A Tennessee grandmother who fought for custody of her late daughter’s child but lost out to the girl’s father was left grieving and angry after the man murdered her granddaughter.
Monica Dunning is holding up the shooting death of her 12-year-old granddaughter, Angel Ahearn, as devastating evidence that the US family court system is broken, the Tennessee news outlet WBIR reported.
Angel’s mother died in a car crash in Monroe county, Tennessee, in 2016. Dunning subsequently pushed to be named her granddaughter’s guardian. But the girl spent time in several foster homes before her father, Leonard Ahearn, gained custody of her.
According to Dunning, her daughter was divorced from Ahearn at the time of her death, and there had been allegations of abuse which led to a court order that prevented him from seeing Angel.
The decision to award Ahearn custody despite those allegations produced a tragic outcome at the family home in Barrow county, Georgia, more than a three-hour drive from Monroe county, Tennessee.
On 17 October, authorities say, Ahearn was arguing with a 34-year-old woman when he grabbed a pistol and shot her, his daughter and himself. First responders arrived to find Angel dead and the two adults badly wounded. Ahearn died after he and the woman were taken to hospital.
“She watched her father walk up to her and put a gun to her head and shoot her,” Dunning told WBIR in an interview this week. “That’s just horrifying. No 12-year-old, especially that 12-year-old, should go through that.
“There was no way that you could be in a room with her, even two seconds, and not just absolutely love her. She was outgoing, she was expressive, she was happy.”
Dunning said she was particularly frustrated because she invested time and money undergoing a process aimed at authorizing her to care for Angel, in a home where Angel would have been safe. But she said it seemed as if officials in charge of her case “would place [Angel] with anybody” but her maternal grandmother.
The children’s services department of Tennessee told WBIR that courts have the final word on where any child is placed to live. WBIR reported that the judge who ruled on Angel’s case, Benjy Thomas, declined to comment.
Tennessee state house representative Gloria Johnson said Angel’s death illustrated just one of the problems plaguing an understaffed, underpaid children’s services department and the courts with which it works.
Systems across the US face similar issues. Johnson told WBIR she was calling on Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, to properly fund state children’s services before any other children were hurt.
“It’s just morally wrong,” Johnson said to WBIR. “I think it’s time to find the money to address the situation now.”