parental rights and move custody of Liberty permanently to Bradley’s brother – Christopher Hornback.

With the stroke of a pen, a judge approved Christopher Hornback and his wife, Shonna, to adopt Liberty.

In their home, Bradley Hornback would later have greater access to his daughter -- and a possible loophole around the guardian ad litem, who found that “to reunify Liberty wither father could jeopardize her physical safety and well-being…and Liberty’s emotional security with his lack of concern.”

Despite that note from the GAL, no one showed the judge placing Liberty with the Hornbacks would endanger the child -- not the guardian ad litem, not the DCF attorney, not anyone with the power to make a judge stop and reconsider the decision.

Ginger says she is frustrated by the situation and can’t understand why the court would take the parents’ recommendation.

“The whole reason you’re taking the parental rights is so they aren’t in her life anymore, so they can’t destroy her,” Ginger told the I-TEAM. “But you’re going to let them choose her fate?”

When the car door closed on Liberty’s cries Sept. 29, Ginger says she fell to the ground.

“My legs just buckled,” she said. “I told that little girl that I would protect her. I was going to keep her from being around the stuff she was taken from.”

A history of abuse

On the day Liberty was placed in his home, Christopher Hornback had an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Duval County. The warrant was tied to a 2013 arrest for domestic violence. The victim was his wife, Shonna.

At the time of Christopher’s arrest, Shonna filled out a Threat Assessment Form with police. In it, she stated Christopher was increasingly violent, had struck her one to five times in the last year, had access to a gun and had a history of domestic violence.

The I-TEAM found more reports on Christopher Hornback from 2009, also in Duval County, related to an ex-girlfriend.

According to that police report, he climbed the ex’s porch, armed with a razor, and later told police, “she’s gonna get it.” The woman told police she and Christopher had been broken up for two years. He was charged with trespassing, making threats and criminal mischief.

“You guys are going to have to get me ‘cause I will be back there again,” Hornback told police, according to the report. “She better leave the state of Florida before I get out.”

Months later, Christopher was arrested again and charged with trespassing near that same woman’s home. In that incident, he was also charged with resisting an officer. 

Despite those misdemeanor convictions, Christopher was eligible to adopt Liberty under the current law, which only lists felony convictions as disqualifiers for custody.

While the burglary on his ex-girlfriend was originally a felony charge, it was later reduced to a misdemeanor -- something Ellen Siler, who has worked with domestic violence victims for 20 years, says happens all the time, because the cases can be difficult to prosecute.

“The law says if one is convicted of a felony, another party would be a better suit as a parent,” Siler said. “We just don’t see that many convictions at the felony level.”

In addition to Christopher’s history of domestic violence, the I-TEAM uncovered countless public records that show a history of violence and abuse from other members of the Hornback family.

Chris and Bradley’s father, Christopher Wayne Hornback, was arrested 10 times on charges of domestic violence on at least two women, terroristic threats, assault, battery, burglary and escape. As a grandparent, he has legal access to Liberty under the new arrangement.

So does Shonna’s brother, Devin Johnson, who was charged three years ago, when he was 17, with felony lewd and lascivious acts on a child between the ages of 12 and 16. According to that police report, Johnson was accused of taking out his penis and touching a child with it.

The report states the victim was a child in temporary custody of Chris and Shonna Hornback, Liberty’s new adoptive parents. And, that crime was reported in the same home where Liberty now lives.

The legality

Family law attorney Patty Parker, who is not connected to the case, says taking Liberty from Ginger and Keenan Phillips and placing her with Chris and Shonna Hornback was completely legal.

According to Parker, a guilty conviction of domestic violence on a spouse less than three years before the custody dispute might not have been a disqualifier under the current statutes.

“You’ll have to ask your legislator [how that’s possible],” she said. “They pass the laws. The judge can’t make up the law.”

Parker says a child’s parents can make the choice of where their child will be placed, as long as there’s a positive home study for the prospective home.

“The constitution for the state of Florida gives people a right to privacy. The right to privacy encompasses parenting decisions,” Parker said.

The I-TEAM has learned a total of three home studies were done on the Hornback family. The first two were done by Daniel Kids – an agency DCF contracts with in Jacksonville. The third home study was done by a private agency tied to the adoption. The Hornbacks passed the last two, but failed the first one.

Home studies are confidential under Florida law, so the I-TEAM is not able to obtain those conducted on the Hornbacks. However, we did obtain a portion from the first home study – the DCF Criminal History Record – which said Devin Johnson was not legally allowed to live in the same home as Liberty, although the criminal reason for that determination was not given. It is unclear if DCF, or the judge making the decision for Liberty’s future, knew of Johnson’s previous felony charge of Lewd and Lascivious Conduct.

