On Tuesday, September 19, 2023, GettysburgTimes reported that all sitting Adams County Court of Common Pleas judges in Pennsylvania have recused themselves from handling the Adams County Children and Youth Services (ACCYS) criminal cases due to a potential conflict of interest. The reason for the recusal is cited as Rule 2.11 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which states that judges may disqualify themselves if their “impartiality might be reasonably questioned.”
The recusal comes as two current ACCYS employees and one former staffer face charges of endangering the welfare of children, a first-degree felony, in connection with the death of 15-month-old Iris Mummert. The defendants, Clarissa Kiessling, 44, Sherri DePasqua, 46, and Steven Murphy, 63, were charged following a statewide grand jury investigation that found they minimized and ignored multiple concerns expressed by foster parents and various service providers about the victim’s mother and her ability to safely care for her children. The grand jury also found that the three defendants were “directly or indirectly involved” with the victim’s case through their ACCYS roles. Defense attorneys for the defendants have indicated that their clients plan to enter not-guilty pleas at their formal arraignments, which may be continued if a judge is not assigned prior to the scheduled date of October 16.
The case stems from an incident on May 29, 2020, when the victim’s mother, Felisha Lynn Ellis, 29, formerly of Gardners, told authorities she “shook the baby repeatedly,” resulting in the child’s death. Ellis pleaded guilty to murder in the third degree in October 2021 and was sentenced to serve 12 to 30 years in state prison. The presentment alleges that ACCYS employees failed to take appropriate action in response to a referral from ChildLine indicating that Ellis had become intoxicated and belligerent at a party with the children and Mummert on May 16, 2020. DePasqua, Kiessling, and Murphy allegedly failed to request an immediate random drug screen of Ellis or direct each other to report the referral or the May 16 incident to the court at a review hearing scheduled for May 22, 2020. As a result, the children remained in the physical custody of Ellis and Mummert after the hearing, with legal custody retained by ACCYS.
The case is now awaiting assignment to a judge from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, and all future court dates will be established by the assigned judge. The community is closely following the case, as it has sparked outrage and concerns about the safety of children in the child welfare system. The outcome of the case will likely have significant implications for the defendants, as well as for the broader community’s trust in the child protective services system.
The recusal of the Adams County Court of Common Pleas judges in Pennsylvania from handling the ACCYS criminal cases due to a potential conflict of interest is a praiseworthy decision that underscores their dedication to upholding the principles of fairness and impartiality.
By adhering to Rule 2.11 of the Code of Judicial Conduct and removing themselves from the cases, these judges have taken a crucial step towards ensuring that justice is not only done but seen to be done. Their actions serve as a reminder that the judiciary plays a vital role in safeguarding the integrity of the legal process, ensuring justice for all, and maintaining public trust in the judiciary.