Tuesday, December 10, 2013
The Series: Today is the first installment of a three-part story about a Northport family’s long-running, bitter feud with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services over custody of their adopted son, David.
Russell and Eleanor Handler’s website features a slideshow of their adopted son David at the beach, petting a pig, go-karting, and in a family Christmas portrait. The soundtrack is Celine Dion’s lilting, “My Heart Will Go On.”
Russell and Eleanor Handler are shown in a family Christmas photo when David was 15 months old. At right is a photo of David taken in 2005.
Photos courtesy of Russell and Eleanor Handler
Legally, though, David is no longer the Handlers’ son.
The Northport couple is using the site, finddavidstuarthandler.com, to share their memories of David, now 12, and their harsh criticism of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which removed him from their home in 2007. Then, Oct. 15 of that same year, the court terminated their parental rights.
Full-page advertisements in daily newspapers around Maine in recent months have urged other Mainers with child custody gripes with DHHS to share their stories with them.
These efforts come in advance of a looming federal lawsuit from the Handlers against DHHS, which Russell vowed will expose the department’s systematic failings.
“It’s not going to be your average complaint,” Russell, 62, said of the lawsuit. “It’s going to blow the doors off the building in Augusta.”
DHHS would neither comment nor release information about the Handlers for this story. “DHHS cannot comment on any case due to laws that govern confidentiality,” said John Martins, the agency’s spokesman.
The Handlers, though, have plenty to say and are railing against the agency in a single-minded pursuit to have their parental rights reinstated and David returned.
DHHS annually handles hundreds of child custody cases; few, if any, have ever been so vigorously challenged in such a public arena.
“If there is a god, this will be dealt with,” said Eleanor, 52, who fondly reminisced about making a “David sandwich,” in which she and Russell hugged each other with their son in the middle.
“We will never, ever, quit until we find out that David is OK and he knows we love him,” she said.
DHHS terminated the Handlers’ parental rights amid concerns their marriage was, according to court documents, “severely afflicted by domestic violence perpetrated by the father against the mother” and that David was both a witness and victim of domestic violence.
Court documents released by the Handlers, for example, show the state accused Russell of putting David in a “cold shower with his clothes on after the child had wet his pants.”
In 2005, Russell was arrested for assault, charged with choking Eleanor and forcing her to climb nude into a Dumpster. In 2006, the charge was dismissed.
The Handlers admit while they were not perfect parents, they love David and that DHHS unjustly removed their son.
They allege DHHS didn’t adequately follow its procedures during a time when they, as a couple, faced significant medical difficulties — Russell and Eleanor have each battled cancer, and Eleanor experienced a period of documented mental incapacity from 2002 to 2008.
And because of Eleanor’s mental state during that period, the Handlers’ attorneys, Eric Mehnert and Joseph Baldacci of Bangor, contend the state should have better vetted her allegations of Russell’s abuse.
Eleanor, who is receiving mental health treatment in New York, said her accusations against Russell stemmed from delusions.
In July, the Handlers lost a Freedom of Access Act appeal to obtain information from a Maine Children’s Alliance report they requested about David’s removal from their home. The ombudsman of that neutral party was tasked with reviewing whether DHHS followed its policies regarding placing a child who has been removed from a home with relatives.
(Continued on page 2)