“I THOUGHT MY CHILDREN WERE SAFE, AND I WAS WRONG”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Feb. 10, 2012) — Heather Russell Wilder, a resident of Knox County, Tennessee, contacted The Post & Email following our coverage of Karen Caldwell‘s custody battle in Madison County, TN which Caldwell stated was caused by a corrupt judiciary in two separate instances.
Wilder told us that she had married into a very powerful and well-established Tennessee family, and her ex-husband’s grandfather served as both a state senator and later, as Lt. Governor of Tennessee for 36 consecutive years. She believes that that played a part in how she was dealt with in the courts and by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
Ms. Wilder’s painful story is one of verbal and physical abuse suffered by her family which resulted in a divorce but also, tragically, a permanent brain injury to her oldest boy, as confirmed by medical professionals. Ms. Wilder’s middle child was born with autism, and Wilder stated that he was abused specifically because of his existing disability while visiting with his father and paternal grandparents.
The Post & Email reported on another Tennessee case in November 2010 in which minor children were knowingly kept in a potentially harmful environment because of corruption within the child protective services system. Ms. Wilder also involved the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and accused the agency of “collusion and corruption” along with the Fourth Circuit Court in Knox County.
Wilder’s divorce was presided over by Judge William Swann, whom she claims is corrupt, although he has been re-elected several times. Swann also holds a Ph.D. from Yale University. He was named as a defendant in a libel lawsuit seeking damages of $1,000,000 in 2008 and had been accused of failure to pay court-ordered child support in 2006 by one of his three ex-wives. Wilder has filed a federal lawsuit against Judge Swann and several attorneys claiming that her due process rights were violated and that Swann took part in ex parte communications with other defendants in the case.
The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts does not indicate that Swann has had any complaints or lawsuits filed against him.
According to one report, Swann received some type of disciplinary action by the Court of the Judiciary to oversee the conduct of state judges. Currently, the members of the COTJ are primarily other Tennessee judges and lawyers practicing within the state, with only three “lay” members. Complaints are kept secret, and a state watchdog group has reported that less than 1% of complaints against judges are actually acted upon. Judicial corruption throughout Tennessee has been reported by numerous citizens to The Post & Email over the last two years.
Both Wilder and Caldwell have testified to the Tennessee legislature in regard to the Court of the Judiciary. Presently, legislation is being considered which would either alter the composition of the Court of the Judiciary or abolish it to replace it with a Board of Judicial Conduct whose members would be appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Debate was set to begin on the first bill today, February 9, 2012, and it appears that a sponsor is Sen. Randy McNally, who represents Monroe County, TN, where it is reported that the judges are “criminals.”
There was discussion in regard to overhauling the COTJ during the 2010 legislative session as well; however, no changes were made at that time.
Why aren’t the proposals inclusive of county grand juries to oversee the judiciary? Why does a separate panel involving appointed judges exist? According to the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, the county grand jury is the body charged with investigating corruption among public officials, including judges. The Post & Email has spoken with Sen. Mae Beavers’s office and posed the question of whether or not an oversight commission is necessary in light of the original intended function of the grand jury as put forth in the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
In a legislative hearing on the COTJ at which Tennessee citizens were invited to testify in October 2010, the chairman stated that his desire was to “get to the heart of the process of the Court of the Judiciary.” He introduced the first speaker, Mr. John Jay Hooker, as “fighting for the integrity of our constitution.” Hooker states that “all power comes from the people.” Sen. Doug Jackson later stated that Hooker has given testimony “right out of the constitution.” He also described the process in Tennessee whereby the state Supreme Court appoints the Attorney General and Appellate Court judges rather than the people electing them. Jackson left office in 2010.
Ms. Wilder’s testimony follows Hooker’s.
Wilder filed for divorce in November 2007 following an attempt to seek help for her troubled husband, who had begun having difficulty after the death of a family member in 2004. Ms. Wilder stated that he had “slowly slipped into this other person,” and that her husband had been in three mental health facilities “in 2007 alone” before she filed for divorce.
Wilder told The Post & Email, “My ex-husband’s grandfather was the Lt. Governor of Tennessee for nearly 40 years, so not only did I have the misfortune of being in Bill Swann’s court, but I also had the misfortune of being in Bill Swann’s court and divorcing one of the most prominent political families in Tennessee.”
She said her husband began to “disappear for days on end” and quit his job. “It moved from just verbal abuse, from him yelling and screaming at me in front of the children to physical abuse by Labor Day of that year.”
