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This story was co-published with Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Sign up to receive its newsletter.
Ohio juvenile court Judge Timothy Grendell has been outspoken about his belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is overblown.
At a protest rally in May, just steps away from where he presides over family court, Grendell proclaimed that public health restrictions to contain the pandemic were unconstitutional and “we should be allowed to get back to our lives.” The following month, he testified to state lawmakers in Columbus that health authorities and a “drumbeat” of media coverage had “created an atmosphere of fear” surrounding the virus.
But Grendell hasn’t confined his views to the public square. A few weeks after he testified to lawmakers, he referred to the pandemic as a “panic-ademic” in the midst of a custody proceeding in his courtroom in Geauga County, outside Cleveland. And he has claimed that 15 mothers in his court have used the virus as an excuse in custody cases to “mess with” their exes’ parenting time.
Then, on Oct. 2, Grendell made an order that legal experts call unheard of, and medical experts say could cause harm. The judge banned two parents, who were wrangling over custody of their young boys, from having the “children undergo COVID-19 testing” without his approval, according to the court record.
A doctor subsequently ordered a coronavirus test for one of the boys before admitting him to a children’s hospital for severe breathing problems. When Grendell found out, he threatened to find the mother in contempt of court, a move that could lead to her being thrown in jail.
Legally, judges have wide discretion to resolve disputes between parents. Some courts have issued standing orders that general concerns about COVID-19 should not disrupt established parenting schedules. But medical experts told ProPublica that a COVID-19 test is often essential for health care providers to protect themselves and to decide on the best course of treatment for a patient.
“We are unable to provide the right kind of care without it,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s basically blindfolding us or asking us to take care of someone with an arm tied behind our back.”
Judges around the country have received media attention for their rulings related to the pandemic. ProPublica reported in July that a Michigan judge sent a 15-year-old girl to juvenile detention, ruling she violated her probation by failing to complete her homework while remote learning. The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered her immediate release later that month.
In April, a judge in South Florida temporarily took custody away from a doctor because she treated patients with COVID-19, the Miami Herald reported. In Iowa, a judge sentenced a mother to 10 days in jail for refusing to follow a child visitation ruling due to COVID-19 concerns, according to the Sioux City Journal. And another judge in South Florida required a mom to wear a mask if she wanted to see her child, wrote the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The conflict between public health precautions and individual freedoms has been extreme in Ohio, which was among the first states to issue sweeping health orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Rising discontent with the orders this spring led angry citizens to march on the Ohio Statehouse, chanting “Open Ohio” and breaking several windows. Protesters showed up at the suburban Columbus home of Amy Acton, then the director of the Ohio Department of Health. Some carried rifles. One woman carried a sign with an anti-Semitic message aimed at Acton, who is Jewish.
Acton later resigned and some conservative lawmakers turned their attention to Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, with some demanding his impeachment and his arrest, to no avail.
Grendell’s wife, Diane, an Ohio state representative and former appellate judge, introduced legislation to terminate the state COVID-19 emergency public health orders.Infection numbers were low early on in Ohio, but since October the seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases has spiked tenfold, to about 10,000 on Dec. 13. Daily deaths and hospitalizations also have jumped to record highs.
Timothy Grendell, a Republican former legislator who has been on the bench for more than a decade, has long been a polarizing figure in Ohio political and legal circles. That reputation extends to his courtroom. ProPublica has spoken to mothers and grandmothers in four additional cases who said Grendell has been unfair to them. Some said they have filed complaints against him. Investigations are confidential until concluded; Grendell has not been disciplined by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the Supreme Court of Ohio.
In May, Grendell sent Stacy Hartman’s two teenage sons to juvenile detention after they refused a court-ordered visit with their father. The judge also threatened to hold Hartman in contempt of court and jail her if she didn’t take them to the visit, according to a court transcript. Hartman told ProPublica that she begged that her two boys not be locked up during a pandemic. After the local ABC television affiliate reported on the story, Hartman said mothers and some grandmothers started to call her with stories about their cases in Grendell’s courtroom. Each of the cases was different. But Hartman was struck by one similarity: “Everybody is scared about what he is going to do.”