Because Johnson was living in his parents’ home, where Shonna and Chris also live, he had to move out before Liberty could move in.

The second and third home study, did approve the Hornbacks -- despite Chris Hornback’s criminal history. His DCF Criminal History Record was reduced to a single document.

“…although there was no information reviewed that would statutorily prohibit placement [of Liberty]…it is recommended that the child protective investigation…review all available information and discuss…the appropriateness of this placement,” the document stated.

Chris Hornback’s active warrant and rap sheet detailing a host of misdemeanor convictions were not presented to those deciding Liberty’s fate – just the single sheet of paper with the above cryptic suggestion.

A victim of abuse

The I-TEAM spent more than a week tracking down Liberty’s mother to ask why she gave up her parental rights and why she asked the judge to place her daughter with the Hornbacks.

“I was threatened by her father,” Davida said. “When I was four months pregnant with our daughter he kneed me in the face. He almost killed me twice.”

Davida tells us she is in hiding from Bradley Hornback.

“He tried to kill me twice, and I felt like if I didn’t sign her over [to the Hornbacks], it very well could happen again,” Davida said. “Now that I’m trying to get her moved back, if he catches me, he will kill me.”

Davida tells the I-TEAM she thinks Ginger and Keenan Phillips are “excellent” parents.

“That was the worst thing I ever done was signing her over to [the Hornbacks],” Davida said. “I ruined my baby’s life and possibly mine, too.”

Siler, the CEO of the Jacksonville domestic violence shelter Hubbard House, says domestic violence victims could easily be compelled to sign a document they regret.

“If someone is living with a violent person, someone who is going to try to control them through intimidation, threats or violence, that person may do whatever they have to do to feel safe,” she said.

Siler says she thinks when DCF workers are placing a child, they should look at as many factors as possible, including a history of domestic violence.

“Children living in homes with domestic violence – it is going to impact them in many ways,” she said. “About half the kids will experience violence as well.”

The I-TEAM also learned Davida Phillips’ first child, a daughter named Jade, was also taken from Davida’s custody. She was raised primarily by her father but also spent several years with Ginger and Keenan Phillips. Jade was placed with them by DCF.

Jade told the I-TEAM that Ginger and Keenan were loving parents and she wants Liberty to be returned to them. If not, she says she may never have the chance to get to know her sister. Jade was able to visit with Liberty when she was in the care of Ginger and Keenan. She has been unable to talk to her Liberty since the court approved her to be moved to the Hornback home.

Life in the Hornback home

The I-TEAM obtained police records showing that since Liberty was moved to the Hornbacks’ home, Bradley Hornback, Liberty’s biological father – previously deemed a threat to Liberty -- has been staying there with her.

According to a police report, officers responded to Chris and Shonna’s home on Oct. 13 -- just two weeks after Liberty was placed with them -- after a DCF caseworker received an anonymous tip advising that the children in the home were in a violent environment with drugs.

Police found Liberty, as well as Chris and Shonna’s biological daughter -- who is around Liberty’s age -- sleeping in a room shared with Shonna and Chris, the report states. Bradley was in a separate room at the time of the visit.

DCF told officers that Bradley has a court order to stay away from Liberty. However, investigators couldn’t find it, and neither can the I-TEAM. The police report lists his address as the same as Chris and Shonna’s.

Siler says domestic violence is something that often recurs.

“I think what people need to remember is if violence has happened and there isn’t an intervention then it’s going to happen again,” she said.

Both Bradley and Chris Hornback have violated probation in the past by failing to complete court-ordered batterer’s intervention programs.

The thought that Liberty could be in a violent home is almost too much for Ginger and Keenan.

“She’s not safe,” Ginger said. “She doesn’t have better odds where she’s at.”

Liberty’s nursery in Ginger and Keenan’s home remains untouched. They tell us they avoid going into the room, which they say still “smells” like Liberty.

“She just needs to come back,” Ginger said.

Keenan and Ginger are now pleading with anyone to help them get Liberty back.

“Help Liberty have a chance to be somebody. She’s had a rough beginning. Please someone help her. Help her get further ahead in life. Help her have a chance. Because her chance is right here in this house,” Ginger added.

What’s next for Liberty

The Department of Children and Families, as well as legal experts in the family law community, tell the I-TEAM the only person who can change Liberty’s placement is Duval County Judge David Gooding. If what we’ve uncovered wasn’t considered in Liberty’s transfer of custody to the Hornbacks, attorneys for the Guardian Ad Litem (who represent Liberty’s interest) or the Department of Children and Families could file motions to rehear the case based on new evidence. They are the only ones who can file those motions as Ginger and Keenan Phillips don’t have legal standing, meaning they aren’t technically parties to the case even though they were Liberty’s temporary guardians for ten months.

