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HENDERSONVILLE — Joanne McDowell, a former resident of Hendersonville who has been living in her native Canada for more than four years with her young son, faces Henderson County grand jury indictments for felony obstruction of justice and felony child abduction. She could risk arrest if she sets foot back in the United States.
Ontario courts have ordered the boy’s father, Dr. Steven Buchman of Atlanta, not to have contact with the child or his mother or to come within 100 meters of them or a place they are likely to be.
The international standoff comes as the result of courts in North Carolina and Ontario reaching very different conclusions about essentially the same claims and evidence: McDowell has accused Buchman, an anesthesiologist, of drugging and sexually abusing the boy during unsupervised overnight custodial visits, according to court records in both countries.
Buchman has consistently denied all allegations, which he reiterated this week in talking with Carolina Public Press.
However, as a result of questions CPP raised while looking into the case — including about several irregularities in an investigation that Buncombe County Child Protective Services conducted during the summer 2012 — the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services began a dialogue with McDowell.
She received email confirmation Wednesday that DHHS Division of Social Services Director Wayne Black “has determined that there will be a review of the case.”
The existence of the Buncombe probe has been cited by other North Carolina jurisdictions as a reason that continued concerns could not be investigated prior to McDowell leaving the country. The lack of clear answers from Buncombe County Child Protective Services may have influenced court decisions in the case to such an extent that a review could have implications for the order that prompted McDowell to flee the country. And it’s that order that forms the basis of the criminal charges that she faces.
Some of the details that have emerged in this case raise serious questions about the functioning of North Carolina’s child protective services agencies and their accountability, as well as the function of the state’s court system in complicated cases involving expert testimony.
McDowell’s son was born in spring 2010 in Henderson County. His parents met through an online dating service and were in a relationship over six months in 2009. Joanne McDowell, a native of Canada, taught at Upward Elementary in Flat Rock. Buchman, a native of Illinois, taught and practiced medicine at Atlanta’s Emory University, as he still does.
“Steven and I engaged in protracted legal proceedings in North Carolina almost immediately after (the child) was born,” McDowell wrote in a 2015 sworn affidavit filed with the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario. Issues included questions about paternity, child support and especially visitation, which the courts eventually granted to Buchman in the form of unsupervised overnight visits in Henderson County.
McDowell said the boy responded in alarming ways to those visits.
“Since Steven began exercising access with (the child) in North Carolina, (The boy) began to exhibit severe emotional, violent and sexual behavior before and after visits,” McDowell said in the affidavit.
“This included, among other things (sexual acting out with toys and adults), uncontrollably screaming and crying, hitting himself, scratching himself, so much that he would cause himself to bleed, hitting his toys and forcefully hitting me,” the affidavit continued.
McDowell asked Henderson County’s Department of Social Services to look into her concerns, but officials there initially declined, according to her affadavit. They said the issues she raised “did not meet the statutory definition of abuse, neglect or dependency.”
However, the child’s pediatrician, Dr. Charlotte Riddle of Hendersonville, also became concerned. McDowell said the boy appeared “visibly sedated or drugged” following a visit with his father. His mother showed Riddle a video of the boy in this apparent state, which McDowell says she filmed July 14, 2011, after picking him up from Buchman. Riddle filed her own complaint with the Child Protective Services division of DSS in 2012, which this time agreed to an investigation.
While the results of this inquiry were pending, Henderson County DSS told McDowell to suspend Buchman’s access to their son.
Child Protective Services inquiry
The investigation that followed deviated from what one might expect in such circumstances. Despite agreeing that an investigation was in order, Henderson County DSS told McDowell that they would hand the case over to investigators with Buncombe County Child Protective Services because her work as a guardian ad litem in Henderson County might constitute a conflict of interest.
Brandon Townsend, then an investigator for Buncombe County, contacted McDowell about the case in mid-2012. She told CPP that his statements led her to believe that her concerns and those of her son’s doctor were being taken seriously. Then, she said, she stopped hearing from Townsend.
When she contacted Buncombe County Department of Social Services around mid-August, McDowell said officials there told her that her case had been closed and Townsend no longer worked there.
Several aspects of the situation bothered McDowell. The investigator apparently never listened to digital recordings of her son that she provided. And what had happened to the USB drive containing those files?
