Mother 'optimistic' Liberty Belle will be returned to her family

Custody battle over toddler being reexamined by judge after I-TEAM report

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The mother of Liberty Belle Phillips came out of hiding to meet with attorneys Thursday as the custody battle over the toddler is 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 that 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.

I-TEAM: Couple fights to regain custody of Liberty Belle

At a court hearing 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.

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. 

With Bradley in jail, Davida, who's still worried about her safety, said she came out of hiding Thursday to tell her attorney what she already told the I-TEAM -- she only consented to sign Liberty over to Bradley's family because she was in her of her own life. 

"I just want to do the best thing for my baby. I am not even looking at it from my point of view because this is very dangerous for me. I am doing this for her," Davida said. "I didn't even realize how bad it was until I got out of it. I couldn't wrap my mind around the whole mind game. Not only is it physical, mental, emotional -- it's financial when every aspect of your life is being controlled."

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.

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, 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.

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.

Under Florida law, the I-TEAM found that Christopher is legally allowed to adopt Liberty because his convictions are misdemeanors and not felonies, which is upsetting to Davida as a victim herself. 

"What's the difference of giving her a black eye or drawing blood? You still hit her," Davida said. 

Davida said she hopes the publicity will help her daughter.

"They are under a microscope right now, so it's actually help to put a bubble wrap around her," she said. 

But ultimately, Davida said, she hopes Liberty will be returned to her family -- Keenan and Ginger -- safe and sound. 

"I’m optimistic we can get this overturned and back home where she belongs," Davida said. 

Davida gave her sworn testimony Thursday, which helps to move the court process forward. But it is still not known whether it will be enough for Gooding to reverse his decision. 

Saving Baby Liberty

A wave of nationwide support for Liberty has developed, including the creation of a new online petition directed at Gooding. 

The petition, started by a Virginia woman upset by the I-TEAM investigation, was posted on Thursday. 

The goal of the petition is to get 1,000 signatures to help show public support to move the 17-month-old out of the home Gooding, DCF and her biological parents placed her in with her father's family. 

As of 3:30 p.m. Friday, more than 550 people from across the country had signed the petition. 

The guardian ad litem's office for Northeast Florida, which represents Liberty's best interest and found her to be safe in another home, even shared News4Jax's social media post about the petition to its page using the hashtag #SavingBabyLiberty.

About the Authors:

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