A dysfunctional system designed to protect children from abuse throws an Acadiana mom and her 7-year-old daughter into a nightmarish legal limbo.Heather Miller | Photos by Robin May
Aug. 8, 2012
Laney Wyble spent the first two years of her daughter's life at her hospital bedside, watching, holding, nurturing her baby as doctors in New Orleans and Lafayette worked to stabilize a rare genetic disorder that nearly killed her "little angel."A dysfunctional system designed to protect children from abuse throws an Acadiana mom and her 7-year-old daughter into a nightmarish legal limbo.
By Heather Miller | Photos by Robin May
Aug. 8, 2012
Laney Wyble spent the first two years of her daughter's life at her hospital bedside, watching, holding, nurturing her baby as doctors in New Orleans and Lafayette worked to stabilize a rare genetic disorder that nearly killed her "little angel."
It's been seven years since Macey Smith came into the world, and more than five months since her mother's own world fell to pieces. Laney Wyble hasn't seen or heard from her daughter since March. She does not know where her daughter is living, only that she's somewhere out of state with a man Macey claims has been sexually abusing her since she was 4 years old.
Wyble's case is a convoluted mass of documents, statements and subjective arguments, and her ex-husband adamantly denies any abuse has occurred. Her defiance of the legal process is evident - and damaging. But amid an emotionally charged battle over the "he said-she said" that largely defines custody disputes like Wyble's, there is documentation that has yet to be addressed regarding sexual abuse of a child - and a mother's sincere belief that something bad has happened to her daughter.
Macey was born Oct. 24, 2004, just eight days before the state began requiring its lab to look for an increased number of rare and potentially lethal genetic disorders in newborns. A backlog of tests at the state lab pushed Macey's blood work into the new batch of expanded tests. A week and a half after her birth, Macey became the first baby in the state whose life was saved due to enhanced testing.
"Before the testing, she would have gotten sleepier and sleepier and then died," Wyble says.
Macey suffers from Citrullinemia, a genetic disease that causes ammonia and other toxins to build up in her bloodstream. Because her body can't break down the nitrogen found in protein, Macey lives on a highly restricted diet and is administered medicines four times daily through a feeding tube in her stomach. She's had a full-time nurse at her home for most of her life.
"She gets just enough protein to grow," Wyble says.
Macey's life began with a series of months-long hospital stints in New Orleans and Lafayette until she was 2 years old, her mother by her side every step of the way. Wyble painfully recalls one instance in which Macey nearly died in her arms.
Macey is essentially a "normal child" aside from the feeding tube and restricted diet, her mother notes, but with a compromised immune system, exposure to something as simple as a common cold could spark serious illness.
|Cody and Laney Wyble stand before pages of documents they say prove Macey has been abused.|
"They told me you have to learn your daughter frontwards and backwards. You have to know she's sick before she's sick," Wyble says.
Macey's father, Shane Smith, was nowhere to be found during the tumultuous first few years of Macey's life, her mother says, save for a few visits to the hospital.
"He was never around, never met with her genetic doctors that we were so close to," Wyble recalls. "I didn't care. I couldn't. I was with my child for months at a time in the hospital. I was just doing what I had to do for my child."
While Wyble was fighting for her daughter's life, court documents reveal Smith was battling a drug addiction that eventually led to his arrest and the end of the couple's marriage.
On the evening of Nov. 22, 2006, Wyble was rushed to the hospital for an infection, leaving a family member to look after Macey and Wyble's older son. According to statements given at the time, Smith called the family member who was babysitting that night and told her he'd kill her if she was at his home when he arrived. By the time deputies arrived, family members had wrestled a loaded shot gun out of Smith's hands and had him pinned to the ground in self-defense, according to statements given to law enforcement. He was arrested on three counts of attempted murder and later formally charged with three counts of attempted assault with a deadly weapon.
Two weeks later, Wyble filed for divorce.
|Laney Wyble, protesting her daughter's custody case outside the St. Landry Parish Courthouse Aug. 2|
Smith was sent to Cenikor of Baton Rouge for drug treatment in December 2006 through a plea agreement that would drop all charges upon successful completion of the program, though court records state that "there is no indication that Mr. Smith fully completed the prescribed program."
For the first six months of Smith's treatment, Wyble drove Macey and her son to Baton Rouge every weekend for a visit with their father as allowed by the courts. Smith is not the biological father of Wyble's older son, though he signed the child's birth certificate and informally adopted him after the couple married.
The visits, according to Wyble, came to a bitter halt when Smith learned that Wyble had moved on and was seeing her now-husband, Cody Wyble.
