By KATE ZERNIKE
POTTSVILLE - County officials here in Eastern Pennsylvania left notes on [wife name withheld]'s door, she said, warning her that they were monitoring her pregnancy. They told her they would try to take her child as soon as she gave birth.
She had the Caesarean section on Tuesday. Against her doctors' wishes, she left the hospital two days later to appear in court, but on Friday she lost her fight when a judge gave the boy to Schuylkill County.
At issue, officials say, is not so much [wife name withheld]'s fitness as a mother as her choice of mates. The newborn's father, her husband, served a decade in prison as a sex offender in New York 22 years ago, convicted in the rape and sodomy of two teenage girls. The boy is the third child [wife name withheld] has lost for just that reason. The baby - lawyers are not disclosing his name - will be in temporary custody pending a hearing on longer term arrangements on Oct. 31, as well as an ongoing challenge that [wife name withheld] has filed in federal court.
The case illustrates the debate over how far the authorities should go in drawing boundaries between sexual offenders and their neighbors - or, in this case, their own families.
[wife name withheld]'s lawyer says the county is violating her rights, and misusing the sex offender registries that have been established in the last several years across the country under measures known as Megan's Laws.
"That they're going to decide who you can associate with as a parent, that's just astounding," said Mary Catherine Roper, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing [wife name withheld]. "I don't know when imminent danger to a child became you can't have any friends we don't like, or even any exes we don't like. If you ever associate with someone who turns out to have engaged in child abuse then that's it for you."
County officials argued during the federal court hearings that they had a doctor's report saying that [wife name withheld] had used drugs; she denies that, saying there is no evidence in any of her medical records and that she will undergo screening to prove she is clean.
But officials say that their primary concern is the record of her husband, [name withheld], although there is no evidence, they say, that he has abused children recently.
"He has a history of violent sexual abuse against kids," said Karen Rismiller, a lawyer for Schuylkill County Children and Youth Services. "Just because he served time doesn't allow someone to be around children. He's a sex offender registered in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland."
[wife name withheld] testified on her own behalf in the hearing Friday, which was closed to the public. She refused to say anything as she walked out of the courtroom, holding her abdomen with a hand still affixed with a hospital bracelet, and wearing a blue sweatshirt reading "Transport for Christ" and her long red hair in braids. Judge Charles M. Miller said she could have two hours of supervised visits with the baby before the next hearing. Her lawyer said she had been breastfeeding the child and would deliver frozen milk to the county. "She's hoping it gets to the baby," Ms. Roper said, "but that obviously isn't the same as holding and breastfeeding her baby."
"It's devastating to an infant to be stripped from his mother in the very first days of his life," Ms. Roper said.
[wife name withheld] has expressed support for her husband in previous interviews, saying she saw no evidence that he was the monster depicted by county officials. He appeared with her in federal court last week, but did not appear here Friday. He could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Roper said that the two, who married in June 2002, have maintained separate residences for about two years, and that [wife name withheld] would be willing to sign an agreement to stay away from him if that would win her custody of her child.
The county, however, says that the baby is proof that she will not stay away from him. [name withheld], now 53, was known as [name withheld] when he pleaded guilty in 1983 to raping and sodomizing two teenage girls. He was sentenced to 5 to 15 years and served 10. Under state versions of Megan's Law, he is required to register with local police.
[name withheld] changed his name and declares himself chief of an Indian tribe called the Unole E Quoni, which he says has 175 families but is not recognized by any government. [wife name withheld]'s lawyer said the two met 11 or 12 years ago; they are both members of the tribe.
[wife name withheld] had a son by a previous marriage, and Schuylkill County officials moved to take custody of him two weeks after the [last name withheld] married, her lawyer said. The boy, now 8, remains in foster care. She became pregnant by [name withheld] and moved to nearby Lancaster County in 2003, because, a caseworker testified in federal court, she feared that Schuylkill County would take the child. Schuylkill County alerted Lancaster County, whose officials found her living in Schenectady, N.Y., and took the child back to Pennsylvania. By that time, a couple [wife name withheld] had lived with briefly in Maryland had filed for custody of the child, arguing that [name withheld] was unfit. That couple now has custody of the child.
In federal court hearings, county officials alleged that besides the two girls he was convicted of raping, [name withheld] had abused his daughter, who is now in her 30's, an accusation he denied.
The unusual case has raised some doubts even with groups that champion the rights of abused children.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said he respected the right of agencies to take custody of endangered children, but said that the standard for removing a child had to be set "very high."
"If somebody was convicted 20 years ago and has not reoffended, and the circumstances of the offense would not appear to make him a threat to young children, then this is troublesome," Mr. Allen said.
David L. Levy, the chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, said, "I am not aware of any case where a 20-year-old conviction, no matter how heinous, has been used to remove a child from the care of the perpetrator and from a mother who had nothing to do with that crime."
"The state may think that because they're married, the only way to make the child safe from the father is to remove him from the mother," he said. "But what about her due process and constitutional rights? If they can show a present danger, I'd be the first one to support removal, but they need to show a connection between 20 years ago and now."