In the last of the jury trials scheduled for Dade Superior Court’s spring session, a Dade mother was found guilty today on one of the five felony counts of cruelty to children she had been accused of—one for each of her five children—and also guilty on all five of the lesser charges of contributing to their dependency or deprivation. The father of most of the children, who faced the same charges, was found not guilty of all of them.
Kathleen Michelle McCord (left), 32, and Louis James Holland, 28, were arrested May 30, 2017, after the oldest of the five children called 911 for help after both parents had left the home.
Public defender Jennifer Hartline, representing Ms. McCord—though their trials were combined, Holland was defended by a separate attorney, Chris Rawls—pointed out to the jury that the children were left alone on May 30 for only 10 to 15 minutes. But the trial, argued before Judge Brian House, hinged as much on the conditions in which the couple were raising their large family as on the single incident that spurred their arrest, conditions prosecutor Bruce Roberts told the jury were criminal.
Testimony, which began Monday, showed that for the McCord/Holland household, the brush with the law that culminated in this week’s trial all started in their rented Templeton Trailer Court home with a squabble over toilet paper. He needed some, she didn’t respond quickly enough to suit him, words were exchanged, and kitchen shelves got knocked over somehow. He stormed off in the family’s one car, and she took off on foot down Highway 299.
Which left the children home alone in the three-bedroom trailer, the four younger ones, ranging from 7 months to 5 years, in the care of the oldest child, Ms. McCord’s 9-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The girl called 911 quickly enough after her mother’s departure that a sheriff’s deputy responding to the call found Ms. McCord only eight-tenths of a mile down the highway.
In Ms. McCord’s testimony, she said she had left in an attempt to intercept her husband, who frequently pulled off at a certain place along the road, in order to retrieve the family car. And she stressed that she had first told the children to lock the door and not to go outside.
But the 9-year-old, in the recorded 911 call Assistant District Attorney Roberts played for the jury, told the dispatcher, “This happens a lot.” And when Dade Deputy Dustin Coffman arrived at the trailer, he found her holding the baby balanced on one hip mama-style while the rest of the brood swarmed around her on the porch. “I never even know what day it is,” the little girl told the deputy on the body-cam video the prosecutor also showed jurors. “I’m supposed to be in school, but …”
A social worker called by the prosecution described what had happened to the girl as “parentalization,” a role-reversal process by which a child assumes the role of parent. “This little 9-year-old is taking care of all of them,” Deputy Coffman says on the video.
No, a younger girl tells him, dancing in front of the camera: “My mommy and daddy take care of them.”
“Sometimes,” says the 9-year-old bleakly.
“Parentalization” or not, in the video and in the 911 call, the 9-year-old whistleblower comes across as a kid who’s had it. She told Deputy Coffman about her parents’ fighting and lying in bed and even about the way her mother went around in sports bra and panties.
Prosecutor Roberts seemed to build his case against the parents largely around the oldest girl’s plight, telling the jury the case was about holding the adults accountable for negligence but that: “It’s also about letting a little 9-year-old girl be a 9-year-old girl.”
The child, 10 now, was called as a witness during the trial. Only the top part of her head, with light-brown hair cut in bangs, was visible above the jury box. The child swiveled nervously in her chair and if her testimony was clear to the jury, it was almost entirely inaudible in the audience section of the courtroom.
In her own turn at the witness stand, Ms. McCord denied her oldest had been expected to perform parental duties such as changing the diapers of the younger ones, though she admitted she may have been allowed to do so while under the supervision of Holland. But challenged about leaving the five unattended, she said, “I am fully confident in the abilities of my children.”
She said she talked to the kids without baby talk—“I’m big on enunciation and grammar”—and that not just the oldest but all of her children were mature for their age. “She is very advanced for her age but they are not far behind,” she said.
She said she’d had the older girl at public school previously but was now home-schooling her. Ms. McCord was a well-spoken witness described by defense attorney Hartline as an educated woman capable of homeschooling the lower school grades, a high school graduate with some college who had learned the trade of dental assisting in the U.S. Army.
Ms. McCord said she did not work as a dental assistant due to a disabling condition that would not tolerate bending over a dental chair all day. She said she did not work outside the home now though both she and Holland had tried working at Amazon in the past and that he had recently held a job for a while at Walmart.
As she went back and forth to the witness stand, Ms. McCord appeared heavily pregnant and, questioned by prosecutor Roberts, she confirmed she is due to deliver her sixth child this summer.
One element against the parents during the trial was the condition of their trailer. Deputy Coffman videotaped it during his initial visit and described it in person during his turn on the witness stand as appalling, with flies, dirty diapers, liquor bottles, unwashed dishes, half-eaten food scattered throughout, used condoms on the floor and flies and maggots in the hot garbage festering in the summer sun. “I don’t have a weak stomach but there are smells that can get to you,” he said.
In the body-cam videotape, Coffman is seen interviewing the children with patience and tenderness. But when a second deputy brings Ms. McCord home in his cruiser, the deputy snaps. “What kind of f--king mother are you?” he asks her. “Are you f--king stupid?” And: “DFACS is coming and I hope they take all your kids.”
“It caught me at a weak moment,” Coffman testified at the trial. He said he'd lost his temper after seeing the children left in the squalor of the trailer and then encountering the mother looking as if "she didn't have a care in the world."
