Lawmaker: Liberty's case has 'literally gone through cracks'

Sen. Aaron Bean pushing for change after investigation into adoption fight

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida Sen. Aaron Bean is pushing for statewide change after the I-TEAM investigation: Saving Baby Liberty.

SEE: Interactive timeline & original story on Liberty Belle Phillips

Liberty Belle Phillips' future still hangs in the balance after she was moved from a safe and loving home with one set of relatives into a new home linked to relatives with a documented history of abuse, including domestic violence and an instance of alleged inappropriate sexual touching -- all uncovered by the I-TEAM. 

“First of all, just like all of your viewers, (I'm) mad. How could this happen at all? You discovered a case I think that has literally gone through the cracks,” Bean said. "I do (have concerns about Liberty's safety) but I've been assured that agencies involved still have eyes on Liberty as we speak."

Liberty Belle Phillips -- who was born on July 4, 2015 -- already has a tragic life story. She had methadone and THC in her body at birth, with a drug addict for a mother and a repeated domestic abuser for a father, Bradley Hornback.

At 3 months old, Liberty was found repeatedly neglected by her mother, Davida Phillips, and Florida's Department of Children and Families stepped in and placed Liberty with her mother's brother -- Keenan Phillips, and his wife, Ginger, who have a 4-year-old son, Colton.

“Every day, I think about it. I can’t even go in her room,” Keenan Phillips said.

“I’m angry and I’m scared for her,” Ginger Phillips said.

After 10 months in their home, the court found Liberty was "thriving," with the guardian ad litem writing they had a "loving" and "parental" like relationship. But a week after that report was filed in favor of Keenan and Ginger's adoption of Liberty, Judge David Gooding signed a new order transferring Liberty to another home. 

Liberty cried and her aunt Ginger collapsed as the toddler was driven to live with her father's brother, Christopher Hornback. 

The I-TEAM found that on the day Christopher Hornback was granted custody of Liberty, he had an outstanding warrant in Duval County tied to a domestic battery case on his current wife, Shonna Hornback. In 2013, Shonna told JSO her husband Christopher was increasingly violent with her, had access to a gun and had a history of domestic violence.

Christopher Hornback was arrested twice in 2009 for burglarizing his ex-girlfriend's home while armed with a razor. He told police "she's gonna get it.”

Shonna's brother, who used to live in the same home in which Liberty is now living, was charged with felony lewd and lascivious on a child. That child was once in the care and custody of Chris and Shonna Hornback. His charge was later reduced to felony battery.

Liberty's biological father, Bradley Hornback, a convicted abuser, has greater access to Liberty now that she is in his brother's home. The I-TEAM found a police report showing he was in the home weeks after the court moved her there, despite Liberty's guardian ad litem telling the court, "to reunify Liberty with her father could jeopardize her physical safety and well-being…and Liberty's emotional security with his lack of concern."

We wanted to know how much of what the I-TEAM uncovered was given to the judge who decided Liberty's placement. That's a question Bean has as well.

"Right as we speak, everybody is reviewing their policies and procedures to see how we can prevent this from happening again. Their eyes are on Liberty, I'll assure you of that. They are on Liberty to make sure this baby is safe," he said. "But how can we go forward to make sure something like this doesn't happen again, because you have stirred the pot and brought this to everybody's attention."

Once we pressed DCF for answers, the agency proposed two rule changes: one on how it conducts criminal background checks and the other on home studies -- the reports the courts rely on to see if a home is safe. These are rule changes Bean is following closely.

"We are going to see what agencies come up with, with rule changes, and possibly a new way of doing business to make sure there are no Liberty's in the future," said Bean. "And if the law needs to be changed, I would be one to line up and say, 'Let's change it.'" 

This summer, lawmakers passed the Child's Best Hope Law to give judges more leeway in making custody decisions. They can consider the bonded relationship of the child with current caregivers -- in this case, Ginger and Keenan Phillips -- but again, we don't know what information the judge had or didn't have when he placed Liberty.

"I’m begging someone, or Judge Gooding, throw this out, overturn this, do what’s right for this child," said Ginger. 

Bean said that while lawmakers can pass laws, he hopes those applying the law are also applying common sense.

I-TEAM sources -- who would be in a position to know -- said Liberty is doing OK right now. But the only way her custody can be changed is if a hearing is called -- giving Judge David Gooding a chance to reverse his ruling. Ginger and Keenan can’t file for that new hearing because, under the current law, they have no legal standing -- despite being her caregivers for 10 months. That’s another aspect lawmakers are looking at closely.

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.