The mother of a girl held captive and tortured for nearly a decade in Linda Weston's Tacony apartment should have objected earlier if she believed her daughter was in danger, and she cannot now sue the city for violating her parental rights, a federal judge has ruled.
With that, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick dismissed a civil suit filed by Weston's sister Vickie against various local officials she blamed for failing to ensure daughter Beatrice's care.
Beatrice Weston - who was placed in her aunt's custody in 2002 - was found in 2011, days after police discovered four mentally disabled adults locked in Linda Weston's fetid basement. Investigators say she enslaved them as part of a scheme to steal their Social Security benefits.
But how Vickie Weston, who gave up custody of her child as she dealt with the effects of a brain aneurysm, was expected to know about the abuse her daughter endured remained a mystery to Emeka Igwe, her lawyer, on Monday.
"She suspected something was going on. She did try to inform officials," the lawyer said. "But we're not dealing with someone that's sophisticated here - someone who knows all the correct channels to go through to report abuse."
Vickie Weston voluntarily gave up custody of Beatrice, then 10, believing the lasting impact of her aneurysm made her less suitable as a guardian than her sister. A Family Court judge sanctioned the arrangement and twice extended it, ordering the Department of Human Services to periodically check up on the child's care.
But in a lawsuit filed last year, Vickie Weston contended that DHS failed to conduct even a cursory background check. Had it done so, it would have discovered that Linda Weston had been convicted of third-degree murder in 1984 and spent four years in prison for locking another sister's boyfriend in a closet, beating him with a hammer, and eventually starving him to death.
Had child welfare workers visited Beatrice Weston while in her aunt's care, as Family Court had ordered, they would likely have seen some sign of the horrific conditions in which she lived, the lawsuit contended.
Federal prosecutors have alleged Linda Weston forced her niece into prostitution, beat and starved her, kept her out of school, and forced her at times to drink and bathe in her own urine.
"There were suspicions and allegations, but it didn't really come to light what was occurring until October 2011, when the whole world became aware of what was going on," Igwe said.
In explaining his decision to throw out the case, Surrick wrote last week that Vickie Weston had let the two-year statute of limitations on her case run out.
Since her lawsuit against the city was based upon alleged violations of her rights as a parent, she should have sued in 2002, when Family Court first placed Beatrice in Linda Weston's care, he said.
He also cited the rumors Vickie Weston heard about her daughter's mistreatment but did not address her allegations that the city had failed in its obligations to Beatrice.
Vickie Weston "knew that [her daughter] was being injured and she knew the cause. She took no action," Surrick wrote.
Igwe said Monday that he had not yet discussed with his client whether they would appeal.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," he said. "The court didn't address the substantive issues that we raised."
Those questions will likely linger at least until two other cases make their way before a judge.
Beatrice Weston, now 22, filed her own civil suit against the city in 2012. Her lawyer, Shanin Specter, said Monday that he did not expect the issues that sank her mother's suit to affect his client's case.
Meanwhile, Linda Weston, 53, remains in federal custody facing trial on charges including hate crimes, kidnapping, murder in aid of racketeering and forced human labor.
Department of Justice officials continue to weigh whether they will seek the death penalty in her case.