By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Says Stovall: "The very accusation in this case carries such a bad taste that they automatically assume the worst. I tell you they are charged with possession of child pornography, and you automatically envision the worst possible scenario."
Lafuente says he has been willing to concede that the photos show behavior that some people of a conservative nature might consider inappropriate, such as a mother bathing with her 4-year-old, or being topless around the kids. Yet those hardly rise to the level of sexual abuse. The family lives together in one room, making privacy difficult, but that does not mean Mercado and Fernandez are not loving parents, he says.
At a December 5 hearing on CPS's removal of the children, Lafuente reached a compromise with the state to put them in the temporary custody of Mercado's former husband, who also lives in the Dallas area. Mercado says that in the five months since, he has given her liberal visitation rights, but she and Fernandez cannot be left alone with the children, nor can the children sleep at the couple's house.
They also agreed to attend "group treatment for sexual issues" and submitted to extensive psychological exams.
At the group counseling, Mercado says, she has learned that kids in the United States are subject to the most horrendous abuse. "Their parents are on drugs...They're left with relatives who molest them. It's horrible." None of it seems to apply to her and her boyfriend, she says, although they say they attend the sessions regularly and try to partake.
"It's about as useful as tits on a bull," sniffs Chatham.
In their psychological exams, which they made available for this report, the only problems the experts could discern in interviews with the parents were those heaped on them by CPS and the police. And those, too, seemed to be held against them in the less-than-empirical world of psychoanalysis.
"When asked about problems occurring in his life currently, Mr. Fernandez states that the children have been removed, there is little money for lawyers, and it's all a big injustice," wrote Robert Antonetti, a Dallas psychologist who interviewed the couple earlier this year. "He reported currently feeling anxious, angry at the injustice he is enduring and fearful of what may happen. When asked about coping with stress he said he's been praying a lot."
In his summary and recommendations, Antonetti mentions no evidence of sexual deviancy in either parent. Instead, he concludes that Fernandez "feels very vulnerable to criticism and judgment."
The accusation that you're a sexual deviant who victimizes his own children might tend to do that.
The psychologist divines from his own psychological tests--and no material evidence whatsoever--that Fernandez appeared to be so "anxious to please" that he might be hiding something. "The profile suggests the probability that he attempted to present himself in an improbably favorable light," Antonetti concludes. Hence, the state-hired Antonetti recommended Fernandez be made to take a polygraph test before getting his son back. He recommended Mercado should be hooked up to one, too. He further recommended both should undergo parenting classes, individual counseling and couples counseling.
Two weeks ago, with a deadline looming for the state either to return the children or go back to court and ask to remove them permanently, Dallas Assistant District Attorney April Carter asked the judge in the case to require the parents to take the tests and attend the counseling before anyone goes home. "There are concerns we need to address," says Carter, who is representing CPS in family court. She says the store clerk, the Richardson police, the grand jury and others took issue with the photos and without further proof, "it's not clear whether this was sexual or cultural." She says she believes lie-detector tests would put that question to rest.
At press time, a hearing on that matter was pending. "We're going to fight it," says Lafuente, saying the state has dragged out the matter long enough and has had five months to ask courts to order tests or counseling. He says there might be a disagreement over appropriate parental behavior, but it isn't something that will be settled by psychologists or lie detectors.
Robert Herrera, who was appointed by the family court to represent the interests of the children alone, agrees. "My feeling is at this point the children should be returned to their parents," he says. "I don't know how strongly CPS disagrees with that, but I think this should be resolved without any more trips to court."
If what she and her boyfriend did was wrong, Mercado says, "I'm sorry. I didn't know these pictures were wrong...I just want my children back. They belong with us."
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city