AS FAMILY COURT'S top judge, Kevin Dougherty has taken on all custody-related matters in the horrific Tacony dungeon case.
Dougherty is not unfamiliar with Linda Ann Weston, the woman accused of imprisoning four mentally disabled adults in a grimy sub-basement in a scheme to collect their Social Security disability checks. Nor is he unfamiliar with Weston's niece, Beatrice, who allegedly endured years of torture under her aunt's care.
In 2002, Dougherty was the judge who gave Weston, a convicted murderer, custody of Beatrice.
A Family Court spokesman last night said that Dougherty had not remembered his prior involvement in Weston's case until after the Daily News had asked him about it.
"Clearly, Judge Dougherty has no recollection of ever being advised of Linda Weston's criminal record by DHS, or by the Child Advocate, or by the child's mother, Vicky Weston, all of whom were present in court and agreed to the placement on August 16, 2002," Frank Keel, Philadelphia Family Court spokesman, wrote in a statement to the Daily News.
"The record reflects that Judge Dougherty had several court hearings over a span of eight months, wherein DHS represented to the Court that the child, Beatrice, was safe and her needs were being met," Keel wrote.
Last week, police took Beatrice, 19, and six children believed to be related to Weston into custody. They also picked up a 5-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy believed by authorities to be the children of two of Weston's enslaved victims.
Dougherty placed all eight children, ages 2 to 17, under the care of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and ordered DNA tests to verify their identities. As the presiding judge, Dougherty will determine who will raise them.
On Oct. 18, police rescued Beatrice from a Frankford home. She had been burned with a hot spoon, shot repeatedly in the ankles with a pellet gun, and struck so hard that she suffered broken bones.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said Beatrice endured beatings so severe that he's shocked she survived. "I've never seen anything like this before in a living person," Ramsey said of Beatrice.
Police have arrested Weston, 51, and three others: Weston's longtime boyfriend, Gregory Thomas, 47; Eddie Wright, 50; and Weston's daughter, Jean McIntosh, 32. Prosecutors have charged them with kidnapping and related offenses. Weston is on suicide watch at the Detention Center, her defense attorney, George S. Yacoubian Jr., said yesterday.
In 1984, Weston was convicted of third-degree murder for imprisoning her sister's boyfriend in a closet and starving him to death. She was paroled in 1987, and a few years later sought custody of her now-grown children. Despite her criminal history, a judge granted her custody. The Daily News has been unable to identify the judge in that case.
Last night, Mayor Nutter's office issued a statement indicating that the mayor was frustrated by disclosures in the Dougherty matter.
"On behalf of DHS, we cannot and will not violate the requirements of confidentiality under Pennsylvania law. We're disappointed that the Court would reveal selectively case-specific details in a confidential matter before the Court through a public statement," said Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald. "The city has begun a comprehensive internal investigation of all city agencies with involvement in this complicated case and a report will be given to the mayor."
The 2002 case first came before Dougherty, then a delinquency judge, as "a fairly routine truancy matter," according to Keel.
The case first involved Beatrice's brother Sheldon, who was delinquent and truant, a source close to the case told the Daily News.
When Dougherty learned that Sheldon had a sister, Dougherty asked to see her, particularly because she was also truant and the children's mother, Vicky Weston, Linda's sister, had suffered from an aneurism caused by a beating and was unable to care for them, the source said.
During a 2002 hearing before Dougherty, Linda Weston offered to take in Beatrice. Her mother, Vicky, who was also in court, told Dougherty she agreed, according to Keel. Beatrice, who was about 10 at the time and also present in court, was represented by an attorney.
Both DHS and Beatrice's child advocate recommended that she remain with Linda Weston. Dougherty ordered DHS to investigate the safety of Weston's home. DHS agreed to supervise the family and provide "mid-level" services in the home, Keel's statement said.
DHS later asked Dougherty to reduce services and discharge the case, Keel wrote.
" . . . All Family Court judges are only as good as the information they are provided by DHS," Keel's statement yesterday said. "There are serious questions still to be answered regarding the information - or lack of information - Judge Dougherty received from DHS regarding Linda Weston and her suitability as a caretaker."
After Weston got custody of Beatrice, she was able to receive a kinship-care subsidy, which typically is about $500 to $600 a month, according to a source with knowledge of the 2002 case.
Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, said yesterday that "the right protective steps" appear to have been taken in the 2002 case.
Deciding which home is best for a child is difficult, Cervone said. "These are hard choices, sometimes based on limited information," Cervone said. "The court shouldn't be asked to make this decision blindly. It shouldn't be a shallow or quick decision. It should be studied."
Because Vicky didn't ask the court to change the custody arrangement, Beatrice remained with Weston, who police now say tortured her and starved her.
A close relative of Weston's told the Daily News that in March 2009, he called police when he saw Beatrice silently crouching in a corner of Weston's home with bruises on her face and hands. Beatrice looked emaciated and her hair was falling out, the relative said.
The relative, who requested anonymity, said a detective in the Special Victims Unit interviewed him. Police and DHS social workers made several visits to the home, a source said.
In an interview at Special Victims, Weston told detectives that Beatrice had moved to New Jersey, according to the source.