“I was stunned, so I asked to speak to the director,’ ” McDowell recently told CPP. “I spoke with both Tammy Shook and Helen Murrell, who told me the case has been closed. I was given zero reasons as to why. I was so disgusted and upset that I just asked to get my evidence back. I had just been told that the most important part of my case to protect my son had evaporated. … I didn’t even ask why. They never said whether Brandon closed the case, or whether it was found to be unsubstantiated. I never received a closure letter.”
CPP has reviewed a series of emails that McDowell provided, showing several weeks of exchanges between her and DSS employees over the situation. Although several issues were in play at the time, these exchanges focused on the whereabouts of a USB drive containing audio that McDowell had provided to the agency. Allegedly this audio involved covert recordings of Buchman interacting with the child, which McDowell interpreted as evidence of abuse.
Regardless of the recordings’ value as evidence, the emails discussing them help to establish a timeline for Buncombe’s closure of the case. And that timeline raises additional questions about what Buncombe County’s Child Protective Services team told McDowell.
The emails imply that the investigation had already been closed, and thus McDowell would already have been told that Townsend was no longer working there. But county records paint a different picture.
The emails run between Aug. 21 and Sept. 10, 2012. County personnel records show that Townsend did not resign from DSS until Aug. 24, well after the exchange began.
At no point in these emails did anyone dispute the idea that Townsend had left the agency well before Aug. 21, even though county records show he didn’t resign until later. Townsend’s record contains no disciplinary files, which are legally required to be there.
DSS actually rehired him between 2014 and 2015. So, there’s no reason to think that DSS had suspended him during the time McDowell was communicating with DSS in August 2012.
CPP described these apparent contradictions in a recent email to a DSS spokesperson, but has not received any response prior to publication of this article. Townsend has not responded to CPP’s repeated attempts to contact him prior to publication of this article.
Both current and former DSS employees are constrained by state laws intended to protect the privacy of children. In cases where the DSS employees’ own conduct is questionable, however, the law can have the unintended consequence of thwarting public accountability for DSS employees – whether to demonstrate unacceptable performance or clear their names.
In the email discussion, McDowell complained about the mishandling of the now-missing USB drive and refusal of staff to provide her with documents about the case. While the latter concern was never fully addressed, after several emails, both sides agreed that McDowell would provide Shook, an administrator with the agency, with new copies of the audio as well as the video of the boy in an apparently drugged state, after which they could meet to discuss the case.
Shook emailed McDowell on Sept. 10, saying she had received the UPS package with these materials and would “view the information and then contact you (McDowell) to schedule a conference call.”
That contact never came, McDowell recently told CPP. “This is the last time I ever heard from Buncombe County DSS – Sept. 10, 2012,” McDowell said. “My custody hearing began in mid-October. I never got a letter that the investigation was officially closed.”
By this time, McDowell had been admitted to law school at the University of North Carolina and moved to Orange County to begin studies. Due to subsequent events, she took a leave of absence after completing her fall midterms. She has been unable to resume those studies.
In October and November 2012, Judge Mack Brittain Jr. heard the case between McDowell and Buchman in Henderson County court.
Several witnesses testified about concerns involving the boy’s behavior after visits with Buchman, and the appearance that he was drugged when picked up from visits, based on the video that McDowell had previously shared with Buncombe County.
This court testimony included expert witnesses, doctors who knew the child personally, suggesting that he was not simply tired, but exhibited signs of sedation.
“I did see the video, and I made note of it in my notes because I was alarmed by it,” Dr. Riddle testified. “I told (McDowell) that his demeanor was atypical and (the boy) was obviously withdrawn and certainly appeared to have been drugged somehow.”
Riddle also told the court that she was concerned by repeated episodes of intense weight loss that coincided with the child’s visits with his father in late 2011. “I just had concerns that for whatever reason this child was responding physiologically and emotionally and had dropped off on his weight, and to me that’s a red flag,” she told the court.
“As a pediatrician and particularly a developmental pediatrician, we look at those growth curves,” Riddle continued. “And we really pay attention to drops in (weight), which is why I asked (the boy and McDowell) to come in for some follow-up visits to make sure that he didn’t flat line and just drop off even more.”
