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Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 05:40 pm

Sidney Watkins stays put

Mother weeps after hearing

Jennifer Watkins, in red, leaves courthouse with relatives after Tuesday's hearing


Sidney Watkins, the 10-year-old girl whose father was murdered by a maternal relative, says that she doesn’t want to live with her mother anymore.

The little girl at the center of one of the most bitter and public custody battles in central Illinois history has this summer told a judge, a counselor and her guardian ad litem that she’d rather remain with her paternal aunt’s family than return home to her mother Jennifer Watkins, who once spent six months in jail rather than allow visits between her daughter and the girl’s paternal relatives. On Tuesday, Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick, Jr., formally made Sidney a ward of the court and ordered that she remain with her paternal aunt. The judge, however, stopped short of stripping Jennifer Watkins of her parental rights.

“This is not a termination of parental rights,” Hardwick decreed. “We’re not even close to that yet. Hopefully, we never get down to that.” Michael Goldberg, Jennifer Watkins’ lawyer, vowed to appeal the judge’s decision, which could be a prologue to Watkins ultimately losing her daughter forever.

“Sometimes, even great judges can render wrong decisions,” Goldberg said after the hearing. “I think he’s wrong on the law, and we’re going to appeal.”

It was a major setback for Jennifer Watkins, who afterward wept on the courthouse steps. During a hearing last December, Hardwick, who years ago called Watkins “evil,” said that he intended to return Sidney to her mother. But first, the judge said last year, Watkins must demonstrate that she won’t leave Illinois with her daughter to prevent visits between the girl and her paternal relatives. On Tuesday, Hardwick said that he doesn’t have confidence that Watkins wouldn’t flee if she got her daughter back.

Sidney’s father Steven Watkins was gunned down from behind in 2008 when he went to the Ashland home of his estranged wife to pick up his daughter for a court-ordered visit. Shirley Skinner, Sidney’s maternal great-grandmother and Jennifer’s grandmother, was convicted of murder. Prosecutors told the jury that Jennifer Watkins her relatives considered Sidney their property, and Sidney’s father paid with his life when his push to spend time with his daughter threatened their hold on the girl.

Jennifer Watkins did not cooperate in the murder investigation and asserted her Fifth Amendment privilege during grand jury proceedings. On Tuesday, Hardwick said that she has not yet demonstrated that she would act in the best interests of her daughter, whom the judge last December found was a victim of neglect by virtue of her mother’s refusal to allow visits with paternal relatives. Child welfare authorities seized Sidney last September, when Jennifer Watkins was arrested in Massachusetts after leaving Florida, where she’d lived for six years without being served an arrest warrant for contempt of court for failure to allow visits with paternal relatives ordered by Hardwick. The judge will revisit the case during a hearing set for December.

Last November, Sidney told the judge that she wanted to live with her mother. However, on July 3, Sidney reversed course, telling Hardwick in judicial chambers that she wanted to live with Ashley Clement, her slain father’s sister, and Clement’s family in Virginia. Sidney told her guardian ad litem and a counselor the same thing. Clement on Tuesday testified that she sensed a change in Sidney that began in March. “She’s more open with me, more willing to express feelings,” Clement told the court. The girl has supervised visits with her mother once a week and is no long as incommunicative afterward as she was at first, Clement testified. “Sometimes she says ‘It was fine,’” Clement told the court. “Sometimes she says ‘My mom whispered.’ Sometimes she says ‘My mom lied to me today.’”

Sidney has said that her mother has told her that she’s spoken to the judge and lawyers and that she’ll soon be coming home, Clement testified, even though visitation supervisors have told Jennifer Watkins not to tell the girl that she will be going home with her mother. The judge on Tuesday rejected a recommendation from the state Department of Children and Family Services that supervised visits be cut back to prevent Jennifer Watkins from manipulating the girl.

Jennifer Watkins testified that she and Sidney pray during visits that they’ll be permanently reunited. Like Clement, Watkins said that Sidney has changed – for one thing, she no longer cries when visits with her mother end. “Sometimes, Sidney is distant, but that’s not the majority of the time,” Watkins testified. “Sometimes she doesn’t act like herself, but that’s not every time.” She testified that defying court orders to allow visits “was one of the worst decisions of my life,” and she acknowledged that Sidney has developed feelings for her paternal relatives. “She loves them,” Watkins testified. “I can’t deny that at all.”

Watkins came close to tears on the stand. “I’m Sidney’s mom,” she said in a breaking voice. “It’s a very difficult thing to lose your child.”

Why did Sidney tell me that you told her to claim that she’s been forced to sleep on the floor each night, asked R. John Alvarez, Cass County state’s attorney. Why did she tell me that you’ve told her to cry every night and beg to go home with you?

“I have no idea,” Jennifer Watkins answered.

Alvarez pushed for Sidney to remain with her paternal aunt, who testified that the girl is getting straight A’s, is active in cheerleading and appears happy. “She’s thriving,” Alvarez said. “It’s clear that she has developed on her own a resentment toward her mother.”

Goldberg asked the judge to consider the case in a vacuum, as if Sidney’s father hadn’t been murdered by Jennifer Watkin’s grandmother. “That is the pivotal fact that drives all this litigation,” Goldberg said. “In a vacuum, you don’t consider the facts that brought us here.”

Hardwick rejected Goldberg’s plea.

“We’re not in a vacuum,” the judge said. “We all know why we’re here. … The prize is Sidney Watkins. The prize is what’s in that little girl’s interest.”

The judge agreed that children can’t be allowed to decide where they should live, but he also said that Sidney’s wishes need to be considered. And he said he doubts that Sidney has been manipulated into saying where she wants to live.

“She’s changed,” Hardwick said. “God only knows why she changed. ... She’s starting to realize what a horrible, horrible, tragic mess she’s been thrown in the middle of.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.



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