If DCF and the GAL file those motions for Liberty’s well-being, then the ultimate decision on her future rests solely with Judge Gooding. The I-TEAM did try to get a comment from Judge Gooding about the case and to ask what he saw in regards to the Hornback’s history, and that of Devin Johnson. Instead, Chief Judge Mark Mahon returned our call and said that Judge Gooding isn’t legally allowed to comment based on confidentiality laws. He also told us all judges rely on the information presented to them by all attorneys involved and the adoption home studies.

Judge Gooding has a long history in Jacksonville and is known for cutting through the red tape and pioneering the increase in adoptions being finalized in Jacksonville by nearly 400%. As part of that incredible progress, he’s also gained a reputation for fast-tracking adoptions. We don’t know if that played in to Liberty’s case at all.

In 2005, he received an Adoption Excellence Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for his work in advancing adoptions in Duval County. According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, Judge Gooding has received numerous local, state, and national awards for his work with juveniles, primarily in expediting adoptions from foster care…and speaks at conferences nationwide about how to “expedite adoptions through the courts.”  He was also involved in high profile dependency cases in Duval County including Lonzie Barton’s sister and the siblings of Cherish Perrywinkle. Judge Gooding took the bench in 2003.

Because of the I-TEAM investigation, Liberty’s case is under review at the highest levels of both DCF and Daniel Kids. Both agencies denied any wrongdoing.

“The case management team at Daniel Kids followed all rules and procedures in the case of baby Liberty,” Daniel Kids spokeswoman Kristen DeSmidt said in a statement. “Daniel Kids has been helping children in crisis for more than 130 years and is fully committed to their safety and dedicated to thorough care and legal compliance.” (See below for the full Daniel Kids statement.)

“Child safety is the first priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families. The role of the state’s child welfare system is to protect the individual best interest of each vulnerable child who comes into care. For DCF and all of our community partners and stakeholders, that role is more than a mandate – it is a sacred mission,” DCF spokesman John Harrell said in a statement. (See below for the full DCF statement.)

It’s important to note, just this week, DCF posted a notice to amend the state rules over background checks and home study procedures. This comes after weeks of us pressing DCF about Liberty’s case and presenting the agency with the criminal backgrounds we found regarding family members.

The I-TEAM reached out to all the attorneys in the case, as well as the judge and chief judge, but all declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

One lawmaker did express concern with the findings of the I-TEAM investigation, especially because there is a new Florida law that could have possibly applied to Liberty’s case.

The Child’s Best Hope Law went into effect July 1, 2016. Essentially, it allows the court system in an adoption case to consider the bond a child has made in a temporary home -- in Liberty’s case, her 10 months with Ginger and Keenan Phillips – before a final decision is made.

This law could also allow a judge to overrule what the biological parents want -- a decision Liberty’s mother says she already regrets -- and a decision that, based on the guardian ad litem’s report, was not in Liberty’s best interest.

Despite the law being in effect for five months, family court attorney Patty Parker says she’s never seen The Child’s Best Hope Law in use – but that doesn’t mean lawyers and lawmakers aren’t aware of it.

If you’re reading this story and are concerned about what’s happened to Liberty, you can contact your lawmakers. (See below for agency and lawmaker contact information.)

In situations like this, public concern can go a long way in helping laws get changed – in this case, strengthening rules for home studies so that judges are made fully aware of criminal histories.

Ginger and Keenan say they will keep hoping and waiting for Liberty to return home.  They have started a GoFundMe account to raise money for mounting legal expenses.

Full statement from the Florida Department of Children and Families

We are not able to provide details on specific cases due to the state's confidentiality and privacy laws, specifically, section 39.202, Florida Statutes.

"Child safety is the first priority of the Florida Department of Children and Families. The role of the state’s child welfare system is to protect the individual best interest of each vulnerable child who comes into care. For DCF and all of our community partners and stakeholders, that role is more than a mandate – it is a sacred mission.

 "DCF thoroughly investigates reports of abuse and neglect. Based on the evidence, it is determined if a child must be placed in protective custody if he or she is in danger, or if a child can remain with his or her family with services provided to prevent future maltreatment. At all levels in the child welfare system, including DCF and partners, information is carefully reviewed in each case to ensure the safety of all children involved.

"During an investigation and upon closure, cases transition to community-based care agencies to provide services to help families.  Additionally, the court system has the final authority on custody decisions.”

