New Custody Law Gives Preference to Relatives : Legislation: Children removed from their parents by the courts will more often be placed with family members. If custody is denied, agencies must state their reasons.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three years after a La Canada Flintridge woman was slain by her schizophrenic daughter, who had brought her 11-year-old son along, Gov. Pete Wilson has signed a child custody law which, the victim's relatives believe, could help prevent such tragedies.

The victim's relatives say if they been given custody of the boy they would have had more control over his mother's behavior. They say that she would have adhered to medical and mental treatment in order to have access to her son.

The legislation written by Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale) provides that preferential consideration for custody be given to relatives of dependent children removed from the care of their parents by a juvenile court.

But more important, the law signed last week requires that if the relatives are denied custody, the court and social service agencies involved must state their reasons, said Leza Davis, an aide to Russell.

"This gives a greater degree of accountability to social agencies and courts that the explanation should be pretty darn good if they're going to deny relatives (custody)," Davis said of the new law, which was backed by juvenile courts and state social agencies.

Russell acknowledges that placing children with relatives may not always be the best option, Davis said, but the strongest argument in support of the law was that relatives usually offer the best "preservation of continuity and security" for the children.

The law applies to all cases of child abuse and neglect in which courts remove children from their parents' custody.

Brian Jacobs, son of murder victim Roma Jacobs, 78, had long hoped for such a law.

"The Jacobs family expresses their sincere thanks to Sen. Russell for his work in preventing future tragedies," he wrote in a recent letter to The Times.

Had the law been in force three years ago, the Long Beach schoolteacher said, his mother would still be alive and his sister, Victoria Jacobs Madeira, would be undergoing treatment for mental illness instead of being charged in the slaying.

"There is absolutely no question in my mind," said Jacobs, 50, who has become an advocate for the mentally ill.

"I know if the bill was in place when we were trying to do something, we could have had some tools to change the outcome," Jacobs said.

He said that a psychiatrist the family consulted after the slaying said that if Jacobs had legal custody of his nephew, it could have played a key role in reaching his sister during her worst episode of paranoid schizophrenia. Because Madeira was possessive of her child and wanted to take care of him, Jacobs said, she would have complied with the conditions asked of her, which included attending therapy session and taking medications.

Dr. Mark Powers, a Glendale psychiatrist contacted by The Times, described paranoid schizophrenia as "psychotic symptoms that cause disturbances in functioning, feeling and thinking behavior." During an episode, the schizophrenic experiences hallucinations and delusions, believing that something harmful is being done to them, he said.

Paranoid schizophrenics are more likely to commit crimes than those suffering from other mental illness, Powers said. Believed to be a genetic disorder, the illness can be treated, and controlled, with medication, he said. Left untreated, paranoid schizophrenics "are not fit to be parents" he said.

Born Elizabeth Jual Jacobs, Madeira assumed her new name after her diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic at age 20, her brother said. The family struggled for years trying to get treatment for her illness. Despite those efforts, the situation began to spin out of control in 1989 when Madeira and her son--who had been residing with Brian Jacobs and his family in Long Beach--began living on the streets in Orange County.

Jacobs tracked down Madeira several months later with the help of a hired detective. But after months of attempting to hospitalize his sister and gain custody of the boy, the Jacobs family's world shattered the night of Oct. 14, 1990.

According to authorities, Madeira donned military fatigues and took her son--who was dressed in girl's clothing, gold earrings and makeup--to her mother's home in La Canada Flintridge. There, prosecutors said, Madeira burst inside, cornered her mother in the patio area and stabbed her repeatedly. As the bleeding woman staggered into the kitchen, dialed 911 and pleaded for help on the phone, shocked Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies heard several gunshots.

When deputies arrived minutes later, they found the elderly woman dead in the kitchen. Madeira and her son were taken into custody in the yard.

Still deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, Madeira, 46, splits her time between a Los Angeles County Jail cell and Patton State Hospital near San Bernardino.

The boy was initially charged with murder, but a juvenile court judge dismissed charges against him in January, 1991. The Jacobs family has declined to say where the boy is living.

Shortly after the murder, Brian Jacobs, in an emotional interview, said that "the whole system failed me at every turn." He later pleaded to legislators in Sacramento for reform. He and his wife, Carla, became active members of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Last year, Newton sponsored another related child custody bill that was also became law.

In a pilot project for seven counties, attorneys in custody cases involving child abuse and neglect are first encouraged to use a mediation service to reach an agreement instead of the often emotionally brutal and damaging legal battles in courts.

The experiment involving Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Contra Costa, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Tulare counties will continue through 1996.

"Needless to say, it (the murder) has affected me very deeply," Jacobs said. "The only way we make any sense out of it is through our advocacy.

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