When Chauntae Bryant goes to family court this week to regain primary custody of her children, she will have the support of an unusual ally, the Alliance for Fathers and Families, an organization founded to ensure that fathers are able to win child custody rights.
Larry Davis, who founded the organization, has battled the family court system, even going to jail, to win back parental rights that had wrongly been taken away from fathers. So why is he helping a 24-year-old single mother?
“You’re forgetting the second half of our name: families,” he said during an exclusive meeting with the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Yes, it’s a little different for us, but we can’t turn our backs on this injustice.”
Bryant met her ex-husband, Justin Penatzer, through church when both were teens. Heavily involved in their faith and gospel music, they married at 18 and a year later, in 2007, had their first daughter, Aniya.
Though not ordained Penatzer, who is White, continued to further his love of ministry and his music while working at various hotel jobs. Bryant, Black, worked part-time as a bartender.
The relationship, however, began to sour almost immediately with charges of abuse—including a report that Penatzer struck her in the head with an iron during her first pregnancy, counter charges of infidelity, fights, separations, reconciliations. And amid the turmoil, the couple had their second daughter, Jocelyn.
The main complication in this custody dispute is that at the time of their divorce in 2011, the children had been removed from their care by Allegheny County Children and Youth Services after they had been left home alone.
Bryant said she had expected the girls’ grandmother to babysit the sleeping children, while she and Penatzer attended a church function. Penatzer’s mother, however, did not arrive as scheduled and Aniya woke up and wandered outside. When the couple returned they were met by police. A joint arrangement, with Penatzer having primary custody, was worked out and supervised by CYS.
While both girls were visiting Bryant Feb. 8, Aniya complained of pain in her groin, and when asked, said Penatzer’s new wife Britney had touched her there. She took both children to UPMC Children’s—but she did so without specific approval from CYS. She left two messages for her social worker, but neither was returned.
“Yes there was not abuse, but they did find she had a yeast infection that needed treatment,” said Bryant. “So it’s a good thing I went. But ever since then, my visits have been continually reduced. I haven’t seen the girls since Sept. 15.”
A Feb. 13 letter from Juvenile Court Project’s Parent Advocacy Attorney Erin Work stated having taken the girls for “forensic and physical examinations” hurt her chances of having the girls returned to her care.
“I believe you run a grave risk of having the court find you are more focused on impugning father than caring for your daughters,” the letter read. “If the court does reach this conclusion it will be very difficult if not impossible to convince the court otherwise in the future.”
Bryant said the system is focusing on her faults and none of her ex-husband’s and Allegheny County Family Court Judge Susan Evashavik DiLucente has relied entirely on a flawed psychiatric evaluation.
“He (Justin) goes in there wearing a clerical collar and they buy it,” she said. “He lied about hitting me with the iron to the Judge and the psychiatrist. He also had two arrests while we were both on probation, the judge never hear that. All she hear was I’m crazy.”
Penatzer was charged with stealing a mislaid iPhone from the counter at Washington Pike Walgreens’ in October 2011 after being identified on the security camera. That same week he was also charged with disorderly conduct resulting from a fight. The first charge was withdrawn and the second reduced.
The court-ordered psych evaluation of both parents, conducted by Neil Rosenblum PhD. said it is “likely” Bryant suffers from “rapid mood swings, emotional instability and a tendency to falsify and exaggerate problems.”
Penatzer, he said, “comes across as more stable and reliable.”
Davis said when he asked Judge DiLucente to look at the history of Protection from Abuse filings and the aforementioned police reports during an earlier hearing, she chose not to.
“She never saw the PFA and she told me her custody decision was based entirely on the psychological report,”
That custody ruling was that Bryant can see the children “as long as both parties agree.”
“The problem is, he never agrees,” she said.
Penatzer has not returned calls for comment by Courier deadline. And during our interview when Bryant tried to reach him to take the children for the weekend, she could not get through.
“I found out a few days later they had gone to Arkansas, didn’t tell me they were taking the kids out of town.”
Tim Stevens, founder of the Coalition Against Violence said he would join Davis in supporting Bryant at her Nov. 9 hearing.
“I am in wonderment as to why she hasn’t seen her kids since September,” said Stevens. “It appears a wrong has been committed by the court in this case, as the father’s background is questionable.”
Bryant’s pastor, Phillip Battle of New Light Baptist Temple Church in the Hill District, said divorce is hard enough on the children without the court “assisting in their discomfort.”
“And as for Justin, if he considers himself a minister, he has a moral and ethical obligation to bring peace,” he said. “He cannot hide behind the collar.”
Davis said there is interest in the case from (Family Division) Judge Kim Berkeley Clark.
“She asked us to send her the information on the case. She’s the one who got my children back for me. So she’s looking at it,” he said. “It’s a crazy case.”
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