The judge also has been embroiled in public spats, sometimes with other elected or political officials. In one high-profile example, in 2014, he threatened to hold the chairwoman of the Geauga County Republican Party in contempt of court after he learned she had privately characterized him as a “narcissist and mentally ill.” The matter was dropped.Several family law attorneys told ProPublica that they refuse to take cases in Grendell’s court because they do not believe he treats parties in cases fairly. They asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to risk the judge filing a complaint against their licenses.
Grendell declined ProPublica’s request to be interviewed for this story. In his most recent judgment entry, on Dec. 9, he said the mother at the center of the COVID-19 testing case had failed to return the children on several occasions, “using COVID-19 or her concerns about the children and COVID-19 as the reason for not complying with the Court’s orders.”
Through his court administrator, Grendell said that he was prohibited from commenting on pending cases, or about broader accusations related to his conduct. He said his decisions are “always in the best interest of the children” and “based on sound law and the actual facts in the case.” Grendell reiterated that he has seen situations where one parent repeatedly misuses COVID-19 testing and quarantining to prevent the other parent from spending court-ordered time with children.
“The court is fully cognizant of the seriousness of COVID and understands the need for all members of the public to be careful and to engage in the necessary and recommended safeguards,” Grendell said.
Amplifying a Dispute
The pandemic had exacerbated an already tense parenting arrangement between Richard Sherrick and Kimberly Page, who were never married but have two boys who are 6 and 4. The two have lobbed accusations and counteraccusations against each other. Page felt ongoing anxiety about her health and the health of the boys. Medical records she provided to ProPublica document the boys’ chronic conditions, including asthma, autism and other ailments. The boys’ Cleveland Clinic pediatrician had deemed them high risk if they became exposed to the coronavirus.
On four occasions since April, Page said, the boys were quarantined or they had to be taken to the doctor or hospital for treatment, which delayed their return to Sherrick. The delays were typically brief, she said. She said that she communicated with her ex each time, and that there have been times in the past when he had delayed returning them to her.
Sherrick and his attorney, Robert Zulandt, did not return multiple requests from ProPublica to comment. In court, Sherrick has accused Page of using visits to doctors and hospitals as an excuse to keep the boys longer than her allotted parenting time. He also has alleged that his ex is obsessive to the point that it creates fear and anxiety for the children and that she has had the children overtreated and tested for COVID-19 and other illnesses. She has disputed those characterizations.
After Grendell issued his ruling prohibiting a COVID-19 test without his permission, Page contacted Geauga County Health Commissioner Tom Quade to talk about it. Quade told ProPublica that he reached out to his agency’s lawyer but ultimately decided not to get involved because the order didn’t apply to his agency, which does not provide COVID testing.
Quade said he did not have all the details about the judge’s order, but it seemed consistent with Grendell’s “this is a big nothingburger” feeling about COVID-19. In their mostly rural county of about 90,000 people, the judge and his wife have repeatedly made public comments that minimize the health threat of the pandemic, he said.
Family court judges like Grendell have wide discretion to make decisions in the best interests of children in the middle of custody or abuse cases, experts say.There are times a judge could issue orders that either require medical treatment or forbid it, like if a child had terminal cancer and the parents disagreed about treatment, said Sharona Hoffman, co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University. But those types of decisions are generally made after a judge hears evidence from both sides on the issues, Hoffman said. In this case, Grendell made the order on his own motion, without a specific request from either parent to ban the test.
“There is no downside to getting a COVID test,” Hoffman said.
The danger of the judge’s order, if followed, is that it might lead to one of the boys not getting medical treatment he needs, said Michelle Mello, a health law and policy professor at Stanford University. What’s striking from a medical-legal perspective, Mello said, is that the child’s test was given during a hospital visit. “It’s standard of care,” Mello said. “Nobody gets into a hospital and around other patients without a COVID test. There’s a public health reason.”
Page said her attorneys warned her against taking her child to the hospital on Nov. 2 for fear of violating the judge’s order. But her son’s breathing was so labored that she and her new husband, a doctor, believed he had to go to Akron Children’s Hospital. The child was administered a COVID-19 test before being admitted and treated during an overnight stay. The test was negative.
The hospital declined to comment about the case, but said in a statement that it performs COVID-19 tests when they are deemed medically necessary and on patients who are admitted with respiratory symptoms.
