The state of Illinois is still reeling from one of the most acrimonious child custody battles that has taken place in its jurisdiction and which recently came to a bitter end more than a decade after it first began in 2008. The case once drew national attention and was even the subject of a “Dateline” episode. The case concluded with Jennifer Watkins, the mother of daughter Sidney, agreeing to and signing the paperwork ceding custody of her daughter to the girl’s paternal aunt.
The proceedings began when Steven Watkins, Jennifer’s estranged husband and the father of Sidney, now 11, was shot from behind as he was collecting his daughter from his in-laws’ home for a court-ordered visit. Although Jennifer Watkins’ grandmother, Shirley Skinner, was convicted of the murder and is serving a 55 year sentence for the crime, Jennifer Watkins and other families were present in the home at the time of the murder.
After the conviction, Sidney’s paternal grandparents, Dale and Penny Watkins, won a court case granting them the right to visits with their granddaughter. However, Jennifer refused to allow the visits to happen and moved Sidney with her to Florida, beyond the reach of local authorities and expedition attempts. When in 2016, Jennifer relocated to Massachusetts she was arrested and Sidney was sent to live with her paternal aunt, Ashley Clement. Clement is now the girl’s permanent guardian.
Cass County State’s Attorney John Alvarez said he officially asked the court for the permanent placement of Sidney with her aunt because that was the girl’s preference. The ruling, by Judge Hardwick, was based on his opinion that Sidney was being neglected by her mother, as evinced by her refusal to allow visits between the girl and her paternal grandparents.
Jennifer will still retain her parental rights of Sidney and will have the right to request modifications to the visitation arrangement granting her twice monthly supervised visits with her daughter and once weekly 15-minute phone calls. Jennifer abstained from fighting the decision as she risked being further stripped of her rights in regard to her daughter.
While the Watkins case is extreme, custody orders do change even in more typical and more amicable custody situations. Custody orders may be amended as the best interests of the child’s physical and emotional health and safety change over time.
While evidence of abuse will spur a court to act immediately to move a child out of a dangerous situation, sometimes changes in circumstance such as relocation to a new community, the loss or acceptance of a job, changes in the financial capacity of a parent, academic or social issues, the physical health of a parent, or the lack of compliance with court orders may also trigger a modification of custody orders, according to the Law Offices of Scott D. Rogoff, P.C. Depending on the age of the child, custody orders sometimes are modified at the request of the child, as was partly the case in the Watkins situations.