After trying a 24-hour treatment center and then a day program, Wilder believed that her husband could still be rehabilitated and found a treatment center in upstate New York which she believed might help. However, she reported that her husband’s father-in-law refused and “said there was nothing wrong with him because he didn’t want to pay for it.”
The Post & Email asked, “Did your insurance cover anything like that?” and Wilder replied, “Insurance covered part of it, but In Tennessee, everything is like a quick-fix program. It’s like a ten-day or 30-day stay and you’re out, and that’s what I was dealing with. At the time, I wasn’t aware of everything that he’d been doing. My children and I had been through a period when we were very sick and he hadn’t, and I wondered if he was poisoning us. So when I say he went from being one person to another, I really mean it.”
Wilder stated that when she met with her attorney, she actually had planned to “file conservatorship papers” regarding her husband. Her attorney advised her that she and the children would have better protection if she filed for divorce instead. “My understanding was that the court would require him to get help to be around the children,” Wilder said. She continued:
From September to October, he was still pretty verbally abusive with me after starting being physically abusive. He had gone back on his medication, so the physical abuse had stopped, at least towards me. He apparently had started on my oldest son, who was nine at the time. Joe had been in a day treatment program, and I had picked him up and brought him home. I had three sick children, two with strep, and I went to fill their prescriptions. I was gone two hours and I came home…their lights were off; I thought the children were asleep. I came in the door, and they realized it was me, and my middle son, who is autistic, came running out and told me that Joe had beaten the “living hell” out of his older brother, or was beating him, and my middle son had gotten between them and pushed Joe out of the room, and my youngest son was in my bedroom across the hall, hiding under the bed until I got home, and that after my middle son had gotten him away and shut the door, Dad had disappeared.
He came in about 30 minutes after that and his car was there; I don’t know where he went. I confronted him, and he came after me. I’ll be honest: I knocked him down the flight of stairs and out the front door, and the next day, went to the attorney and got an order of protection.
I got the order of protection, which was signed by Bill Swann, the Fourth Circuit Court Judge, who presides over all of the divorces in Knox County. Even for a big metropolis like this, there’s only one judge. All the other counties have several judges, but he’s the only one who hears contested divorce cases here. He has the largest number of cases and complaints where nobody has done anything.
I filed for divorce; I was granted a no-contact restraining order, which stipulated no verbal or physical communication, but this was prior to my husband hiring his law firm.
I had put him out, and he lived in his car for a couple of days until we got in touch with him. He agreed, and I had gotten his grandfather to agree, to put him in Western State, which is the mental hospital in West Tennessee. He had said that they had made arrangements for him to go to Western State to be evaluated, and we would take it from there, which did not happen. My father actually drove him part of the way to Nashville to meet his father to pick my husband up to take him on to West Tennessee, where nothing happened.
They got him into counseling; he was evaluated by a mental health facility, and at the time, they had determined, without ever having talked to me, that he was bipolar, off his medication; that he was supposed to be in a full-time treatment facility. But he went to counseling fewer than ten times between November 2007 and May 2008.
Once he was served with the divorce papers, he retained counsel in Knoxville. His attorney was in the circle of attorneys who are best friends with the judge, and the circle includes mediators, who are also attorneys, and certain child psychology groups which all come up with the same findings and recommendations. This is what I’ve learned since I’ve been investigating what’s going on.
We had our first hearing in January 2008. We were supposed to do the custodial evaluation. He was granted supervised visitation at a place called Parent Place, which was run through Catholic Charities. However, it caters not to the children, but to the abuser. It is there to facilitate the abuser’s relationship with the children, or whoever needs supervising, but not the children or the custodial parent.
The Post & Email asked, “How did you come to the conclusion that it favors the abuser?” and she responded:
They favor the abusing male. There’s a difference. They have rules, but they ignored them in the case of my husband. The custody is always against the mother. They held against me the fact that I didn’t want him feeding them food, because he might have been poisoning us. In another case, the same thing they criticized me for was a great thing for that woman’s ex-husband. If he was a good father for doing it, then why wasn’t I a good mother for doing it? You can’t have it both ways.
Essentially, they let my husband do whatever he wanted when he bothered showing up and terrorized my children to the point that their behavior got so bad that they quit the sessions with my children. I think over a year when he could have seen them, he perhaps showed up ten times.
