SEATTLE — The anguished father of a girl who was seriously injured after a 9-year-old boy brought a gun to their third-grade classroom says the state failed his daughter.
John Bowman said the state let the boy visit his mother, a woman who had her parental rights terminated and had a lengthy history of crime and drug abuse. She is accused of leaving guns unsecured around her home.
"Amina's life has been forever altered, along with the rest of our family, due to the breakdown of a system that allows parents deemed unfit by the state to have unrestricted access to this student and his siblings," said Bowman, whose daughter Amina Kocer-Bowman remains in serious condition at a Seattle hospital.
The shooting at a Bremerton elementary school is the latest high-profile case to raise questions about state oversight of vulnerable children. Washington officials faced scrutiny last month after Josh Powell, a suspect in his wife's 2009 disappearance in Utah, killed his two sons and himself in a blaze during a supervised visit near Puyallup.
In the Powell case, the state had custody of the children and placed them with their maternal grandparents, but Powell was allowed supervised visits. In the Bremerton case, experts say it was up to the boy's uncle, who was his legal guardian.
Officials and experts say that the issue of the guardianship is key, because it means the state was no longer involved in the boy's custody.
According to the boy's family, both of his parents terminated their rights to the boy and his sisters, who were then adopted by their paternal grandmother. Eric John Makus, the boy's attorney, said the grandmother had decided not to keep the boy from his mother, saying she had been working on getting sober. The grandmother died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, and the boy's uncle, Patrick Cochran, became the legal guardian.
"A legal guardian situation means, much like an adopted parent or a birth parent, they have the same right, like you or I have the same right, with whom (children) associate. It is not in fact the state's role," said Richard Wexler, president for the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "Of course this father feels that the system failed tremendously. But we can't build a society based on legislation by horror story."
State officials say the uncle had discretion over whom and where the boy visited. Police say he was visiting his mother at her home when he took a .45-caliber handgun and brought it to school in a backpack on Feb. 22. The weapon discharged when he slammed down the bag on a desk, hitting his classmate.
"We don't second-guess and oversight the uncle just because the rights of the parents have been terminated," said Thomas Shapley, of the state's Health and Human Services department. "Don't get me wrong, if we found that that there was a referral or a report that the adoptive parent or guardian was neglecting a child, (Child Protective Services) would be involved."
The boy's mother, Jamie Lee Passmore, and her boyfriend, Douglas Bauer, now face unlawful possession of firearms charges stemming from a search of their home, where investigators found a 9 mm pistol and a loaded 12-gauge shotgun unsecured on the day of the school shooting. Unlike dozens of other states, Washington has no law that includes criminal penalties for adults who allow children to get their hands on guns.
A judge has sentenced the boy to probation and counseling, but the Bowman family said they were concerned about returning the child to the same guardian who ultimately let him be around weapons.
"The adoption may have ended the (paternal rights) case, but it didn't end the problem and CPS is responsible to look to the safety of children," said the Bowmans' lawyer, Jeff Campiche. "They should go into that home and see what the circumstances are. They should make sure that the child is not visiting the unfit mother unsupervised. If he's going to visit the unfit mother, CPS should go to that home and do a home site inspection. They should set rules for visitations."
Campiche has said the Bowmans are considering filing a lawsuit, possibly against state agencies.
Makus, the boy's lawyer, said the family was trying to find someone to blame.
"I understand the concern how he came into possession of (gun) at his biological mother's house, but you know, the family's representative is intent on trying to find some fault. I understand that. We've admitted fault, we've offered an apology," Makus said. "But he also seems intent in finding a villain. You're not going to find a villain in my 9-year-old child."
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