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An Eddington woman is asking a federal judge to force the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to allow her contact with her 7-year-old daughter, who is living with her father’s girlfriend in Ellsworth under an agency safety plan.
Toni Barronton, 33, claims that DHHS violated her right to due process after it reneged on a decision to let the girl live with her temporarily after her father, Patrick Lynn, 32, allegedly violated his probation by using drugs.
The lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Bangor. It is rare for a case concerning a family matter and the state’s child welfare program to be filed in federal court.
Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for DHHS, declined Tuesday to comment on the pending litigation.
Under Maine law, matters involving children, including divorces and protective custody cases, are not public. The federal court case makes public details that ordinarily would be sealed in state court.
Instead of letting the girl stay with Barronton, DHHS allegedly honored a request by Lynn to allow the girl to continue living with his girlfriend, Nicole Norwood, 32, with whom Lynn has two children ages 5 years and 6 months.
Barronton has not seen her daughter since Easter Sunday, April 21, even though she had been seeing her daughter every other weekend for nearly three years. Norwood has shut off communication between Barronton and her daughter, the complaint said.
Lynn was awarded sole parental rights and responsibilities after Barronton did not show up for a March 8, 2016, hearing in Bangor District Court but her parental rights were never terminated. At that time, she was struggling with substance use disorder but now has been stable for three years, Barronton said. She also has custody of her elder daughter, who is 12.
DHHS’ alleged rationale for leaving the girl with Norwood was because Lynn had been awarded “sole parental rights and responsibilities” for the child and Barronton has no rights to have even temporary custody of the child.
But Barronton’s complaint against DHHS contests that. “At no time has [Barronton] lost any of her constitutionally protected rights over her child,” it reads.
“DHHS is saying that because of the custody order she has no rights over her child, and that is just not true,” Barronton’s attorney, Ezra Willey of Bangor, said last week. “We are trying to get an order that says she does have shared parental rights and responsibilities.”
Parental rights and responsibility refer to decision-making over the children, such as where they attend school, the religion they practice and the doctor they see. In Barronton’s case, because Lynn was awarded sole parental rights and responsibilities, Lynn gets to make those decisions, according to Willey. But the order also says that Barronton may have contact with the child.
Willey said that DHHS is acting as if Barronton’s parental rights have been terminated, which has not happened.
Willey also has filed a motion to modify the custody agreement in Bangor District Court so that Lynn’s parental rights and responsibilities are shared jointly with Barronton.
Lynn was on probation in early April for a 2018 assault conviction when Ellsworth police were called to a local restaurant because Lynn allegedly was making a scene, according to documents filed at the Hancock County Courthouse in Ellsworth.
His probation officer, Sam Payson, was also called to the scene, and he found pills and hypodermic needles in Lynn’s car in the parking lot, according to a motion to revoke Lynn’s probation.
While the documents in Lynn’s criminal case do not mention any children being in his car, Willey said it is his understanding that DHHS removed a 10-month-old child Lynn has with another woman from his custody
because of the incident. DHHS also forbade Lynn from having contact with his other children, Willey said.
The motion to revoke Lynn’s probation states that he tested positive on April 5 for Xanax, amphetamines, fentanyl, benzodiazepines, marijuana, methamphetamines and Suboxone. He tested positive last year for benzodiazepines, marijuana and Suboxone.
Lynn admitted to violating his probation on April 24 and is scheduled to be sentenced July 3, according to the Hancock County court clerk’s office in Ellsworth.
In addition to the children he has with Norwood and Barronton, Lynn had two sons with Cheryl Metzger. The elder child, now 11 or 12, lives in Georgia with relatives of Lynn.
The younger child was killed in February 2010 at the age of 15 months by Metzger’s now estranged boyfriend, Edgard B. Anziani, 36, of Lawrence, Massachusetts. He is serving 25 years of a 30-year sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren. His earliest release date is February 2030, according to the Maine Department of Corrections.
Barronton’s lawsuit against DHHS comes as the department’s Child Protective Services system has been under heightened scrutiny following the deaths of two young girls whose families were involved with the child welfare system.
Data recently released by DHHS shows that, since January 2017, at least 22 children whose families were involved to some extent with the Child Protective Services system died.
BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.
The story has also been corrected to note that Lynn’s July 3 court proceeding in Ellsworth is a sentencing.