Ms. Wilder stated that she spent more than $50,000 on the custodial evaluation and went through three sets of attorneys. She stated that some of the visits between the children and their father were supervised, but not all. “They told my children that if they didn’t start participating with their father that they would tell the judge ‘It’s mommy’s fault’ and they’d lock her away. Of course, my children got worse…he was telling them things like, ‘This is all your mom’s fault.’ He would call for visits and then not bother showing up; they wouldn’t arrange the schedule for when my children had activities, but for when it was convenient for him.”
Ms. Wilder reported that her ex-husband and his attorney had told the court that he had returned to school to obtain a dual law degree and MBA from the University of Memphis, which she said was completely false. She stated that “the pattern in Knox County” is that in a custody evaluation, very little is done in the initial three-to-six-month period, contrary to what the judge stated at the outset. “The mediators drag it out as well. If you get to trial, you’ve done something miraculous. The mediator in my case was $600 every two hours.”
Wilder said that during the first six months of the custody process, their home was foreclosed on and she had to turn in her vehicle for repossession. She stated that in violation of state law, she was left without any money to support the children. Wilder believes that the process revolves around money. “They all know this is going on; it’s like a game in Knox County: ‘How much can we pull out of this before they just have to give up and settle because there’s no more money left to fight?'”
The Tennessee General Assembly has legislated, constitutionally or unconstitutionally, that separating or divorcing parents must “attend training classes, called Parent Education Seminars” after which a “Parenting Plan” is assembled, with the term “custody” no longer used in the lexicon. If a parenting plan is not agreed to, “mediation” must take place.
But what happens in the case of an abusive parent who perhaps should have no contact with his or her children in order to protect the children’s safety? How much control has the Tennessee legislature decided it needs to wield over its citizens?
Wilder said that in a custody battle in her county, “the court’s assumption is that all women are lying and we make up domestic violence accusations to get money. My goal throughout this whole thing was to have my children safe first. In Tennessee, if a child is abused, if the father did it and the mother comes home, she’s just as responsible for “allowing” it to happen. So I waited until the next morning and my attorney advised me not to file with DCS, but I filed for the order of protection. I thought I was safe; I thought my children were safe, and I was wrong.”
According to Dr. Robert D. Hunt of the Center for Attention & Brain Function, Ms. Wilder’s oldest son now suffers from “learning and behavioral difficulties secondary to traumatic brain syndrome. This diagnosis was independently confirmed by the evaluation of Vanderbilt Pediatric Neurology. By XXXX’s own report, much of his head trauma was due to being hit in the head by his father – who was easily and frequently provoked into violent, angry outbursts.”
Ms. Wilder told The Post & Email that harm came to all three of her sons during a visit in the summer of 2009 with their father and his parents and that her eldest son’s traumatic brain injury occurred during that time.
The first portion of an email which Wilder sent to members of the Tennessee General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam and other state officials reads as follows:
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Heather Wilder
Date: Sun, Nov 27, 2011 at 5:23 PM
Subject: Fwd: Request for Formal Investigation into Political Corruption in the Fourth Circuit Court Knox County & Knox County DCS
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com..gov, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, CallanWilkerson <Callan.Wilkerson@capitol.tn.gov>, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Heather Wilder
Date: Wed, May 18, 2011 at 12:18 PM
Subject: Re: Request for Formal Investigation into Political Corruption in the Fourth Circuit Court Knox County & Knox County DCS
My name is Heather Russell Wilder and I am asking for your office to a formal investigations into the collusion and corruption occurring in both the Fourth Circuit Court in Knox County Tennessee, and within the Knox County Department of Children Services; in which both mine and my children have had our Civil Rights and Liberties maliciously and intentionally violated. This matter has risen out of the actions that stem from my 2007 filing for divorce and have taken place over the course of the last three and a half years.With regards to the occurrences in Fourth Circuit court, Judge William K. Swann has maintained and carried out biased rulings, orders and procedures, which favored my now ex-husband, Joseph Chamblee Wilder, grandson of former Lt. Gov. John Shelton Wilder, Sr. Unknown to me at the time of my filing, Judge Swann has a pattern of behavior, going back at least twenty years, in which he has conducted his court in the same manner.. These biased behaviors favor the wealthier spouse; who more often that not, is the husband. This pattern is well known within the legal community and has corrupted other officers of the court, such as the attorneys who practice on a regular basis before Judge Swann. He also favors three psychological firms to preform custodial evaluations for the court; firms who have a pattern of finding against the women in the case, favoring the fathers and suggesting that the mother lose custody of the parties children until she agrees to the terms of the divorce which the husband/father wants; more often then not, these cases have domestic violence/mental illness accusations against the male part, which are simply ignored. Throughout the entire time my (ex) husband has gotten away with lying about his income, such as living off a family trust, amongst other things, which has resulted in me having to rely on government assistance (food stamps and TennCare),; all of which has been allowed by Judge Swann for Joseph Wilder’s benefit while the cost of such has been paid by the taxpayers of the State of Tennessee.. Judge Swann knowingly and routinely ignores the financial responsibility of husbands/fathers, like Joseph, during matters in his court, which ultimately cost the State of Tennessee untold amounts of financial assistance which it provides for the parent who was purposely left indigent with the court’s knowledge and full blessings to force the economically disadvantaged parent to accept an inequitable settlement.
