GALLATIN, Tenn. — It is a story of friendship and betrayal.
A Tennessee mother said her baby was taken from her by a government worker who she said used her position to gain trust.
Monday afternoon, a judge ruled on that mother’s quest to get her baby back.
Tondra Osborne had it rough growing up. As a teen, she and her brother spent time in foster care.
It was when her brother got in trouble that Osborne met a Department of Children’s Services worker named Amy Koch. Osborne was just 15 at the time. Koch was decades her senior, but the two became close friends, Osborne said.
“She knew everything about my family being that she was my younger brother’s former case worker,” Osborne said. “She was around my family. She made a lot of home visits.”
Osborne said the two became even closer when Osborne learned she was pregnant.
“We ate lunch together, sometimes on her tab, sometimes on mine,” Osborne said. “The whole summer we had outings, pool, picnics. She even threw my baby shower.”
On March 3, 2015, Osborne gave birth to a son named Kingston. Osborne said Koch would comment that she wanted custody of Kingston, even before he was born.
“She asked for temporary custody of Kingston several times,” Osborne said. “I never really got why and I never agreed to it, because there was no reason for it.”
The teenage mother said she considered Koch a best friend who was always willing to help. She later considered Koch a godmother to the baby boy.
When Osborne got pregnant a second time, things changed. She was constantly ill and was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, diabetes and several other health complications.
She was hospitalized several times, and said Koch always stepped in to take care Kingston. In May of 2015, Osborne gave Koch power of attorney over Kingston, with conditions. She said she never granted her custody. Osborne said the agreement was intended primarily to give the then state employee authority to make medical decisions for Kingston whenever she was ill or unable to.
Osborne’s grandmother, Mary Thornton, who lives in Georgia, had doubts and concerns about their relationship.
“She was just doing too much, and she was trying to take control of things as far as Tondra’s decisions,” Thornton said. “At first I really didn’t think nothing of it. I thought this lady was her friend because she gave her a baby shower and then was buying all kinds of things. She was having the baby’s name put on diaper bags and burping clothes, having the baby’s name made. Then I was like this is a little much right here.”
In January, Osborne said things took a drastic change when she became sick with pregnancy complications. She was sick in the hospital again. Koch was taking care of Kingston for her. The two women sent text messages back and forth over several days.
Channel 4 obtained the text messages that show Koch telling Amy to “get rest” and that “Kingston is good.”
Throughout the conversation, Osborne shared details about her illness. She told Koch via text that doctors said she was dehydrated. Koch offered advice. Osborne then responded, “Missing Kingston,” and, “I want to see him tomorrow.” She praised Koch for her assistance.
But when it is time for Osborne to be released from the hospital, Osborne could not reach Koch. Koch wrote she was “on a conference call.” When Osborne finally got through, she learned everything had changed. She said at first, Koch only said, “I’m sorry.”
Court documents obtained by Channel 4 show that at the time of those text messages, while Osborne was in a hospital bed, Koch was heading to court to get emergency custody of Kingston.
“She went ahead and told me, you know, ‘I filed a petition and a judge signed it yesterday.'” Osborne recalled. “After that I was just numb. I was numb. I didn’t know what to think or what to do next.”
Osborne has not seen her little boy since.
“Someone who was my supposed friend, who I really considered my friend, went behind my back while I was in the hospital and filed a petition for custody of my child,” Osborne said. “Now, I’m just struggling to get him back.”
In the emergency custody petition, Koch told the judge Kingston had been neglected and was in immediate danger. She cited that Osborne’s abusive ex-boyfriend had just been released from jail, which was true, and that she feared for Kingston’s safety.
Koch outlined Osborne’s myriad medical issues and noted that Kingston stayed in other people’s care the majority of the time. She said Osborne was unable to properly care for the child.
Sumner County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Brown signed off custody. Shortly thereafter, he recused himself from the case and told another magistrate to do the same, citing conflict of interest.
“His reason for doing such was the conflict of interest being that this woman [Koch] was a former employee of his,” Osborne said. “But he knew that. He had knowledge of that when he signed the petition giving her temporary custody.”
The conflict is here: Judge Brown works with Sumner County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which handles child custody matters. Koch is currently chief operating officer there, according to the organization’s website.
Brown and Koch are pictured together in pictures from CASA programs. Osborne said Koch often works in Brown’s courtroom. She claimed Koch used her position in social work to get custody of Kingston in a system she is familiar with.
Channel 4 approached Koch before Monday’s hearing, and asked her to explain her actions.
Channel 4’s Hayley Mason said, “We want to know why you decided to take Kingston in a secret hearing instead of letting the mother know.” Koch mumbled an inaudible response.
Mason then asked Koch, “Do you think you deserve Kingston over the mother?” Koch didn’t respond. She walked into the Sumner County Courthouse shaking her head.
What does the Department of Children’s Services have to say about all this?
Koch was employed by DCS from January 2006 to June 2015. She was a DCS court liaison when Kingston was born. She was still working for the state when she filed for power of attorney over Kingston last May. DCS wouldn’t comment specifically on this case, but spokesperson Rob Johnson sent the following statement regarding the alleged conflict of interest:
The situation certainly raises some difficult questions, questions that we are already taking into account during our regular, ongoing discussions about policy and practice. Ms. Koch has not been an employee of DCS since June 2015, when she left to work with the Sumner County Court Appointed Special Advocate’s office. At DCS, Ms. Koch served as a court liaison and knew the child’s family. She was not a case manager, however, for any member of that family. The child has never been in state custody, so this is essentially a private matter between two families and the juvenile court. Still, DCS policy prohibits case managers from fostering children in state custody — except in limited circumstances — because that can create conflicts of interest. And we believe strongly that conflicts of interest can threaten the integrity of our work at DCS.
DCS policy on conflict of interest specifically states that “employees should not engage in dual relationships with a client or former client in whom there is a risk of exploitation.” It also cautions that employees “should not provide gifts or favors to any child, child’s family member, except as specifically authorized in the official performance of duties.”
Osborne’s grandmother said, “I think she just got attached to Kingston, and she just saw an opportunity where she could take him”
It has been months since Osborne last saw Kingston. During that time, her little boy took his first steps. Koch sent her the video of the baby wobbling, stepping and falling down with a laugh and smile.
“We just want him back home because we love him and he needs to be with us,” Thornton said.
That wait may be over soon. The new judge on the case, Mike Carter, ordered that Kingston will live with Osborne’s aunt. Osborne could get full custody when her doctor says she’s healthy again.
The Osborne family credits Channel 4’s investigation with helping get Kingston back. Koch must return the child to Osborne Tuesday afternoon.
Incidentally, on Monday, Judge Barry Brown, who signed off on the original custody order, acknowledged he had a conflict of interest from knowing Koch. He said he could not comment further on the case, by law.
Osborne said she hopes to have another hearing to regain custody of her son in the next month.