Despite all the safeguards the state of Maryland had in place for protecting the three children of a former Charleston couple, there was one thing that never could have been anticipated, a lawyer familiar with the case said Wednesday.
"I don't think you can ever predict a father killing his kids," said lawyer David Merkin, who briefly was appointed as a "best interest" attorney for the children of Amy and Mark Anthony Castillo.
If Maryland's system of dealing with divorce, protection and child custody is overextended, the condition is not unique. For years, South Carolina's Family Court situation also has been labeled critical by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal.
In recent times, the court's case load has ballooned to around 80,000 filings of all types every year, records show, while the Legislature hasn't added a Family Court judge in about a decade.
Additionally, fully 20 percent of each Family Court judge's workload, or about one day out of every work week, is getting mired down by such mundane tasks as dealing with the federally mandated requirement of enforcing support payments. "The Family Court situation is the most stressed and overloaded part of our judicial system," Toal said Wednesday.
Toal's comments come after former Mark Castillo was charged in the drowning deaths of his three children in a Baltimore hotel room Saturday. Authorities say the attack was an act of vengeance against his wife, fueled by their bitter divorce and custody fight.
Toal said she could not comment directly about any aspect of the case, but published reports in Maryland say the deaths triggered multiple red flags among family law professionals. Among them: the vigilance of evaluating threats made by spouses, the opinions of mental health professionals called in during divorces and the power of enforcing protective orders.
Some South Carolina lawyers who practice in Family Court say the Maryland red flags mirror many of South Carolina's stress points. But they add that the bottom line is South Carolina has an assembly line culture of divorce filings and too few judges to handle them effectively.
Judges "give five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes per case," said Charleston divorce attorney Guy Vitetta. "Then they move on to the next one until something like this happens. It's horrible."
Vitetta said cases in which legitimate protective orders are needed should be a priority while other cases get handled in other ways.
Another factor in the Maryland case is just how potentially violent Castillo was, even as his wife had expressed fears about him.
Some of the judges in the couple's long-running feud had raised concerns about the credibility of both parents along the way, media reports in Baltimore said.
Merkin said it was not right to immediately start casting blame since the judges involved had to rely on a large number of people, including evaluation professionals, in making decisions.
Merkin briefly was appointed as the best-interest attorney for the children: Anthony, 6; Austin, 4; and Athena, 2, in early 2007.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at email@example.com or 937-5551.