This was the case in my divorce. Yet no one, I mean no one, within our state government has done/or will do anything to help me and my three children. In fact, Swann, over an Order of Protection against my husband for myself and the children, granted my husband unsupervised visitation with our children; a visitation that included six weeks during the summer of 2009, in which my children claimed they were physically and mentally abused by their father and paternal grandparents, John “Shelton” Wilder, Jr. and Judith White Wilder. In making this decision, Swann denied testimony and letters from mine and the children’s therapists, and based his decision solely on a custody evaluation by one of his “favored” doctors, that stated I had alienated the children from their father (based on the Wilder’s and their employees opinions); not because I was not a good mother and failed to mention my husband’s mental illness and violent behaviors. This is where DCS comes in.
Reports where made within hours of their return, by Children’s hospital emergency room and one of their pediatricians, to DCS about the children’s allegations (July 2009). By September 2009, DCS decided that, just as in the custody evaluation, the Wilder’s were a good family and it did not happen. Though I asked for help between June and October 2009 from every state government agency, from the governor’s, Lt. Gov.’s to the TBI and State Attorney general’s office, no one would help me because of John Wilder, Sr.’s influence. I was intimidated and forced to sign an agreed parenting plan,in order to keep my children safe. The Mediated agreement and parenting plan signed in September 2009, stipulated conditions, such as drug testing and counseling, that he had to comply with in order to see our children. His failure to comply has ended in a permanent suspension in his visitation rights, which he agreed to in October 2010, in our Final divorce papers.
By January 2011, I have received two independent diagnoses that my eldest son, RCW, is suffering from permanent mild Traumatic Brain Injury; and injury consistent with being caused by the abuse which all three of my children state occurred to them during that summer 2009 visit.. I was told by DCS attorney, Susan Kovac in January, that should I get a confirmation of said diagnosis to file it with the court (Fourth Circuit) and if nothing happened to re-file with DCS. Which I did on March 7, 2011. It should be noted that Judge Swann, held the hearing on a change in custody (Joseph still has legal rights though he has no visitation rights) before our court date during a separate matter over child support; completely ignoring why the Petition for Modification for Sole legal and Physical custody of the children had been filed. Though the majority of custody modifications are handled through returning to mediation after re-taking parenting classes, cases where one parent has continually failed to act in their own best interest, much less that of their children’s, especially in cases with a permanent injunction between said parties and where the mentally ill parent has completely lost their visitation rights for failing to abide by an agreement they knowingly and willingly signed, are inappropriate and should have been handled through a hearing before said judge. Not only has Judge Swann continued his twenty year pattern in my case, but he could not seem to help repeat those same patterns repeatedly, and specifically,within my case.
I filed with the Court of the Judiciary in October 2010, and despite my complaints, with copies of various infractions (court orders,transcripts, etc.) committed by Swann and showing that my civil rights and liberties were violated, the TNCOTJ took no action; saying that violations of ones rights had no merit(in a domestic case). However, they knew that this Judge, who has been privately sanctioned for the same behaviors in other case, does behave in such a manner; this does not include the numerous complaints against him that, like mine, were simply thrown out. I was left with no options to have this judge remove himself from hearing my case, as all three of the law firms I had previously hired refused to file for his recusal and.or appeal any of his outrageous and illegal actions. On February 23, 2011 I filed against Judge Swann and eight other defendants in Federal Court, for their intentional violations of both mine and my children civil rights during the divorce from my ex-husband. This is now where DCS re-enters the picture.
Editor’s Note: The Post & Email will be following up on this story as it continues to unfold.