Court reexamining Liberty Belle's adoption case

Hearing called after I-TEAM report on criminal history of some family members

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The adoption of Liberty Belle Phillips appears to be on hold as the custody battle over the toddler is now being reexamined by a Duval County judge.

The development follows the News4Jax I-TEAM's investigation into why Liberty 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.

Last week, the I-TEAM reported that in September, Liberty's biological mom -- Davida Phillips -- signed legal papers giving up her parental rights over her daughter. She, and Liberty's biological father -- Bradley Hornback -- also recommended that Liberty be adopted by Bradley's brother -- Christopher Hornback -- and his wife.

But since September, Davida told the I-TEAM Bradley, who has abused her before, threatened her if she didn't sign the papers. The I-TEAM has uncovered a documented history of abuse in the home recommended for adoption.

In court Tuesday, Judge David Gooding gave Davida an attorney, and the Department of Children and Families and the guardian ad litem were also reappointed to take another look at what's best for the toddler. However, Davida was not in court. 

The I-TEAM was at the courthouse for the hearing. While Gooding did grant permission for us to be in the courtroom, child custody hearings are usually closed. Attorneys involved objected to a public hearing, and we were not able to observe the proceedings.

While the hearing was in progress, the I-TEAM learned Bradley was arrested at his place of work on an outstanding warrant for violating probation on a domestic violence charge against Davida. He appeared in court Wednesday morning and was denied bond. His arraignment date was set for Dec. 13.

Court hearing sparks hope for Liberty's uncle, aunt

Liberty Belle Phillips' uncle and aunt held a candlelight prayer service Tuesday evening following the court hearing in hopes the child will be put back in their custody.

Liberty's biological mother Davida Phillips' brother, Keenan Phillips, and his wife, Ginger, said they were pleased that the same judge who awarded Christopher Hornback custody of the child has now decided to reexamine the case. 

VIDEO: Group prays for Liberty Belle

Before Liberty was placed with Christopher, the toddler had been “thriving” while living in Keenan and Ginger’s home for 10 months.  

"We decided to do this based on just praying for the well-being of her while she's away and to soften the hearts of the judge and others involved," Ginger said. "Standing in that courthouse, waiting and waiting for them to come out and let us know what's going on, we've been fighting for this since before they took her."

Keenan said the Tuesday arrest of Liberty's biological father Bradley Hornback, who was later booked into the Duval County Jail, added extra importance to the prayer service.

"I never thought I would have to feel something like that because today was an eye-opener. The places I had to go, I was like how could you live in such a way when you have other options," Keenan said.

Though Liberty’s custody battle appears to be on hold, the couple said they feel DCF is making strides in the right direction after being pressed by the I-TEAM.

"I feel great that they have reopened it. It's a relief. It was stressful not knowing what he [the judge] was going to do," Keenan said. 

This week, Keenan and Ginger posted a notice to amend the state rules over background checks and home study procedures, which could have helped Liberty’s situation. 

"I'm so thankful because I want other children to not have to go through this, not have to be ripped away from their home that they have been in for that long. I would like to see interventions given a time limit in cases like this," Keenan said. 

As community members rallied around the couple at the prayer service, Keenan and Ginger also prayed that no other children will never have to go through the same ordeal as their niece. 

"We are hopeful that everyone is going to do the right thing for Liberty. It's pretty obvious the problems with the system with what happened here and I think everyone realizes that. Some may not be happy about it, most are, but this is where we are at and we're very thankful for it," Ginger said.

A GoFundMe account has been created to help the couple continue to fight for Liberty and her future. 

I-TEAM uncovers criminal history with other adoptive family members

Liberty Belle Phillips was born July 4, 2015, with drugs in her system and was found repeatedly neglected by Davida. Liberty's father, Bradley, has a documented history of abusing women. When Liberty was 3 months old, Florida's Department of Children and Families stepped in and placed Liberty with Davida's brother -- Keenan Phillips, and his wife Ginger.

"When we first took Liberty, she was a little behind, kind of stiff. She was neglected," Ginger said Tuesday.

After 10 months in their home, the guardian ad litem found Liberty was "thriving" and had a "loving" and "parental" like relationship with Ginger and Keenan. But a week after that report was filed in favor of Keenan and Ginger's adoption of Liberty, Gooding signed a new order allowing Liberty to be adopted by Bradley's brother, Christopher Hornback, who also has a documented history of abuse.

Again, that order came after Davida and Bradley signed over their parental rights to Christopher.

The I-TEAM found that on the day Christopher and Shonna Hornback were granted custody of Liberty, Christopher had an outstanding warrant in Duval County tied to a case alleging domestic battery case against Shonna. 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.

"Obviously, the Hornbacks went through their background checks but his warrant didn't come up. That's a problem. That's a big problem. That should have been a flag. That should have come up you know," Keenan said.

Christopher was arrested in 2009 on allegations of burglarizing his ex-girlfriend’s home while armed with a razor. Months later, he was arrested again and charged with trespassing near that same woman’s home.

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.

Bradley, 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 in September, 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."

Ginger said she can’t understand why the court took the parents’ recommendation for Liberty's placement with the Hornbacks.

“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?”

Davida told the I-TEAM that she agreed to sign over her rights because she felt threatened by Bradley.

“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. Now that I’m trying to get her moved back, if he catches me, he will kill me,” Davida said. “That was the worst thing I ever done was signing her over to [the Hornbacks]. I ruined my baby’s life and possibly mine, too.”

The I-TEAM questioned whether the court that decided Liberty's placement with the Hornbacks knew of the criminal history of some family members. So far, what was presented to the judge originally is unclear.

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