Saying Page had failed to return the children on time, Sherrick filed an emergency motion with the judge for custody of the children. The next day, Grendell suspended Page’s custody and sent his constable to the hospital to retrieve the child and hand him off to his father. The child’s younger brother was picked up from the home of Sherrick’s mother.
About a week later, Grendell ordered Page to appear before him “to show cause why you should not be held in Contempt of Court for failing to abide by parenting time … and for failing to abide by the order prohibiting COVID-19 testing, unless approved by the Court first.”
On Nov. 20, Grendell issued a new interim order that the children could be tested if they had symptoms and if their pediatrician recommended it. That same day the court ordered supervised visitation. Page has disagreed about the parameters suggested for visitation, so she still has not seen her children.
Page’s attorney said she could still be held in contempt of court, for violating the original order not to have the children tested for COVID-19. Hearings in the case have been delayed until January.
Grendell’s no-testing order wasn’t the first time COVID-19 had been a point of contention in the case.Page accused Sherrick of failing to provide adequate medical care for the boys, and her parenting time included multiple visits to doctors and emergency rooms. Page’s medical records show they have undergone five tests for COVID-19 between them.In a June 29 hearing, Grendell dismissed the virus as a relevant factor: “There is zero evidence that COVID is a danger to 6-year-olds — zip,” Grendell said, according to the court reporter’s transcript of the hearing.
Page had a fever the day before the hearing, a possible symptom of COVID-19, so she sat in her car. Grendell accused her and other mothers — at least 15 total, he said — of improperly using the virus as “a reason to mess with” the parenting time of fathers.
“So this is like the cause du jour,” Grendell said. “Hey, you know, I want to mess with the ex or with the dads, since most of these people never married, and COVID-19 gives me an excuse to mess with his parenting schedule.”
Earlier in the pandemic, the COVID-19 “fear factor” made sense, Grendell continued. But now that it was “almost July 1st, it’s not doing much for me,” he said.
Before COVID-19, people brought home colds and diseases every day, he said, branding the pandemic a “panic-ademic.”
Near the conclusion of the hearing, Grendell issued a threat: “I’m going to make this crystal clear,” he said. “The next person who doesn’t follow the orders is going to see a contempt citation coming their way.”
Friction between Page and Sherrick continued. She thought it was too risky for her elder son to attend school in person. He wanted her to stop scheduling so many medical appointments for the children, which delayed their return to him. On Sept. 23, Page went to Sherrick’s home and picked up the child to take him to the hospital, according to a court filing, and was late returning him to Sherrick. Sherrick filed a handwritten motion the next day, claiming Page had a pattern of not returning the boys, and asking for custody.
Grendell then personally called Page’s cellphone, and left a voicemail, saying Sherrick said the child needed to be returned, and instructing her to call him. “I certainly would like an explanation, and I don't believe COVID at this time period is a legitimate one,” he said on her voicemail, which was provided to her attorneys and ProPublica. It is highly unusual for a judge to call a litigant in a proceeding directly. Grendell did not return ProPublica’s request to comment about the voicemail.
Grendell’s order prohibiting testing for COVID-19 came about a week later. The evidence in the dispute still has not been heard in court.
“He Knows He Makes the Rules”
Page said she reached a breaking point after losing custody of her children and being accused of contempt of court. One set of attorneys warned her not to speak publicly about her case and withdrew from representing her after she ignored their advice.
As a mother, Page said she felt she had to speak out because attorneys have been reluctant to challenge Grendell and without that, she can’t see the case getting resolved fairly.
“This judge needs to be held accountable to somebody other than our family,” Page said.
Page’s new attorney, Lee Potts, said when he took over the case he understood it was complicated. But the blanket order prohibiting COVID-19 testing seemed to “come out of nowhere.”
Since Grendell himself made the motion, it made Potts wonder: “Who is telling you this stuff? How are you getting this information?”
Though Sherrick did not respond to requests for comment, his mother, Bonnie Sherrick, lamented the effect the case is having on her grandchildren. She said that her son, as well as Page and Grendell, have all contributed to the problems, but that there’s no reason Page should be penalized for properly managing the medical conditions of the children.
“She has been a good mother,” Sherrick said of Page.
Nobody seems to be able to stop Grendell, Bonnie Sherrick said of the judge. “He knows he makes the rules.”