"As soon as he found out that Laney and I were even friends, he said he didn't want to see the kids anymore," Cody maintains. "He said if you bring them back here I'm not going to see them. That was his daughter and his adopted son he was talking about."
Smith had a change of heart around Christmas of 2007, when Wyble says Smith called and said he wanted to see Macey.
"The last time I'd heard from him, he was threatening to kill me and my family," Wyble says. "He made threats through Cenikor, told me and my mother that we were going to pay for this. I told him when he called that I was concerned about his state of mind."
When Smith was released from Cenikor in April 2008, his lawyer filed for joint custody and visitation rights for Macey.
Wyble had no idea at the time that she was about to embark on a years-long mother's nightmare, an unbelievable chain of events that peaked in March when Wyble was arrested at the Canadian border trying to flee the country with her daughter.
She hasn't seen or heard from her 7-year-old daughter since.
|Laney Wyble points to a picture of her daugher at an Aug. 2 protest held for Macey|
The court order was very clear in its instructions for him to pick Macey up from Wyble's house and for Wyble to retrieve the child from Smith's house the following afternoon. The next morning, Dec. 26, Smith and his girlfriend showed up at Wyble's house with an upset Macey in tow, Wyble says, six hours before Wyble was supposed to pick her daughter up from Smith's house.
"They didn't look at me. They just said, We thought we'd bring her back early.' I found it weird that Macey had been crying and that she just wanted to go home. That's what they told me. After they left, she just had this empty stare. She wanted to be really close to me, but she'd just stare off into space," Wyble says.
It wasn't long after Macey's return home that the child began complaining to her mother that "her bottom hurt." Wyble says the complaints continued the following day, prompting her to take Macey to the hospital. With Macey's compromised immune system, Wyble says she takes no chances.
Physician records from Doctor's Hospital in Opelousas reveal that the female doctor who examined Macey informed her mother that she was required to call law enforcement and the Office of Child Services to investigate what the examination found. Wyble recalls the doctor saying there was "definitely evidence that something happened."
Those same records, which were viewed by The Independent, conclude with "special instructions" to follow-up with the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office for "suspected child abuse."
"When they told me all of this, I went nuts," Wyble recalls. "I couldn't believe it. That's not something you want to hear."
The St. Landry Parish Sheriff's Office investigators who responded at the hospital told Wyble at the time that the pictures and the statements from Macey and the doctor were enough to secure an arrest for Smith, Wyble says. She maintains that the investigators declined to perform a rape kit on the child over concerns that it would be too traumatic for her to endure.
A follow-up visit to Macey's pediatrician a few days later found that Macey still had residual signs of sexual abuse, according to a letter sent to the court from Dr. Brian Bailey.
But days later, Smith was still a free man. Wyble says the sheriff's office informed her that the pictures the doctor took were too blurry to secure an arrest warrant. He was never arrested for the suspected child abuse, and an initial investigation done by OCS concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.
The court orders, however, reverted to supervised visitation between Macey and her father.
Eventually, the court decided to allow overnight visits again, sending Macey for a second time to her father's house in November 2009. A week later, according to written statements obtained by The Independent, Macey confided in her MedSource nurse Crystal Andrus about more unspeakable acts Macey says happened at her father's house. A subsequent exam by Dr. Bailey showed no physical signs of abuse, though Bailey says in a letter he wrote to the court: "I have a strong suspicion that some form of sexual abuse is occurring based on the history that has been given to me and my exam on 12/31/08."
Again, it wasn't enough to secure criminal charges against Smith, but a judge granted Laney a protective order against Smith that cut off visitation with Macey.
By January 2010, Dr. Timothy Trant had been assigned to assess the sexual abuse allegations, as no criminal charges had been filed and the issue was unresolved in Wyble and Smith's custody dispute.
He offered several hypotheses on both the likelihood that abuse did occur and the likelihood that abuse did not occur. Among the reasons he cited for suspecting abuse is that OCS conducted a second investigation into the allegations and found the report to be "valid for sexual manipulation or fondling, sexual enticement involving Macey Smith."
Trant's conclusion, however, was that he does not believe there was any sexual abuse against Macey, noting that "Macey is likely to have been either consciously or subconsciously influenced to levy sexual allegations against Mr. Smith."
He further recommended that the court restore Shane's parental rights and assign a counselor to work on reunification. Lori Romero, a local counselor and psychology instructor at UL Lafayette, was assigned to the case.
Romero first reported back to the judge Sept. 26, 2011, noting that she had met with all parties involved. In the letter, she recaps her first session with Macey and the Wybles in one brief paragraph:
"During this session Ms. Wyble expressed her opposition to the upcoming visit between Macey and her father and stepmother. Macey, however, appeared to be willing to meet with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Ms. Wyble then expressed suspicion of me and suggested that I may be part of a plot against her in St. Landry Parish. I assured her that this was not the case. During this visit Macey regularly referred to Mr. Wyble as daddy.'"