Pediatric surgeon Dr. Burt Harris gave concurring testimony about the video: “Bottom line, he looked sedated. The reasons why I thought he looked sedated were: that he had a vacant stare, … the pupils of the eyes were smaller than they normally should be, his tongue was protruding and currently not under the usual kind of control, his eyes were half-closed, he had a very diminished response to voice and touch …, and then he seemed to have trouble keeping his head straight.”
Similar concern came from the boy’s therapist, clinical psychologist Dr. Steven French, who told the court, “I would have been concerned, too, when I saw the video, like wow.” Although French said he had seen occasions when the boy appeared merely tired, that was not the case in the video.
Buchman, also an expert on sedation by virtue of his work in anesthesiology, did not challenge those assertions when he took the stand. Instead he suggested that McDowell or someone else could have drugged the child and McDowell recorded him under different circumstances than she claimed.
But asked how he would have responded, as an expert in anesthesiology, if he had viewed a child in the state that his own son exhibited in the video, Buchman’s testimony was unequivocal: “I would have sought immediate medical attention by either call 911 or bringing him to the emergency room if I could.”
Buchman claimed that after the idea that his son was being sedated by someone arose, he was concerned that McDowell might have done this herself and began bringing his own formula to feedings. However, he also testified that he never had her formula tested, nor raised any such concerns when he talked with Child Protective Services or Dr. Riddle.
Despite this unified testimony from the medical experts, including the defendant, Brittain ruled that the boy being tired was the best explanation for his appearance.
“The Court is not able to find that the child was anything other than an exhausted child on that date based upon the evidence presented,” Brittain wrote in his decision. “Further, even if the Court was able to conclude the child had in some manner been sedated on that date, there is not sufficient evidence for the Court to determine who sedated the child.”
Brittain also noted in his ruling that following another visit on Nov. 11, 2011, a drug test was administered with negative results. McDowell has suggested that Buchman has sufficient knowledge of medicine to avoid detection by such a test. Brittain also noted that despite McDowell’s concerns that the boy might have been molested, no physical evidence supported this contention. Brittain’s ruling did not discuss explanations for the child’s weight loss.
While the judge ordered that McDowell should maintain the primary residence for the boy, Brittain ordered joint custody, with the child again having unsupervised overnight visits with Buchman.
McDowell told CPP that her son’s most difficult behavior, which she later described in the Canadian court affidavits, came immediately after his next visits with Buchman in late 2012. This included the most serious instances of sexually acting out, she said.
With her move to Chapel Hill, McDowell hoped that Child Protective Services officials in that jurisdiction would agree to conduct a proper investigation into her and Dr. Riddle’s ongoing concerns. But Orange County officials responded to her new complaint on Dec. 7, 2012, with a form indicating that the allegations had already been investigated.
“(The child’s) emotional reactions in the last three visits before and after access and the resurgence of his violent and sexual behavior created a situation where I did not feel it was safe to enable continued access,” McDowell would later write in her Canadian court affidavit.
After two weekend visits with Buchman, McDowell cut off overnight access to the child. According to her affidavit, she offered to let Buchman visit with the child in public places. But Buchman was unhappy with this solution and threatened legal action to enforce the judge’s decision. McDowell had hoped to appeal the ruling, but Brittain would have to hear any stay motion to avoid its continued enforcement.
“At this point, I felt as though I had exhausted every avenue including the legal system as well as the protection agencies and still, I was not able to get help for (my son),” McDowell wrote in the affidavit.
Rather than go through with additional visits and gamble with an appeal, McDowell decided to fall back on her Canadian citizenship and moved to Toronto with the child. They have lived there since.
Buchman filed for sole custody in North Carolina based on McDowell’s disappearance and was issued an ex parte order, leading to a criminal contempt of court charge against McDowell on Jan. 31, 2013.
Another country, another court
McDowell did not advertise her whereabouts to North Carolina officials or Buchman, but eventually she received notice that he was pursuing a Hague motion, a legal maneuver using international law to demand that Canadian authorities enforce the North Carolina court decision.
To combat that effort, McDowell sought help from the Canadian legal system.
