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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 12:07 am

State: Sidney Watkins shouldn’t live with mom

Mom apologizes during hearing

Happier days: Jennifer Watkins and daughter Sidney in 2016.

 

While Sidney Watkins attended her first day of school as a sixth-grader last week, her mother, Jennifer, had a bad day in court in the latest chapter of a custody battle that began a decade ago.

One person, Sidney’s father, Steven, is dead. He was gunned down in 2008 when he went to pick up his daughter for a court-ordered visit. Jennifer Watkins, who was in the Ashland home with her family when her estranged husband was shot in back of the head, didn’t cooperate with police. After Shirley Skinner, Watkins’ grandmother, was convicted of murder and sent to prison, Watkins fled Illinois with her daughter rather than comply with a court order to allow visits between Sidney and the girl’s paternal grandparents. It all came crashing down for Watkins in the fall of 2016, when she was arrested in Massachusetts and Sidney was sent to live with her dead father’s sister in Cass County, where she remains. She is now 11.

For nearly two years, the only visits Watkins has had with Sidney have been under supervision, with Watkins paying the costs of observers who supervise each visit. Now, her daughter says that she wants to remain at her paternal aunt’s home, and the state Department of Children and Family Services is recommending that Sidney stay with her late father’s family forever.

The state recommendation came in shortly before last week’s hearing before Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick, who openly pondered how to hold a hearing to decide Sidney’s fate. The proceeding, which will pit state experts against a counselor retained by Watkins, is expected to last at least a day. Sidney, the star witness, likely will testify either in chambers or via video. Reports turned in by experts show that the girl already is worried about taking the stand, Hardwick said. “I don’t want this to be any more traumatic than it needs to be,” the judge said.

As in prior proceedings, Jennifer Watkins’ kin and the family of Sidney’s slain father last week filled the courtroom, each family remaining on opposite sides of the gallery. Watkins represented herself and did not give a definitive answer when Hardwick asked whether she would retain counsel for the hearing that will determine whether she will regain custody of her daughter. “I know you’ve got a plan – you’ve always got a plan,” the judge said. “I don’t know,” Watkins responded. “I might need counsel. I’m not for sure.”

The judge told Watkins the importance of the coming hearing, and he also reminded her of her daughter’s wishes. “It’s obvious from the expert and the visitation notes that she loves you, but she wants to stay where she’s at,” the judge said. She wanted to come home to me a year ago, Watkins answered. Then Watkins asked to make a statement.

Over the next several minutes, Watkins apologized for defying Hardwick’s visitation order and fleeing Illinois rather than allow Sidney to spend time with her deceased father’s family. “I have hurt people in this courtroom, but I have hurt Sidney the most,” she said. “I couldn’t see things the way I do now.” She said that counseling has been hard. “It was not easy work,” she said. “It was very difficult. … I’ve made some goals for myself. I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me, trying to fix what I messed up.”

While spectators sat stone-faced, Watkins choked up a time or two as she spoke for several minutes about herself and Sidney. Running was wrong, Watkins said, and she realizes that her daughter loves her dead father’s family. “She’s everything to me,” Watkins told the judge, who turned his attention back to the upcoming hearing after she completed her statement. Near the end of the proceeding, Watkins asked a question: Would the judge allow unsupervised visits? “I’d like to take Sidney places,” Watkins explained. She also pointed out that supervised visits are costing her $140 per session. “That’s a lot of money,” she said.

The judge wasn’t swayed.

“I’m not going to do that today,” Hardwick said. “You need to get an attorney involved.”  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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