For Chad and Sara Prigge, the evening of Wednesday, June 9, 1999, started like any other. They tucked their children, 4-year-old Caleb and infant Rachel, into bed. Sara cleaned up from dinner. Chad, the assistant pastor at Truth Baptist Church just outside Hartford, Conn., had some studying to do before switching off the lights in their little green house in a quiet cul-de-sac.
About 1 a.m., the quiet was broken. Awakened by screams of "Help me! Help me!" the Prigges hurried to the front door. They saw a figure running toward them with what seemed to be a lantern or a torch. But it turned out to be neither. Instead, 9-year-old Jessica Silk, a neighbor across the cul-de-sac, was stumbling into the Prigges' front yard with her hair and pajamas ablaze.
The first few, sickening moments, everything was a blur. Sara screamed at Jessica to drop and roll on the front lawn while Chad dialed 911. Together they brought Jessica into their living room and tried to keep her calm until the paramedics arrived. Across the street, the Silks' two-story white colonial was on fire. Chad knew there were three other children inside, children he and his wife had often babysat or taken to church. But the sight of Jessica's frightening injuries compelled him to stay by her side.
The little girl lay on the floor, muttering incoherently. The fire was out now, but her arms kept bleeding and bleeding, staining the floor between the floral-print sofa and the upright piano. There was a smell of burning flesh, but something else, too. Was it gasoline? What was she saying about her mother's nightmare? And why did her arms keep bleeding like that?
Awakened by the commotion, Caleb Prigge shuffled around the corner and saw his older playmate, charred and bleeding, lying on the floor. Sara hustled him off to bed. Worried for his own young children, Chad locked the windows and waited for help to arrive.
When the fire trucks screamed to a stop outside, Sara rushed to tell rescuers exactly where each bedroom was located in the burning house. There's a baby in there, she told the firefighters as she mapped out the quickest route to the nursery.
Moments later a firefighter returned, carrying a blackened little bundle in his arms. "I got him!" he yelled. The fireman laid the little victim on the Prigges' front lawn, well away from the smoke and confusion next door. "Joshua was as black as a piece of coal when they pulled him out," Mr. Prigge recalls. "We didn't think he was going to make it."
Amazingly, 2-month-old Joshua did make it, but he was the last family member who would leave the house alive that night. Inside, rescuers found the bodies of his mother and father, Charlie and Kelly Silk, plus a sister, Jennifer, nearly 3 years old, and a brother, Jonah, just a year and a half.
The two children had died of asphyxiation as the fire sucked oxygen from the air and filled their rooms with thick smoke. But what about the parents? Why hadn't they intervened? Slowly, Jessica's mutterings started to make a grisly kind of sense. The 9-year-old had awakened to sounds of a scuffle. Wandering into her parents' room, she saw her mother stabbing her father to death. Catching sight of the witness, Kelly Silk turned the knife on her daughter, stabbing her more than 60 times. As Jessica continued struggling to escape, her mother poured gasoline on both of them and lit a match.
For Mrs. Silk, it was a violent ending to a troubled life. Suffering from bipolar disorder and on heavy medication, she had already attempted suicide. Her marriage to Charlie Silk, her second husband, brought her into a church where she reportedly made many friends and found some stability. But three pregnancies in as many years sent her on a downward spiral. Instead of bringing joy, the birth of Joshua plunged her into a postpartum depression from which she never recovered.
Her husband may have feared the worst. In August of 1998, he approached the Prigges to ask if they would serve as the children's guardians if anything ever happened to the elder Silks. After praying about it for several days, Mr. Prigge says he agreed to be named guardian-then promptly put it out of his mind. Other couples in the church had also asked the Prigges to care for their children after their death, but, really, what were the chances?
The chances, as it turned out, were nil. Although valid wills were found two days after the tragedy, it took less than two weeks for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place Joshua with a young couple who had never even seen the child before the night of the fire. (Jessica went to live with her biological father in Minnesota, who was located shortly after the blaze.) The Prigges, shocked that their friends' final wishes could be so easily ignored by the DCF bureaucrats, sued for custody of Joshua.
The Prigges' three-year legal battle ended May 14 when the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Joshua should remain with Aldo and Lisa Vallera, the couple recommended by DCF. According to the court, the state had an overriding responsibility to look out for Joshua's best interests, even if that meant ignoring the explicit instructions left by his parents.
It's a legal standard that's hardly unique to Connecticut. Experts say the laws in every state-backed up by rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court-allow local authorities to override a parent's last will and testament.
"It's not like saying to someone, 'Here, I'm leaving you $50,000,'" says Frieda Gordon, a partner in the family law firm Gordon-Cooper LLC, Santa Monica, Calif. "There's a minor involved here and somebody has to look out for his interests. It [the nomination of a guardian] has to have the stamp of approval of the state.
"When the parents die, the state has to investigate. There are all sorts of things they might not have known before their death. That neighbor they named as guardian could have been a child molester or a murderer or [who] knows what."
No one ever accused the Prigges of murder or child molestation, however. So why did the state decide that the young pastor and his wife were not in Joshua's best interests? In a $2 million civil suit filed against the state of Connecticut, the Prigges now contend that DCF bureaucrats were biased against them because of their religious beliefs.
That's a charge that should give pause to other Christian parents who intend for their children to be brought up in a home that shares their faith. In its 20-page decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court waved off the right of a parent to stipulate such concerns. While acknowledging that living parents have almost sole authority for directing their children's upbringing, the court found that what remains after the parents' death is merely a "pre-death statement by the parents of strong preference for the future regarding who should be guardians for their children.... We have not discovered any authority to support the proposition that this fundamental liberty interest of parents survives the death of the parents, much less that it may be passed to testamentary guardians."
