Missing mom may have feared losing son


The woman’s husband says she was afraid the state would take away their newborn like they did with their other kids.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 24, 2006


Gregory Pound sat in the Pinellas County Jail for a month for failing to reveal where his wife and baby son had gone, even though he insists he doesn’t know the answer.

But he says he knows this much: Melissa vanished because she feared child welfare workers would take their son, Moses, away from her, like their four other children.

His family, Pound says, is being persecuted by the government.

“She had to flee for her life and the life of her child,” said Gregory Pound, 50, in a telephone interview from jail last week. On Saturday, he was released from jail.

Two years ago, a dog owned by Gregory Pound’s sister, Diane, bit the couple’s newborn, in a case that generated extensive local news coverage. It was widely reported that the dog was a wolf hybrid, though Diane Pound denied that in an interview last week.

After that incident in 2004, child welfare workers removed the rest of the Pounds’ children. The parents have not been able to regain custody. It’s why the Pounds believe their new baby, born in early February, might be taken away also, Gregory said.

Officials with the Safe Children Coalition, which coordinates foster care and other services for Pinellas and Pasco counties under a contract with the state Department of Children and Families, said they cannot discuss individual cases because of confidentiality laws.

But they stressed that in cases like these, a system of checks and balances is designed to give parents legal representation and the right to appeal. Judges, not just case workers from various agencies, review key decisions such as whether children should be removed from home or reunited with parents. They also said parents with children in foster care do not always lose custody of their newborns; several factors go into that decision.

After the Pounds’ children were removed, they were placed with Melissa’s mother, an arrangement that is essentially a form of foster care.

On Feb. 4, Gregory says, Melissa gave birth to their new child. She suggested the name Moses, because she thought it was appropriate. The biblical baby Moses also was sent on a journey – downriver in a basket of papyrus – to escape the persecution of the pharaoh.

Last Monday, the Sheriff’s Office said Melissa, 34, had disappeared and that “detectives are concerned about (her) well-being and the condition of the newborn.”

A spokesman said no Amber Alert had been issued for the baby because it was not clear there had been an abduction; the child was with his mother.

Melissa’s mother, Linda Steenberge, said at the time that Melissa had previously suffered from postpartum depression and that “I think she’s … in depression to where she doesn’t know where she is.”

But Gregory and various friends and family members dispute that, saying her disappearance was planned.

“It was a calculated event, saying, “We’ve got to do this for their safety, for the opportunity for the mother and baby to bond,”‘ said family friend Gene Greeson.

Gregory Pound, a tree trimmer from Largo, says a judge jailed him after case workers accused him of knowing where his wife went and refusing to disclose it. He denied that.

Melissa’s disappearance could damage or delay her chances of regaining custody of the four children she has not seen in about two months.

“You don’t want to lose four trying to save one,” Greeson said.

But at the same time, Greeson said, when you follow Christian principles, “you do what you believe is right, not what you believe is going to best work.”

The Pounds’ pastor, Bruce Bendt of Grace & Peace Fellowship in Tampa, agreed. “We have to take a stand for those things that we know to be right.”

Bendt said Gregory and Melissa Pound were married in a church in West Virginia in 1999, although they did not get a marriage license for reasons related to their religious beliefs. Case workers are supposed to evaluate parents like the Pounds and determine what they need to safely regain custody of their children. They prepare a list of tasks called a case plan.

Gregory and Melissa had been working on their case plan, while at the same time appealing the decision to have the children removed in the first place, Gregory said. He said he had many objections to the process, including a requirement in a domestic violence class that he admit to having committed domestic violence. He says that would have been a lie.

April Putzulu, spokeswoman for the Safe Children Coalition, said participants must “buy in” to the process. Otherwise “the individual is a potential disruption for the rest of the group who do acknowledge their need to improve.”

Gregory has been acting as his own attorney in many of the legal proceedings.

When asked last week whether he and Melissa jointly decided that she should disappear, Gregory said it was her decision. When asked if he supported that decision, he declined to answer. He said he hopes he and his wife will win their appeal and reunite with their other children.

Such decisions, however, are rare.

Failing that, the most likely way Melissa would regain custody of her other children would be to work with the very system she apparently has run away from.

“They will find her, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Greeson, who stressed that he thinks the Pounds are competent, loving parents. “You find Public Enemy No. 1, why can’t you find a woman with a child?”

[Last modified April 24, 2006, 01:40:15]

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