John Harrell, Northeast region communications director, Florida Department of Children and Families 

Full statement from Daniel Kids

The case management team at Daniel Kids followed all rules and procedures in the case of baby Liberty. When given the case by DCF, Daniel Kids did a temporary home study and placed the child with the child’s maternal aunt and uncle as the agency is required to consider such biological relations. A visitation home study was only done later with the paternal aunt and uncle when the biological parents requested they be considered for adoption. Later, the paternal aunt and uncle were awarded permanent custody by the court. Daniel Kids was not responsible for or able to be involved in the permanent placement home study. That placement study was conducted by an independent firm, as required by law.

"The maternal aunt did call Daniel Kids leadership to express her concerns about the child’s safety with the paternal relatives. It’s understood that the maternal aunt was aware as to how to file an abuse complaint, and Daniel Kids encouraged her on several occasions to provide any information she felt the court may have overlooked or provide new information to the court and her attorney. It was further recommended that she call the judge directly in the case and that Daniel Kids had no option or further standing in the case but to follow the court order as it had been presented to the agency.  

"In order to facilitate a smoother transition for baby Liberty, her maternal aunt and uncle (with whom she was currently living) and her paternal aunt and uncle (with whom she would be living) agreed to wait 48 hours before the child was transferred. Baby Liberty was transferred to her paternal aunt and uncle on September 29 as agreed and ordered by the court.

"Daniel Kids has been helping children in crisis for more than 130 years and is fully committed to their safety and dedicated to thorough care and legal compliance.”

Jim Clark, president and CEO, Daniel Kids

Contact information for Florida agencies and lawmakers

If you are upset about what happened to Liberty Belle Phillips, you can have your voice heard. You can contact your lawmakers to ask for current laws to be changed or even the Florida Department of Children and Families to encourage policy changes.

Florida Department of Children and Families

Headquarters:

Secretary Mike Carroll
1317 Winewood Road, Building 1, Room 202
Tallahassee, FL 32399
Phone: 850-487-1111

DCF Northeast Region Contact:

Patricia Medlock, Regional Managing Director
5920 Arlington Expressway
Jacksonville, FL 32211
Phone: 904-723-2000

The Florida Abuse Hotline:

(800) 962-2873 (anonymously report abuse or neglect)

Northeast Florida state senators

Sen. Aaron Bean

Duval, Nassau
13453 North Main Street, Suite 301
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Phone: 904-757-5039 & 850-410-4805

Sen. Audrey Gibson

Duval
101 East Union Street, Suite 104
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Phone: 904-359-2553 & 850-487-5006

Sen. Rob Bradley

Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Union Counties
1279 Kingsley Avenue, Suite 107
Orange Park, FL 32073
Phone: 904-278-2085 & 850-487-5005

Northeast Florida state representatives

State Rep. Clay Yarborough

Duval County
State Representative Clay Yarborough
1615 Huffington Road, Suite 1
Jacksonville, FL 32216
Phone: 904-723-5300
Email

State Rep. Jay Fant

Duval County
4114 Herschel Street, Suite 104
Jacksonville, FL 32210
Phone: 904-381-6011 & 904-381-6012
Email

State Rep. Kimberly Daniels

Duval County
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399
Phone: None established
Email

State Rep. Tracie Davis

Duval County
101 East Union Street, Suite 402
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Phone: 850-717-5013
Email

State Rep. Jason Fischer

Duval County
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399
Phone: None established 
Email

State Rep. Cord Byrd

Nassau, Duval County
1807 North Third Street, Suite B
Jacksonville, FL 32250
Phone: 850-717-5011
Email

State Rep. Travis W. Cummings

Clay County
580 Wells Road, Suite 2
Orange Park, FL 32073
Phone: 904-278-5761
Email

State Rep. Bobby Payne

Clay, Bradford, Putnam, Union Counties
403 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399
Phone: 850-717-5019
Email

State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson

St. Johns County
3000 North Ponce De Leon Boulevard, Suite C
St. Augustine, FL 32084
Phone: 904-823-2300
Email

Domestic violence assistance

If you or someone you know is in a violent relationship, Jacksonville’s Hubbard House is a well-known community resource. The shelter cares for an estimated 120 victims and their children daily, and provides services to 5,000 victims annually.

Its website reads: “There are four main types of abuse in domestic violence situations: physical, emotional, economic, and sexual abuse. Domestic violence is often more than an isolated incident. It is a recurring cycle of violence that often increases in severity over time.”

There is a 24-hour hotline to get help. You can call Hubbard House at (904) 354-3114.

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