In other words, your hopes for the future of your children die with you. After that, the state steps in-with its experts and its bureaucrats and its judges-to decide your children's best interests.
And how are those "best interests" decided? "There really are not terribly clear guidelines anywhere that I'm aware of," says Anne Haralambie, a Tucson, Ariz., family lawyer and author of the book Handling Child Custody, Abuse, and Adoption Cases. "Some states are quite specific about the standards for overriding guardianship," while others leave it up to individual judges or social workers. Some states favor blood relations while others favor live-in "psychological parents." In some states, children can even choose their own guardians, if they don't like the ones their parents chose for them. The only universal rule is that wills are never considered authoritative when it comes to naming a guardian.
Court records show that DCF workers distrusted the Prigges almost from the start. On June 11, the same day that the Silks' wills were discovered, DCF began its investigation of the Prigges-and their church.
By calling on Kelly Silk's family and friends, DCF created a dossier that focused extensively on the Prigges' religious beliefs. One friend reported that "Kelly was Catholic, but Charles convinced her to join his church," which the friend defined as a "type of cult." Another friend falsely alleged that "the 'church people' will cover up the truth.... He said Charlie's religion doesn't believe in crosses, communion, taking medications." And Aldo Vallera, the man eventually named as guardian, told DCF that Kelly Silk "was obsessed with the church, was 'totally brainwashed.' He told [a DCF] worker ... that Kelly believed everything they said was true."
Armed with such accusations, DCF personnel allegedly helped draft a secret visitation list for the Silk children, who spent almost two weeks in the hospital recovering from their wounds. On June 16, a week after the tragedy, hospital staff asked Mr. Prigge to leave Joshua's room, despite his protestations that he was named as the child's guardian. Four days later, a nurse turned both Mr. and Mrs. Prigge away when they attempted to visit Joshua.
In those early, confusing days, the Prigges weren't sure they could take the children, anyway. The baby would be no problem, but 9-year-old Jessica might be harder to integrate into the family. Chad Prigge says he expressed his ambivalence to several DCF officials, though he specifically tried to keep his options open by attending preliminary custody hearings and visiting the children when he could.
Then, after two weeks of soul-searching, the couple decided they had to honor their commitment to the Silks, even if it would be a hardship on their own family. "It was a matter of our word," says Mr. Prigge, sitting at a kitchen table stacked high with court documents. "We'd promised them. And we wanted to provide Joshua with a home where the values were consistent with those of his parents."
"Emotionally, the Silks were dear friends," adds Mrs. Prigge. "And the children were special. We saw them almost every day. There was an emotional contact as well as an obligation."
But DCF had other plans. Almost as soon as Mr. Prigge called to make his intentions known, the department hustled Joshua into a foster-care arrangement with the Valleras. Although such arrangements are usually temporary, DCF officials insisted that the 3-month-old infant would be emotionally scarred by another move. The Valleras' custody should be considered permanent, they said.
When the Prigges pressed their case in court, they were again met with religious objections. In August, two months after the tragedy, DCF moved for a psychological evaluation of the family, and a judge agreed in October. Although the court-appointed psychologist found the Prigges to be "warm, compassionate, mentally stable, fit, and effective as parents," she noted that their religious beliefs included spanking an erring child. Using corporal punishment on a child with Joshua's psychological background could be devastating, she warned.
In depositions, too, the Prigges were subjected to intense scrutiny of their beliefs. Again and again the state's lawyers hammered away at the subject, and tried in their selection of questions to paint the church as cult-like:
"What are your doctrinal beliefs?"
"Are there any specific roles of the father and mother?"
"Does the church have any particular beliefs or tenets regarding the discipline of children?"
"Does the church have any beliefs or tenets as to how to address depression or mental illness?"
"Does the church, the Truth Baptist Church, discourage its members from associating with persons who are not members of the church?"
"Does the church actively seek new members?"
"How do you get people to join the church?"
Despite such episodes, DCF insisted its decision was not based on any prejudice against the Prigges' religious beliefs, but rather on its honest assessment of Joshua's best interests. Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schuman blasted that reasoning, pointing out that DCF could not possibly have analyzed the Prigges' suitability as parents when it rushed Joshua into the Valleras' home within days of the murder-suicide.
Indeed, DCF never interviewed the Prigges as potential parents, never made a home visit, never requested their medical records or the records of their children. Their sole "investigation," prior to placing Joshua with the Valleras, involved compiling the rumors and innuendo reported by friends of Kelly Silk-friends who were unabashedly critical of her husband, her pastor, and her church.
It's the apparent bias of that decision that drives Chad and Sara Prigge to pursue their case against the state of Connecticut. After three years of grueling legal proceedings-and more than $100,000 in legal fees-the two understand they have no hope of adopting Joshua, who is now a toddler living happily with the only parents he's ever known. But if they could win their civil suit, they reason, if they could slap the state with a huge monetary fine, it might send a signal to child-welfare authorities in Connecticut and across the country.
Still, they know their suit is the longest of long shots. The same Supreme Court that ruled against their custody petition is now considering a motion by the state to dismiss the religious discrimination suit without a trial. At this point, the Prigges would be disappointed but hardly surprised. Any faith they may once have had in the courts has been all but erased by their three-year ordeal.
In light of all that they've seen, in fact, they haven't even bothered to name a guardian for their own children.