HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – An Athens mother still grieving the death of her murdered 10-year-old son, spoke publicly Thursday morning about changes she would like to see in the court system and law enforcement policy.
Kayla White’s son Tate was killed by his father in a murder-suicide last month, described trying to get a judge to modify her custody agreement after her ex-husband threatened to kill her. But the hearing didn’t happen soon enough.
White spoke at a press conference today with her attorney Will League. League said state judicial studies show Madison County needs at least 3 more circuit court judges. That backlog in cases burdens the courts and people who need court action, he said.
White, through another attorney, filed an emergency petition to modify custody in early July, warning the court that her ex-husband, Brian Buening, was not getting treatment for his PTSD and depression — and had threatened to kill her.
White thought the emergency motion, filed July 9, would be heard within a few days.
“I got a text message from my lawyer that a hearing was set for August 9th and this was a month later, over a month later,” she said at Thursday’s press conference. “I really felt helpless, because — what do I do in the meantime?”
Attorney League said that is not an unusual scheduling order in the overburdened Madison County courts.
“We need more judges, “League said. “More resources. And, with the motion that was filed, it’s not uncommon for it to be set in the timeframe it was set, based on what was filed, and so, it’s a lack of resources to handle domestic cases, such as this.”
Three days before the hearing was set to take place, Tate was staying with his father – per the custody agreement – and Kayla couldn’t reach him on the phone. She reached out to the Madison County Sheriff’s office asking for a welfare check.
“The call for help, the day of, asking for someone to check on the safety of my child, she recalled. “Telling them that I feared for my child’s safety and that his dad is not mentally stable. And being told, ‘I can’t get involved, you can walk to the door yourself.’”
She went to the door and found her son’s body inside. She cannot understand the deputy’s response and the situation he placed her in.
“It’s a huge failure and something that I will never get over,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s OK. And I feel like no one is being held accountable for anything that has gone on.
“So, I guess that’s why we’re here, to try to make some change, to hold some people accountable. to make some changes in the court system where these pleas for help are heard sooner.”
White said she also wants accountability for the deputy’s behavior the day her son died. She said other responding officers from the sheriff’s office were compassionate, but she doesn’t see the accountability she believes is necessary.
“If you don’t do your job compassionately… I’m a hospice nurse of all things,” she said. “So, there’s zero tolerance for someone to be so incompassionate, the way that we were treated and I’ve yet to see any accountability on that or an apology.”
League said it appears that the welfare check would not have come in time to aid the child. But, he said, policy changes could prevent another parent from having to face what White encountered that day and give officers and deputies better information, heading into an uncertain situation. The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars unlawful searches of property, League noted, but he said more can be done.
League suggested a budding initiative known as “Tate’s Law” pushed in the Alabama Legislature could help. The measure could call for more judges for Madison County and pave the way for policies that lead to law enforcement dispatchers being given court records detailing complaints in family court cases – involving issues like threats or mental health concerns – before a formal court order is entered.
Law enforcement has access to court orders, but in White’s case, for example, her complaint about her ex-husband’s behavior hadn’t been formally addressed by the court, because the hearing hadn’t taken place.
White also wants to see a perspective shift from the courts and law enforcement.
“It’s also important to say when it comes to the court system and the police force, whatever department it is, that we put a priority on children’s safety,” she said. “If somebody calls and says ‘My child’s not safe,’ or you file a document that says ‘My child’s not safe,’ that should prioritize everything. If you go, the policeman goes to a home and says, ‘My child’s not safe,’ I think it should be a requirement that you lay your eyes on that child. To make sure that they’re safe.”
League said White plans to file a lawsuit against the estate of her ex-husband. But, she said there is no justice available for what’s she’s lost.
“Watching my grandparents and you just always say, ‘You can’t say I love you enough.’ and I lost my dad at a young age, and I just, you can’t say ‘I love you’ enough. You can’t hug enough, you can’t kiss enough.
“That’s just how we were. even as a 10-year-old, he would still come to sit in my lap, still come snuggle up, still come kiss me on the cheek.”