In an initial endorsement of motions to protect McDowell on June 2, Justice Carolyn Horkins of the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto expressed concern about “events that have transpired in the U.S.,” describing the complaints as “a serious and urgent matter involving a five-year-old.”
While Judge Brittain in North Carolina had not found McDowell’s expert witnesses persuasive, Justice Horkins in Ontario did. That included transcripts from the North Carolina testimony, as well as new testimony from experts in Canada.
“I have been working with children for 24 years and during this period have worked with over 2,000 children,” said A. Harrison, a Canadian therapist who worked with the child for more than a year before giving testimony, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
“In all my years of working with children, I have not observed a single child show the same level of distress, anxiety and sadness that I have observed with (the boy),” Harrison said.
Other Canadian medical experts described him as exhibiting evidence of PTSD.
During the North Carolina trial, Buchman had presented digital images of the child interacting normally with him. One of those images appeared to be from just prior to McDowell’s own July 15, 2011, video that had featured prominently in testimony about whether the boy was sedated. Given this timing, the image from Buchman appeared to undermine McDowell’s claim that the boy seemed groggy when she picked him up that day. At the Canadian trial, McDowell presented expert analysis to refute the authenticity of Buchman’s images for the first time.
According to her affidavit, McDowell did not have adequate time to review or challenge this evidence before it was presented during the 2012 hearing. But later she asked digital forensic specialist Richard Cuevas of TELUS to analyze the files, which he found had been manipulated, with some files missing from the sequence.
“The most important of these manipulations is a video Steven alleged to be from July 14, 2011,” she told the Canadian court. “Steven (Buchman) introduced (this video) at trial, for the first time, in response to evidence of the three doctors (Riddle, Harris and French), a video (Buchman) apparently took at the library (a few minutes prior to McDowell picking up the boy) on July 14, 2011.
“In the video, (the child) is laughing and playing and does not look at all sedated. Steven claimed that after he took this video …, he gave (the boy) a bottle and drove him to the police station for the access exchange, which is when I started my video.”
According to McDowell, the video file that Buchman submitted to the court for this episode had serious problems that she noticed and her forensic analyst confirmed, she said in her affidavit. “I realized that it is labelled VIDEO0015 yet it is the only video that is out of sequence specifically the number at the end of the word “VIDEO” does not match the date order in which it was taken.”
Cuevas found that this was the only video file out of sequence on the USB that Buchman submitted during the 2012 trial. He found that 10 of the photos that were submitted on the same device had been stripped of their EXIF metadata, which shows the time and date that the images were created. He also concluded that the alterations to the files had occurred prior to McDowell obtaining them on Nov. 5, 2012.
Cuevas concluded that “the date on the USB is not reliable evidence and should not have been admitted at trial without the original recording device, particularly as the USB contains files with missing metadata that may have been altered,” according to McDowell’s affidavit.
On Dec. 1, 2015, Justice Horkins granted a permanent restraining order against Buchman on Dec. 1, 2015. Horkins ordered that Buchman was not to directly or indirectly communicate with McDowell or the boy or come within 100 meters of their residence or any other place either of them might be.
In a separate order handed down at the same time, Horkins also granted McDowell sole custody of the child, terminating the access provided under the North Carolina courts, and (for the purposes of Canadian law) superseding the actions of the North Carolina courts. Under Horkins’ order, Buchman was prohibited from having the child removed from Toronto. The Justice also awarded McDowell more than $14,000 in court costs to be paid by Buchman.
In addition to these two orders, Horkins issued a detailed ruling about her findings in the case. “The mother’s affidavit carefully recorded the child’s exposure to harm while in the father’s care,” Horkins wrote. “The evidence was corroborated by others involved in the care and treatment of the child. The evidence established that the child would suffer serious harm if returned to the custody of the father.”
These decisions came after a trial at which McDowell’s team presented evidence. Buchman was notified of the proceedings, but did not ultimately contest them. He did hire and then terminate two different Ontario attorneys, Horkins noted in her ruling.
Where things stand
McDowell contacted Henderson County authorities in April 2016 to ask if they would consider dropping the charges against her. Although she described receiving no response from the Henderson County District Attorney’s office, shortly afterward she learned that one of the charges against her, child abduction, was being upgraded to a felony.