Romero was unaware that the Wybles recorded the session. After years of road blocks, the Wybles began to trust no one.
What the recording reveals is a mostly upbeat meeting in which Romero told the Wybles that "I know the allegations in this matter, and I'm a mamma," she said.
When Romero told Macey her job was to "talk about seeing your dad again," Macey defensively replied, "What dad?"
Macey was quick to remind Romero that "I don't really like Daddy Shane."
It wasn't until the end of the session that Wyble briefly asked Romero whether she was related to any Romeros in Opelousas, noting that Smith has ties to well-connected people in town.
Romero also says in her letter to the judge that Macey stopped her outside of her office before a subsequent session with the Smiths and said, "I need to tell you something. Daddy Shane hurt me before."
But based on her session with Macey and the Smiths, during which Romero says Macey would suddenly lash out at the Smiths without warning and make "age inappropriate statements," Romero concludes her letter to the judge by saying, "If it were not for my suspicions that someone in Macey's home environment is instructing her to make the above statements to me ... Macey, Shane and Sarah Smith are ready to begin gradually implementing the visitation schedule. I am concerned about the distinct possibility that the attempts at alienating Macey from her father and stepmother will be increased when I make this recommendation."
It's an accusation that Wyble says is completely baseless.
"If you try to talk [Macey] out of [making the abuse allegations], she won't have it," Wyble says. "We tried, went above and beyond because you don't want to believe it. You believe your daughter, but you don't want to because it's really bad," Wyble continues, noting that Macey was only 4 years old when she first mentioned the alleged abuse at the hands of her father.
The court scheduled another overnight visit for Nov. 18, 2011. She was dropped off at a neutral pick-up point and picked up the next day.
As soon as they drove off, Macey told her mother that "he did it again."
Floored by her daughter's accusations, Wyble and her sister decided to seek medical attention for Macey outside the confines of St. Landry Parish. They drove straight from the pick-up point to Women's and Children's Hospital, where Wyble says doctors told her they were going to make sure everything was done properly this time around.
A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner was the first person to examine Macey that day. Not long after, a Lafayette Police officer met briefly with Wyble, she says.
"He said, I have enough evidence just from what the SANE nurse told me. I'm going to arrest him now.' Everybody in Lafayette, Hearts of Hope, doctors, police, everyone said, This is it. We have him now. All we have to do is pick him up.' I thought, finally. This nightmare is going to end," Wyble says. "Macey was given pain medication at the time because she was so sore."
As it turns out, Smith had moved from his home in Lafayette and claimed an address in Arnaudville, placing the alleged crime outside of LPD's jurisdiction. The case was moved to St. Landry Parish, back to a judicial system where judges defy public records laws through self-generated decrees that give them broad powers to seal court documents. At least two of the letters Romero sent to Judge James Doherty, the district judge assigned to the case, are not in the court record.
"I cried when I found out," Wyble says. "LPD tells us there's no way St. Landry Parish won't arrest him. The detective in St. Landry never took a statement from me, never took a statement from Crystal the nurse, and the doctor even drew a picture of her bottom. The sheriff's department says nothing turned up in the rape kit. They also say there were no pics in the file. We have all the pictures at our lawyer's office."
A few days later, Romero sent another letter to Doherty, informing him that she had heard of the allegations and in response filed her own report with OCS: "I have contacted OCS myself because, as I have mentioned in my previous letters, I believe that Macey is being subjected to emotional abuse at her mother's home in the form of parental alienation," Romero writes. "Mrs. Smith reported that the visit went very well. Apparently this excited little girl was taken quickly to a hospital where she was subjected to invasive medical procedures."
THE FINAL BLOWIt wasn't long after Macey's third visit to the hospital that her father decided to file for full custody of the child.
It was a time for "major decisions," Cody Wyble says, as he had assured Macey that he wouldn't allow her to be hurt anymore.
The night before the hearing took place, the Wybles left with their children and checked into a resort in Arkansas.
"We wanted to protect our daughter. We left our house, our job, took everything with us," Cody recalls.
Because the Wybles didn't appear alongside their lawyer, Robert Pursar, in court, the judge refused to accept medical reports, letters from the sexual assault clinic and testimony from medical professionals who'd seen Macey following her accusations against her father.
Smith was granted full custody of Macey. A day later, the same detective who investigated the third sexual abuse claim against Smith secured an arrest warrant for Laney Wyble on charges of simple kidnapping and ignoring a court order. Wyble was detained by Canadian Border Patrol while trying to cross into Canada. She hasn't seen her daughter since.
