Post-Gazette, April 30, 1998

Assault charges dropped if dad gets counseling
By Johnna A. Pro

Charges will be dropped in 90 days against a Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police officer accused of beating his 12-year-old stepson, as long as the officer seeks counseling.

But the ruling issued by Chief City Magistrate William T. Simmons late yesterday afternoon sparked a debate about parental rights in the halls of the Municipal Courts Building.

"I feel like this is a movie and the credits are going to roll," said Deborah Madison, whose cheerful bravado gave way to tears by the end of the hearing. "It's turned into a nightmare."

Assistant District Attorney Thomas F. Merrick argued that James Madison, 38, exceeded his parental rights when he struck his stepson on the morning of April 1. He was accused of simple assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Joseph K. Williams III, Madison's attorney, disagreed.

"The parent has a right to corporal punishment. The whole family is in shambles as a result of something I don't find objectionable," said Williams, who argued for a dismissal. "I think my client beat his (stepson's) butt, and I think that's what he needed. There's no apologies for it."

Deborah met James after college, while they both served in the Army.

Ultimately they settled in Pittsburgh. She is a caseworker for the Department of Public Welfare and he is a Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police officer. They bought a house in Homewood, where he helped her raise her son.

In testimony yesterday, the boy said the man he calls "Dad" had never beat him.

But on the morning of April 1, Madison lost his cool.

His stepson -- who had been suspended from school eight times since October -- was in trouble again, this time for spewing filthy language at a teacher, then tossing a paperweight out the window. There was also a dispute about a water bottle.

Deborah Madison was at her wits' end, she said, not understanding why her normally shy, bright child -- a boy who reads encyclopedias and maps and who wants to be a geologist -- had suddenly turned unmanageable.

In the past six months, the couple has met with teachers, administrators and counselors. They tried talking to their son, yelling at him and cajoling him. They took him to specialists. They've had him tested. They have, they said, done everything any parents can do to find out what happening with their child.

"They said he has a behavior problem," Deborah Madison said, contorting her face into a look that says, "No kidding."

On the morning of April 1 -- with new reports about her son from the Gladstone Middle School in her hand -- Deborah recalled telling her husband to do something.

Madison tried, repeatedly asking the boy to hand over the water bottle that had sparked the previous days' troubles, but finally got frustrated. He grabbed a belt and hit the boy at least five times.

Pittsburgh police Detective Barbara Goodwin testified that the belt left welts on the right side of the boy's neck, back and ribs and on his left shoulder.

At school, the boy went to his teachers and said he wanted to go home. He showed them the marks.

They in turn took him to the nurse, who called in the guidance counselor. A call went out to county Children and Youth Services.

A short time later, Deborah Madison answered her phone at work to find a CYS representative telling her to meet him and her son at Children's Hospital.

Ultimately the boy was told to take aspirin and go home. CYS wouldn't allow him to return to the Madisons, though, so Deborah agreed to allow him stay with a friend until the matter could be settled.

After 12 days, he went home, only to be removed two days later. Until the court case is settled, he must live with an aunt, CYS said.

A shelter hearing on his placement will be held tomorrow.

Madison remains suspended without pay from his job until the case has been completely settled.

Williams said continuing the hearing in 90 days would do little but send the family into a downward spiral, because James Madison's income is needed to pay the mortgage and a bill from Children's Hospital for $1,740, which the family's insurance won't cover.

Simmons was not swayed.

"Mr. Madison went too far," he said, arguing that if he were to accept Williams' position, the boy would only be learning that hitting is OK. "To (say) that this is what this kid needs -- doesn't that send the wrong message? I do believe Mr. Madison was trying to do in his mind what was right, but I'm going to suggest anger management classes."

Deborah Madison is trying to focus on the bright spot: her son's behavior at school has improved. So have his grades.

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