'Saving Baby Liberty' investigation sparks statewide change

Judge, key leaders discuss Florida's children with I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first time in our I-TEAM investigation: Saving Baby Liberty, we're hearing from the judge in charge of her case, along with the head of the Guardian ad Litem Program -- the very agency tasked with protecting the toddler in court.

Since October, we have been investigating how Liberty Belle Phillips, who is now 17 months old, could be removed from a safe and loving home with one set of relatives and placed into a different home with a documented history of abuse.

All along. we've wanted to know how much of the information that we uncovered using public records was presented to the key people deciding Liberty's fate.

Judge David Gooding's name in Jacksonville is synonymous with adoptions, as he's known for cutting down barriers and red tape to unite more children in need with families that want them.

"I think the work with adoptions has been the most significant work I've done," Gooding told the I-TEAM.

 He will ultimately decide Liberty's future. Her custody case has been in his court for nearly a year, after she was taken away from her drug-addicted mother and abusive father.

Months ago, the I-TEAM uncovered Gooding had signed an order transferring custody of Liberty to Christopher and Shonna Hornback. Christopher is Liberty's paternal uncle. On the very day Gooding granted the Hornbacks custody of Liberty, Christopher had an outstanding, active warrant in Duval County tied to domestic violence on Shonna, his wife.

Shonna previously told police Christopher had a history of domestic violence and was increasingly violent with her. The I-TEAM also found Christopher was previously accused of threatening an ex-girlfriend while armed with a razor.

What's more, we found Bradley Hornback -- Liberty's abusive biological father, who is a convicted felon -- had access to Liberty after she was moved to his brother's family. Despite the fact that Liberty's court-appointed protector, the Guardian ad Litem, had found Bradley posed a risk of great mental, physical and emotional harm to Liberty.

Confidentiality rules prohibit Gooding from speaking to the I-TEAM about Liberty's case, but he could answer broader child custody questions.

"How important is it for you to place children in good, healthy homes?" we asked.

"That's the No. 1 responsibility of our entire system. Of course, we rely on the evidence that's presented in court and I do the best I can to follow the law," Gooding answered. "I am active in seeking what’s best for children, but I still have to rely on the rule of law and the evidence presented by parties that are lawfully in court."

We still don't know if any of the public information we uncovered about the Hornbacks was ever presented to Gooding, but our sources say it wasn't. That's something state Sen. Aaron Bean says must change.

"I think your story, your story on Baby Liberty, has shed light on that judges are only as good as the information presented," Bean said. "Let's give our judges the maximum amount of information."

It's a change Alan Abromowitz, executive director of Florida's Guardian ad Litem program, also favors.

"It's very important we look at the totality of the circumstances because decisions that are made whether to adopt or not will affect that child for life," he told the I-TEAM.

Under the law, Abromowitz is also unable to talk about Liberty's case, but he could speak generally about the process.

"I would say the first placement is very important because once you get that bond, sometimes it becomes difficult," he explained.

That's the puzzling thing about Liberty's case. The child was first placed with her maternal uncle and aunt, Keenan and Ginger Phillips. She lived there for 10 months and Liberty's Guardian ad Litem recommended the couple be allowed to adopt Liberty -- as they had a loving and parental-like relationship with Liberty thriving in their care.

The day Liberty was taken from Keenan and Ginger Phillips' home to be placed with the Hornbacks, Liberty screamed and her Aunt Ginger collapsed.

Keenan and Ginger have not stopped fighting to get Liberty back, in fact their fight led them to the I-TEAM for help.

And, while digging through court records and police reports for this investigation, we also uncovered, under current law, only felony convictions disqualify people from adopting in Florida -- not misdemeanors.

Although Christopher Hornback had been arrested at one point on a felony charge, he was approved to adopt Liberty because that charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor.

That's something Abromowitz would also like to see change in order to help all children in our state.

"It shouldn't just be what you may or may not have been convicted of. It should be the facts associated with it because the facts are what happens," he said. "Parents sometimes don’t disclose things that we would want to know."

In our original investigation, which aired Dec. 1, Liberty's biological mother, Davida Phillips, said she only relinquished her maternal right and agreed to place her daughter with Bradley's brother and sister-in-law because Bradley threatened her and she was in fear of her life.

WATCH: I-TEAM's original investigation: Saving Baby Liberty

Because of that, on Dec. 6, Gooding agreed to reexamine Liberty's adoption case. On that same day, Bradley Hornback was arrested on his outstanding probation violation warrant. He will remain in jail until his next court hearing, which is scheduled for next month. 

The next hearing involving Liberty's adoption case is scheduled for Wednesday. 

About the Authors:

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