Wyble spent 30 days in a Montana jail before St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz flew personally with two female deputies to extradite her.
But what no one in the court system seems willing to acknowledge is that the Wybles were never served with papers notifying them of the Feb. 8 court date they missed, they maintain. And the arrest affidavit for Wyble's kidnapping charge states that Wyble failed to appear for a scheduled court appearance Feb. 5 - a Sunday - not Feb. 8. Wyble's arrest warrant says she left the state before getting served, though the couple left the night before the hearing was scheduled.
According to Romero, who sent another letter to Doherty two months after Wyble went to jail and Smith gained custody, Smith has moved Macey out of state due to death threats.
The Wybles' appeal of the custody dispute is stalled for now, as are Wyble's own criminal charges for kidnapping her daughter.
Smith's lawyer, Mike Leger, declined to comment publicly on the case, noting that the documents are public record. He says the judge's ruling was left "open-ended" and all Wyble has to do is request a hearing for visitation. Pursar, however, says that can't happen until her criminal charges are resolved.
The toll it's taken on Laney Wyble is indescribable, she says, a sadness that's further heightened by repeated suggestions from lawyers to stop fighting this case.
"This is my child we're talking about," she says. "What would you do?"
OFF TOPICFor the past year or so, angry mothers and jaded fathers feeling snubbed by the family court system have been gathering - anonymously - on an online Topix forum slated for people to vent their frustrations about the 15th Judicial District Family Court system, which includes Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia parishes. It's an emotionally charged online community, a place where commenters take no mercy on the officials they feel are responsible for their bad fortune with the system. Among the names most frequently discussed is counselor Lori Romero.
Unnamed mothers describe Romero on the forum as a "power-hungry" woman who has ripped apart families and caused "unnecessary grief and pain."
They urge each other to send complaints about Romero to the state licensing board for counselors, directing much of their ire with the system at the counselor assigned to their cases.
On March 2, Lori Romero posted on the forum under her own name, stating that "defamation is an actionable offense."
"I ask that you cease and desist with such statements," she writes in her post.
Romero declined to speak directly with The Independent, instead directing all comments to her attorney Corey Grimsley. Grimsley confirms that the statement was posted by Romero.
Almost immediately after Romero's comment, the forum evolved into a vitriol-filled virtual screaming match between forum mothers and a new set of screen names who were there to adamantly defend Romero and quickly discredit the angry mob. Using handles including "toobad," "truthseeker," and "Verret," someone (or more than one) had much to say about the mothers in question, including Laney Wyble and Sherrill Rothmier, a Lafayette mother who admittedly has had problems with Romero since she was assigned as a counselor in her custody case.
The four or five cases discussed in great detail on the forum all have one common denominator: Romero.
"Let me give you a little feedback on Sherill Rothmier She is always right and everyone is wrong," says "toobad" on the forum. "Sherill is a vindictive woman that harasses people by filing complaints against them a very contemptuous woman that is self-serving and thinks about nobody but herself. She has teamed up with Laney Smith, the woman that decided to run instead of allow her attorney to present evidence in her case. Laney alleges that her daughter Macey was sexually abused by the biological father but no physical evidence exists, regardless of what she may say. What I disagree with wholeheartedly is that Macey's picture is all over facebook and other places like she is some type of poster child and this will hard the child as she gets older Laney does not see that she is harming Macey instead of helping her. Laney does fabricate and has been known to fabricate stories. She hates Macey's biological father so much that a counselor alleged that Laney coached Macey to make up allegations against him. Her case is not going to get any place. There's this fascination that there is a conspiracy against Sherill and Laney There has already been death threats against Laney's ex-husband."
That comment was posted April 28, two days after Romero sent a letter to Judge James Doherty regarding the status of Laney's case. In that letter, Romero tells the judge that "due to death threats, Mr. Smith was forced to relocate his family to another state."
"I am concerned because it has come to my attention that Laney Smith Wyble and friends are posting pictures of and threatening to post sensitive medical information regarding Macey Smith. I am concerned about these activities as I believe that this is exploitation of Macey Smith and can be emotionally damaging to her both now and in the future," she says in her letter.
In a separate letter she sent to Doherty months earlier, Romero relays to the judge that "Ms. Wyble ... expressed her suspicion of me and suggested that I may be part of a plot against her in St. Landry Parish."
Romero denies posting on the forum under any handle other than the one comment using her real name. It's a hard assertion for mothers like Rothmier to swallow, considering the information that's being leaked about them on the forum and the misspelling of Rothmier's first name - the same misspelling in receipts from Romero's counseling sessions.