In the videotape of Coffman’s visit to the trailer, he is heard, after exchanging the first few words with the children, and before Ms. McCord arrived, saying into the phone, “Go ahead and get me DFACS on the phone.”
DFACS (the Department of Family and Children Services) did arrive and did take the children into care for some time, but a juvenile judge has since released them back into their parents’ care—all but the oldest.
Ms. McCord’s landlady, who arrived at the trailer while police were there but had also visited a day or so earlier, told the jury that the place was not generally such a wreck and that Ms. McCord was a good mother.
And Ms. McCord herself said part of the mess was because she had knocked over the kitchen shelves by accident. She said garbage sometimes did get on the floor with small children in the house. “It doesn’t stay there,” she said. And she pointed out that some of the garbage bags were full of clean laundry she hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet. There had been another laundry hamper in the house at one time but it was no longer in the picture, she explained. “It happens with five kids,” she said. And she disputed the picture being painted of her “twiddling my thumbs” while garbage piled up around her. “That’s not a reality in any mother’s world,” she said.
She said ants were a problem in the trailer but denied maggots, and said the liquor bottles described by Deputy Coffman boiled down to one empty wine bottle. Defender Hartline also noted that Coffman was the only to have seen maggots that day—the defendant, landlady and DFACS social worker had noticed none.
The prosecution brought up a prior DFACS call to the McCord/Holland home when the family lived in Catoosa County. But Ms. McCord blamed it on an altercation between neighbors and noted that DFACS had found no issues then and had not called back. ADA Roberts, though, said Ms. McCord and her husband evade responsibility by moving frequently, outlining her moves from south Georgia to Walker County to Catoosa and Marion County, Tenn., before settling in Dade a few months before the May 2017 incident.
More black marks against the parents were an infected foot wound on one of the little boys—the 9-year-old described it as staff—and head lice suffered by several of the children for several months. Ms. McCord said the infection was not necessarily staff, that the little girl had merely repeated her speculation, and that in any case she had been monitoring the infection carefully. She also said she had tried a number of remedies for the head lice.
She herself had been shaved bald when the police picked her up on Highway 299 on May 30. But Ms. McCord said she hadn’t shaved because she had head lice herself. She said she had donated her hair to Locks of Love.
And asked if she loved her children, she said: “More than anything in the world.”
In her closing argument, Ms. McCord’s defense attorney, Jennifer Hartline, said yes, the home was a wreck, but so what? “Yes, there were dirty dishes in the sink,” said Ms. Hartline. “Yes, there were piles of laundry. Does that mean that she committed a crime?”
She reminded the jury that the children seen on the videotape playing amid the mess of the trailer were animated, healthy and beautiful. “The testimony has been that these kids were happy kids,” she said. The household might be humble, but the children had a roof over their heads, food to eat, toys to play with and a mother who loved them, said Ms. Hartline.
Ms. Hartline said Deputy Coffman had let his emotions carry him away on May 30, making a judgment before he got Ms. McCord’s side of the story. “What did she do?” she asked. “She was gone for 10 or 15 minutes.”
In his closing arguments, attorney Chris Rawls defending Louis James Holland, the father, also asked the jury not to blame the parents for their poverty or their dirty dishes and to remember that: “Not every mistake is a crime.”
And he pointed out a mistake the prosecution had made in drafting the indictment against his client: Every count included the phrase “having left said child unsupervised.” In this case, since Holland had left the home before Ms. McCord did, he had left none of them unsupervised.
The jury must have accepted Rawls’ logic, because Holland was cleared on all counts. It emerged during the trial that he had driven to his grandparents' home after the May 30 fight and had spent the day with them, unaware of the pandemonium his departure had triggered until he eventually returned home.
In his own closing argument, ADA Roberts for the prosecution said it was true most of the children seemed happy, but: “It’s kind of like saying a pig is happy in slop,” he said. “Yes, a pig is happy in slop but they don’t know anything.”
Roberts described the children growing up without supervision as their parents lay in bed or fought, occasionally paying enough attention to feed the kids sugary breakfast cereals or frozen pizza, or to plunk them down in front of a video, but never bothering to impose rules or instill values.
And one of those kids wasn’t happy, Roberts told jurors. He had them watch Deputy Coffman’s video again, asking them this time to study the 9-year-old’s face. “That ain’t happy,” he said. “She’s worried. She’s concerned … she’s changing the diapers while Mom’s in bed and Dad’s watching videotapes.”
The jury, composed of eight women and five men, 12 regular jurors and one alternate, received the case for deliberation about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and turned in a verdict before 9 a.m. this morning. Again, they found the father not guilty and tossed out all the cruelty-to-children counts for the mother except for the one for the oldest girl. They found Ms. McCord guilty on all five counts of the contributing-to-dependency charges.
Judge House sentenced Ms. McCord to 15 years, but all are to be served on probation provided she complete an extensive parenting course.
Asked why the matter had been prosecuted in superior court—rare in DFACS cases—ADA Roberts said, “I’ve given it a ton of thought. My goal is to protect the kids, whatever I can do.”
He said he worried about the younger children, who have been returned to their parents’ care. But he said the oldest child, the little girl who called 911, and who was called as a witness for the prosecution, had not been sent home but was living with her biological father and his family in south Georgia.
Roberts said he understood the girl’s father had started legal proceedings seeking custody.