Grandmother fights for custody of 2-year-old nearly beaten to death
By James Fuller
Carrie Johnson keeps a horrible picture on her cell phone.
It shows a bruised 2-year-old girl whose head is swollen, crushed by what police say was the hand of Johnson’s daughter’s boyfriend.
It’s that image that has Johnson fighting for a legal path to obtain custody of Molly. It fuels the pain that has Johnson determined to put her own daughter behind bars.
Molly Koch now lies at Children’s Memorial Hospital. She’s awaiting a Feb. 10 surgery to replace the portion of her skull doctors removed after the beating police say she suffered in a St. Charles hotel room.
On the morning of Oct. 27, the only thoughts Johnson had were of fueling her granddaughter’s love of animals by taking her to the zoo that weekend.
Molly was somewhat of a neighborhood celebrity, spending up to eight hours on many days playing outside and interacting with people in the area. She especially loved to play with any pet she came across or toss bread crumbs to ducks at the Fox River.
Johnson’s daughter, Cathleen Koch, had picked up Molly the Sunday before. Johnson assumed Koch was going to visit Molly’s maternal grandfather. the little girl spent much of her time with Johnson as Koch worked and spent most of her free time with her boyfriend, James Cooper.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Johnson received the call at her Elgin home that had her questioning whether Molly would play or function as a regular child ever again.
Police reports say emergency personnel arrived at the Super 8 Hotel in St. Charles that Wednesday morning and found Molly unconscious, severely beaten and not breathing.
Authorities believe Koch brought Molly to the hotel to visit Cooper, who had been living there for several months. Johnson knew Cooper lived at the hotel, but never understood why.
“Whenever I asked about it, my daughter would say she was 28 years old and could do whatever she wanted,” Johnson said. “I didn’t like it. I thought about trying to intervene to find out more, but then she started talking about moving to Florida and taking Molly away. … And then I got the call from the police about an incident at the hotel, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God. What’s happened to Molly?’ ”
By then, the Department of Children and Family Services was investigating. It would be two days before Johnson saw her battered granddaughter.
Molly’s left arm was broken in two places. She had a dislocated shoulder. Her skull was so severely cracked from trauma that her brain was both swelling and dying.
“It was a bad dream,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know how a little girl like that could be beaten that way and still be alive.”
Police located Cooper two days after the emergency call and arrested him. The 27-year-old Elburn man faces charges of aggravated battery to a child and three counts of endangering the life or health of a child. Johnson had hoped for attempted murder, but prosecutors told her there was no way to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Cooper intended to kill Molly.
In announcing the charges, the Kane County state’s attorney’s office pledged to seek the maximum punishment, up to 60 years in prison, because of the “exceptionally brutal, heinous and wantonly cruel” nature of the crimes.
Then investigators started asking questions about Koch’s involvement in the matter. Soon, Koch also was implicated and indicted due, in part, to her mother’s testimony.
Koch, 29, of St. Charles, faces one count of aggravated battery, six counts of endangering the life or health of a child and six counts of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said Koch did not strike Molly, but she was there when the beating occurred, did nothing to try to stop it and then lied to investigators about what happened.
Her defense attorney contends she also was a victim that day of domestic violence, but Johnson believes her daughter’s prosecution is a lesson to all parents and their relatives that it’s not OK to let child abuse occur no matter what the danger is to themselves.
“If all relatives would stand up and protect these children, there would be far less abuse,” Johnson said. “It’s not OK to be a bystander.”
With Cooper and her daughter awaiting trial, Johnson says she has three missions: 1) Be there for every second of Molly’s recovery; 2) Remove anyone who might jeopardize Molly in the future; 3) Do everything she can to be there for Molly the rest of her life.
To achieve the second and third goals, Johnson believes she’ll need help. She fears her daughter will get out of jail and continue to make poor decisions.
“When I asked her what happened she said, ‘Mom, it’s not that bad. And you have to understand I love (Cooper),’ ” Johnson said.
“If that guy would’ve hit my granddaughter in front of me, I’d have been dead because there’s no way I would’ve allowed that,” Johnson said. “You don’t stand by and watch a child brutally beaten. I believe he was trying to kill her.”
Johnson said Molly’s father has re-entered her life and taken an interest in her care for what Johnson said is the first time. Johnson fears Molly could end up in the custody of someone she doesn’t really know. The father could not be reached for comment.
Molly faces several more weeks in the hospital, and the process has begun to determine where she should live once she leaves that protected space.
DCFS spokesman Jimmie Whitelow confirmed the agency is investigating allegations of abuse regarding Koch and Cooper. This is the first time the agency has been involved in Molly’s life.
Typically, the custody process involves placing a child with a relative who has the ability and desire to care for the child in the “least restrictive environment.” That family member could receive full or partial custody, but even that could be temporary as DCFS investigates family dynamics and any allegations of abuse.
In the end, DCFS only makes a recommendation to a juvenile court judge. The judge makes the final ruling.
Johnson says she doesn’t see why Molly’s biological parents should even be considered for custody. She envisions a new “Molly’s Law” that would make it much easier for extended relatives, or even strangers, to wrest custody away from biological parents.
“Too many children end up back with abusive parents,” Johnson said. “And how many of these kids that we are letting get abused turn out to be criminals or abusers of others because we don’t want to talk about the problems in our system? Just because mommy or daddy wants to get an increase in their food stamps, that doesn’t make them a good parent. Just because you give birth to a child or helped conceive a child, that doesn’t make you a parent.”
Johnson’s dream would be a law that says if a biological parent is convicted of a violent crime, has recurring police involvement, or has been involved in any sustained allegations of abuse, they are omitted from custody consideration.
“The bottom line is every child is deserving of love,” said Johnson, who plans to petition lawmakers to change the custody system as she envisions.
For now, small victories in Molly’s recovery are what sustain Johnson.
“The other day I was sitting next to her at the hospital after testifying,” Johnson said. “I whispered to her, ‘Grandma’s been working on making sure no one hurts you anymore.’ She got this little half smile on her face. That’s what I live for.
“She may never run down the street or play like other kids do. But am I ever going to stop working for that? Never.”