The DA brought felony obstruction of justice and felony child abduction charges before a grand jury, which indicted McDowell in May 2016.
She is accused of obstructing justice “by failing to follow a lawful judicial order” issued by Judge Brittain, “by removing minor child …, from the jurisdiction of North Carolina with the intent to evade the jurisdiction of this state.” The indictment also accuses McDowell of doing this “in secrecy and with malice.”
She has retained the aid of attorneys in both Ontario and North Carolina and is considering several legal options. She doesn’t know whether she will move ever back to the United States, but she would like to be able to travel freely without fear that she will be arrested or that her son will be taken from her or returned to his father.
McDowell said she hopes that the charges, indictments and previous North Carolina court rulings in the case can be set aside, possibly as the result of DHHS’ investigation.
McDowell has been active on social media in criticizing those whom she believes mishandled her case, as well as the current charges against her, which she has described as “vindictive.”
“I feel it is vindictive because they upped my charge after 3.5 years for no reason other than my attempts to seek justice from them,” she told CPP in a recent email.
Because she credits the need to protect her son from impending harm that she says would have resulted from continued compliance with the North Carolina court’s order, she believes she could present a positive defense for disobeying that order. But coming to North Carolina to conduct those proceedings would place her son at risk, she said.
McDowell initially contacted CPP about her case in August 2016. “My son is just six years old and has been diagnosed with PTSD and Separation Anxiety Disorder,” she wrote.
“My family has been decimated financially, emotionally and spiritually. I can’t look for meaningful work because my son is unable to attend school due to his anxiety, so I am homeschooling him. I also have two outstanding felony charges so any job that requires a background check will be out of the question.”
McDowell’s legal team has continued to seek access to records from the old Buncombe County investigation. They have asked whether Henderson County would consider conducting a new investigation if the Buncombe County probe was called into question. Authorities in Henderson County have said they cannot legally take up the case because the boy has not lived in North Carolina for several years.
After CPP contacted DHHS about the case in December, the agency expressed a willingness to talk with McDowell if she contacted them. Although DHHS has said it is legally barred from discussing the situation further with CPP, McDowell has shown copies of emails from DHHS officials that indicate the agency had decided to review the Buncombe investigation. According to a DHHS communication McDowell received Wednesday, the agency anticipates completing that work within a few weeks.
CPP contacted Buchman a week ago to notify him that this article was in preparation and would primarily be based on court records and correspondence with government agencies, though CPP has also interviewed some of the parties involved. He spoke with CPP by phone on Wednesday and emailed a brief statement.
“All assertions, innuendos and allegations connecting (me) with indecent and criminal conduct are categorically false,” Buchman said in his statement.
“This grievance (from McDowell) is part of an ongoing distribution of libelous material and statements to the general public and to various professionals with the sole intention of inflicting emotional and professional harm. We find the content of these charges to be exceptionally disturbing, egregious and repugnant.”
Despite Buchman’s use of the word “libelous,” McDowell has told CPP that he not ever threatened to bring a libel case against her, which would be a civil action.
Buchman’s remarks also emphasized McDowell’s violation of North Carolina law in taking the boy out of the country. “My son … was abducted to Canada by his mother in December of 2012 in direct violation of an existing court custody order,” Buchman said. “Outstanding felony warrants exist for which she faces … indictments ….”
Buchman said he did not underestimate the seriousness of the accusations against him. “Carolina Public Press should recognize that I fully understand the magnitude of the charges presented,” he said. “I personally cultivate a zero tolerance to any such despicable actions for which I have been accused.”
Challenging McDowell’s account of events on July 14, 2011, Buchman asked CPP why McDowell, if she was concerned about the boy’s sedated appearance, shot a video of him but did not immediately seek medical care for an “altered mental status” condition that Buchman said could have been potentially dangerous.
CPP did pose this question to McDowell later Wednesday, who responded. “I stated during two different trials that I will regret not taking (my son) to the emergency room until the day I die,” she said. Because it was a Sunday, Dr. Riddle wasn’t working, but McDowell said she did contact the pediatrician that evening and scheduled an appointment.
While Buchman expressed confidence to CPP regarding the findings of the North Carolina court, he downplayed the Canadian court decisions and testimony, saying that he didn’t participate in those proceedings.