Grandparents adopt Elijah after long Hawaii court fight with killer
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
After a nearly four-year battle in Hawai'i courts, Minnesota residents Steve and Donna LaDuke finally and officially can call Elijah, 5, their son.
The many hurdles the LaDukes overcame to adopt their grandson following the 2005 murder of his mother exposed a huge gap in the judicial and child-custody system here and nationally, the couple said.
In cases where one parent murders another, they said, the legal process is set up mainly to protect the killer's parental rights, even at the expense of the children.
Elijah was the only child of the LaDukes' daughter Felicia, who was murdered by the boy's father, Jeffery White, in October 2005 at Mokule'ia Beach. Fourteen months later, White was convicted of premeditated murder for strangling Felicia and repeatedly running over her body with a car. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But even as he was behind bars, White raised objections to the LaDukes getting custody of the boy, who was 19 months old at the time of the murder.
Largely because of those objections, the custody process dragged on, the LaDukes said, resulting in Elijah being placed in three different foster homes in the 14 months following the murder, and getting shuffled among nine or 10 social workers — a number the state has disputed.
The toddler also was taken each week to the Navy brig on Ford Island to visit his imprisoned father awaiting trial, the LaDukes said. The visits were ordered even though White, who was married to another woman, wouldn't acknowledge before the murder that Elijah was his son until a paternity test proved otherwise, they said.
White killed his former girlfriend to avoid making child-support payments, according to court testimony.
After the murder, White asserted his parental rights, getting the court to approve the weekly visits, a change of Elijah's last name to LaDuke-White and, when the former Army soldier was sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, monthly long-distance phone calls with his son.
The LaDukes were told that officials involved in the case had to respect White's rights as a father — until the court said otherwise.
"They forgot what was in the best interests of the child," Donna LaDuke said yesterday in a phone interview from the family's home in Warroad, a small rural town in northwestern Minnesota. "The whole system was designed to protect Jeffery (the father). "
The state Department of Human Services, which was involved in the custody case, said it supported the LaDukes' efforts to adopt their grandson.
"Elijah's adoption necessarily involved a complicated and lengthy process because so many Mainland relatives, as well as one non-relative, were vying for this child," director Lillian Koller said in a statement. "DHS was obligated to carefully consider everyone who wanted to adopt Elijah. We are glad the issues have finally been resolved."
Among those who sought custody of Elijah were relatives of White.
Despite White's objections, the LaDukes got "foster custody" of Elijah shortly after White was convicted of murder in December 2006. They were able to take the boy back to their home in Warrod, where he's been living since.
But White continued to fight their efforts to formally adopt Elijah, including appealing a lower-court ruling in August 2007 that terminated his parental rights.
That appeal was denied by Hawai'i's Intermediate Court of Appeals in December, leading to Tuesday's adoption hearing before a Family Court judge. The LaDukes participated via speaker phone from Minnesota. When the court approved the adoption, Donna LaDuke wept.
"There were a lot of things that didn't make sense about this case," she said yesterday, recalling the many sleepless nights she worried about what might happen to Elijah. "I can't even describe the stress."
Among the things that didn't make sense, Donna LaDuke said, was White's ability to prolong the custody battle using court-appointed attorneys, a tab ultimately picked up by taxpayers. The couple had to use their own funds to hire an attorney in Hawai'i and Minnesota and to take multiple trips to O'ahu to attend court hearings that sometimes lasted only minutes.
"In this case, Jeffery manipulated the system and manipulated his son and wasted thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars for his personal entertainment," Donna LaDuke said.
White couldn't be reached yesterday for comment.
Dennis Dunn, director of victim witness kokua services for the prosecutor's office, which was not involved in the White case (it was handled by the military), said he has had homicide cases before where custody of a child after the murder was contested.
"There are a variety of very difficult and emotional issues having to deal with who will have custody," he said.
Dunn, a member of the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that organization considered whether legislation was needed to address cases like this, but decided not to recommend a proposal because of the many complexities that such cases normally have.
"You can't easily come up with a legislative solution to this problem," he said.
HAPPY IN MINNESOTA
Child custody cases like this are deemed confidential by the courts, so the newspaper was unable to review records to get a complete picture of why the case took this long to resolve.
Malcolm Hong, the attorney the court appointed to represent Elijah's interests, recommended all along that the LaDukes get custody of the boy and, when they sought to adopt him, supported that as well, the couple said.
Hong could not be reached for comment.
Dara Carlin, a domestic violence survivor advocate who assisted the LaDukes, said their case highlights a need for the state to enact a law ensuring that a perpetrator's rights don't supercede the rights of victims or their survivors.
Carlin said the LaDukes, already grieving for the loss of their daughter, were re-victimized by the system and the courts disregarded Felicia's interests as a mother. "She was completely forgotten and overlooked throughout this whole process," Carlin said.
The LaDukes have talked to members of Congress to advocate reforms, and Donna LaDuke said she wants to continue that effort on behalf of Felicia.
Steve LaDuke said Elijah, who starts kindergarten in the fall, is doing well. He's an active, happy child who almost always has a smile on his face. The LaDukes also have a 10-year-old daughter, Brianne, living with them.
Donna LaDuke said they have not explained to Elijah what happened to his mother. Sometimes, the boy will blurt out, "Mommy Felicia used to babysit me," she said.
But Donna LaDuke knows Elijah will one day ask what happened.
"We are unsure how to approach that question when it comes," she said.