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A Bronx Family Court judge and a foster care agency have been dueling over the judge’s power to examine whether the agency’s officials misled her when she sent two young children into a home where a third child, also in foster care, later died in a highly publicized case.

In the latest round of the battle, Family Court Judge Marian R. Shelton has denied a motion that she recuse herself filed by the foster care agency and joined by the Legal Aid Society, which represents the two children.

The case before Judge Shelton involves whether the parental rights of the two children she had placed in foster care should be terminated. It took a bizarre turn last July when news broke that the body of the third child, who had been in the foster mother’s care, had been found in a garbage truck.

The foster mother, Renee Johnson, was arrested and charged with the illegal disposal of a body while the Queens District Attorney’s Office pursued an investigation into whether Ms. Johnson should be held responsible for the 8-year-old’s death.

The illegal disposal of a body charge, a misdemeanor, was brought in Manhattan because that is where Ms. Johnson acknowledged discarding the body.

When Ms. Johnson was arraigned on July 10, a Manhattan prosecutor described her home as fouled with fecal matter, vomit and clumps of matted hair, as well as being infested with maggots and bugs.

In response to those developments, Judge Shelton ordered officials at the Association to Benefit Children to appear before her. In 2000, Judge Shelton had ordered two children, Vivian A. and Samuel A., placed in the home of Ms. Johnson under the agency’s supervision.

The three agency officials refused to appear before her on July 15, 2003, with the agency’s attorneys citing legal exigencies created by the on-going criminal investigation. Judge Shelton issued a warrant for the arrest of the social worker who oversees the placement of the two children in Ms. Johnson’s home, the agency’s executive director and its medical director.

In September, the Queens district attorney reported that the dead child, Stephanie Ramos, had died of natural causes and that he would not charge Ms. Johnson in connection with the girl’s death. Two misdemeanor counts involving the improper disposal of the girl’s body and Ms. Johnson’s filing of a false missing person’s report remain pending in Manhattan.

In denying the recusal motion this week, Judge Shelton described the motion as one more in a long line of legal tactics to thwart her efforts to question the agency.

In Matter of ABC Variety House, N-11081-82/00, Judge Shelton wrote that she needed to question the officials to determine if the agency had “misinformed” her about the conditions of Samuel and Vivian’s care. The information was needed to “assess accountability” should it be found that a misrepresentation had been made and to assure that the rights of the children’s parents — which were the subject of the termination proceeding before her — had not been “so subverted as to require new hearings.”

The decision will be published Tuesday.

The agency claimed Judge Shelton was without jurisdiction to conduct an investigation into the circumstances of Stephanie Ramos’ death.

The agency sought a writ of prohibition from a Bronx Supreme Court justice blocking Judge Shelton’s inquiries. In asking for an injunction, Association to Benefit Children pointing out that in the aftermath of Stephanie’s death, the two children had been removed from the home and reassigned to a new agency, the New Alternatives for Children.

The decision issued by Bronx Justice Norma Ruiz on the request for an injunction is under court seal. But, in a court filing, the Association to Benefit Children described Justice Ruiz’s ruling as blocking Judge Shelton from questioning its officers because the inquiry “would only be for purposes of gleaning information or details of an investigatory nature,” which is outside the province of the Family Court.

‘Mistaken’ Opinion

Judge Shelton, in her latest opinion, said that she was aware of Justice Ruiz’s opinion and believes it to be “mistaken.”

In rejecting the recusal request, Judge Shelton disagreed with the assertion in the agency’s brief that she had made “disparaging remarks about the credibility of ABC and suggested that ABC was more concerned about protecting itself than protecting the children in its care.”

“Even read in isolation,” Judge Shelton responded, the transcript pages show neither disparagement nor prejudice.”

In rejecting the Legal Aid Society’s request for recusal, Judge Shelton noted the group had criticized her for “time-consuming and unnecessary scheduling of numerous court appearances” concerning “the minutest details of the children’s current situation.”

Rebuffing that criticism, Judge Shelton wrote that “one would think that agencies which publicize their efforts on behalf of children at risk would be loathe to criticize anyone, let alone a court, for an ‘unflagging insistence’ in determining facts and an interest in the ‘minutest details’ of a child’s welfare.”

The Association to Benefit Children, in a statement issued yesterday, said that Judge Shelton’s denial of its recusal motion “is simply another attempt to go beyond her authority to get around two definitive Supreme Court rulings.”

The Legal Aid Society declined to comment. In an affidavit submitted in support of its recusal motion, it contended that Judge Shelton’s “unremitting” efforts to question a social worker at the Association to Benefit Children “compel the conclusion that this court has lost its ability to objectively and fairly determine the issues in this matter.”

The Association to Benefit Children was represented by Susan Brune of Brune & Richard. The Legal Aid Society was represented by Patricia Nevergold.

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