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In their wills Charles and Kelly Silk said they wanted Chad and Sara Prigge to raise their children. According to a Middletown, Conn., juvenile court judge, there was no legal reason to keep that from happening. But a series of “clearly improper” actions by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families intervened to undo their plan, after the Silks died in a horrible murder-suicide fire at their East Hartford, Connn., home that also killed two of their four children. DCF’s misdeeds included the destruction of evidence on the morning of a deposition, rebuffing overtures from the named guardians, and placing the child with different parents without regard to the dead couple’s wishes, a Juvenile Court judge concludes. While legally wrong, the mistakes were strategically effective. Middletown Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schuman chastised DCF in his ruling in the controversial custody case of Joshua Silk, a two-month-old when he was rescued from the burning home on June 10 of last year. But while Schuman concluded that the Prigges deserved to get the boy and would have been fine parents, he ruled that Aldo and Lisa Vallera should keep and adopt Joshua, largely because DCF sent the infant to them first and the child has bonded with them. Schuman faulted DCF workers for failing to get legal advice about the status of guardians under a will. He blasted DCF for its unconvincing court testimony that Chad Prigge, a minister in the Silks’ Truth Baptist Church, had declined to take the infant. And he castigated a DCF supervisor who destroyed her handwritten notes after they were subpoenaed for a deposition, and who typed up a new and different version on the morning of her court appearance. HUGE LOSS Choosing their successor parents was one big thing the Silks did for their children, before their lives took a ghastly turn. Kelly Silk, who had previously attempted suicide, stabbed her husband and at least one of her four children on June 10, 1999, then set a gasoline fire that helped kill all but the oldest and youngest children. Jessica Silk, 9, survived 61 stab wounds and burns, and has moved to Minnesota to live with her natural father. Joshua, alone, became the target of a custody trial that lasted seven full days of court deliberation. In a 25-page opinion issued Aug. 21, Schuman detailed how DCF ignored the law of wills and custody and didn’t give the Prigges either a first or second chance to be considered. On June 17, a DCF worker made a single phone call to Chad Prigge in which DCF says he expressed reservations about taking the child. But that pivotal call was highly suspect, Schuman explained. “Such a phone conversation is not a valid means of waiving important testamentary rights,” and DCF “at the very least” should have obtained a formal, written waiver of those rights. Instead, Prigge was ignored or rebuffed repeatedly. DCF workers placed Joshua with the Valleras, but within a week after the tragedy, the Prigges began their quest for the boy. Just a week after the tragedy, Prigge had attempted to meet with court officials at the temporary custody hearing, but was asked to leave, Schuman wrote. Ironically, inside the courtroom, an assistant attorney general for DCF was telling the court the Prigges “were approached by the department and they’ve indicated they do not want to take custody of the children.” The Prigges contest that. The agency ignored the rule of Bristol v. Brundage, a 1991 state appellate case that favors testamentary guardians. If DCF had placed Joshua with the Prigges in the summer of 1999, as it should have, the agency would have no basis to override the Silks’ will, Schuman wrote. He criticized the destruction of original handwritten interview notes and typing of a new version for a deposition, calling it a “highly improper” action that calls for “decisive corrective measures.” The judge faulted DCF’s lack of a policy to respect guardians appointed by will. He predicted that new DCF policy or new legislation may come of this. At the least, if DCF thought the Prigges truly wanted to decline their appointment, it should have obtained a written waiver. News and police reports have focused on reports that the Silks’ church condones corporal punishment, and have quoted neighbors and church members as saying Kelly Silk was urged to decrease her Prozac and increase her prayer. In that area, Schuman struck a delicate balance. While DCF regulations forbid placement of children in homes that engage in corporal punishment, the state cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. The evidence, he wrote, established that the Prigges “had used corporal punishment in a thoughtful, constructive and sensitive way,” and cited a 1999 Massachusetts case, Cobble v. DSS, which holds that punishment with a belt isn’t necessarily child abuse. Schuman also noted that “there was no evidence that [the Prigges] had ever physically harmed their children through corporal punishment.” The judge gave weight to the time Joshua has spent bonding with the Valleras and suggested he “may have inherited his mother’s genetic predisposition to depression.” Thus, while stating that DCF should have given the child to the Prigges, and that he would have kept the child with them if that had been done, Schuman named the Valleras as Joshua’s custodial parents and authorized DCF to take the steps needed for them to adopt the boy.

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