TARRANT COUNTY - Next month will mark one year since four-year-old Leiliana Wright was brutally beaten to death in Grand Prairie.
Leiliana was one of dozens of children who died in Texas in 2016 as a result of abuse or neglect, despite being on Child Protective Services’ radar.
The child’s mother and her mother’s boyfriend are accused by police of beating and torturing the little girl at their home in March 2016. According to police, Jeri Quezada and Charles Phifer were both high on heroin and beat Leiliana because she drank her little brother’s juice.
After her death, a citizen who is not connected to the case sent FOX 4 an audio recording of a Tarrant County associate judge speaking about legal proceedings that came before the child’s death.
The recording reveals how even when CPS is involved in a case, a family court judge may not find out about it.
To understand the context of the secret recording, one must go back to 2014, more than year before Leiliana’s death.
Leiliana’s paternal grandmother, Alisa Clakley, filed a petition in court for custody and raised serious concerns about her granddaughter’s safety. The custody case was filed in Tarrant County and a hearing was set to go before Associate Judge Diane Haddock in December 2015.
However, both parties ended up agreeing to a settlement outside of the courtroom and the case never went to a hearing.
Clakley told FOX 4, she agreed to give the mother custody of Leiliana at the advice of her attorney, because she did not understand the court system and was afraid to lose visitation rights.
In Clakley’s sworn statements filed to the court before the scheduled hearing that never happened, Clakley raised concerns about Leiliana’s safety and alleged that the mother was using drugs.
But after listening to the audio recording of the judge (made after Leiliana’s death) and investigating the Texas family court system, FOX 4 has learned that Judge Haddock was never required to read the information Clakley filed.
The citizen who made the recording and provided it to FOX 4 asked not to be identified, because she has a family member who also has a case before Judge Haddock.
“They had an opportunity, in my opinion, to protect Leiliana and prevent this,” the caller told FOX 4.
It all started when the citizen saw a news story in April 2016 about Leiliana’s case. She called the judge’s office to voice her concerns and left a message.
The caller was surprised to get a call back from the judge herself. The caller recorded the conversation without the judge’s knowledge, which is legal in Texas.
FOX 4 verified the authenticity of the recording by sending it to Judge Haddock herself, who did not dispute that it was her voice in the recording. Judge Haddock and Judge William Harris, who appointed Haddock, both declined to interview for this story, citing an ongoing investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct sparked by the recording itself.
“Terrible tragedy. I’ve been on the bench 17 years. Hard to talk about this case,” Judge Haddock is heard saying in the recording. “I still lose my breath about it, and cry my eyes out.”
The recording is roughly 30 minutes long. The judge goes on to reveal conflicting information about the case.
“When [the grandmother] filed, she attached an affidavit, but there was no evidence in the affidavit,” the judge said. “Now, since we have done the research we’ve done, and CPS did their research, there was never even a CPS report prior to January 2016.”
“What about in the affidavit? There are indications that CPS was involved with the mother,” the caller asked.
“It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true,” said Judge Haddock.
But the caller was right.
According to a state report obtained by FOX 4, CPS opened investigations involving Leiliana and her mother in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
But, Judge Haddock did not know of about the first CPS case at the time of the scheduled hearing in 2014, because there were no supporting documents included with Clakley’s affidavit.
The judge is also recorded discussing the mother’s alleged drug use around her children.
“According to the affidavit, [Leiliana’s little half-brother] is born with marijuana. No evidence of that. There is no evidence of that,” Judge Haddock said.
Again, the grandmother’s allegations of the mother’s drug use were not supported by official documents filed to the court. But, FOX 4 was able to confirm what she had alleged in her affidavit.
In October 2014, two months before the scheduled hearing, CPS had already received a report that Leiliana’s little half borther was born with drugs in his system.
During that CPS investigation, the children’s mother tested positive on a drug test.
Despite all of this evidence existing, Clakley’s attorney did not file any supporting documents with the court to back up his client’s sworn statement.
The caller shared the recording with Alisa Clakley, Leiliana’s grandmother. After hearing the judge speak about her family’s case to a third-party and give misinformation, Clakley filed a complaint against Judge Haddock with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Family law attorney Laci Bowman is not connected to the case. FOX 4 reached out to her to find out what other things could have helped the grandmother’s case.
Bowman explained how custody cases work in general.
“If there are things like an arrest report, CPS report, you can subpoena a CPS worker to bring the file,” Bowman said. “You can subpoena the documents from the police department. All of those things are tools the client has to get all of the evidence before the judge."
Despite Alisa Clakley’s affidavit raising her concerns, her attorney advised her to come to an agreement outside of Haddock’s courtroom.
“He said, ‘Alisa, if you go into her courtroom - those were his exact words - you are going to lose everything,’" Clakley said. “These attorneys were afraid, if you will, to go into her courtroom."
Both parties agreed to give Leiliana’s mother custody and guarantee the Clakley’s visitation rights.
As a result, Judge Haddock never heard the case, but signed off on the agreement.
Clakley’s attorney, Gregory Housewirth, declined to talk to FOX 4 about why he advised Clakley not to go before Judge Haddock.
Clakley also filed a complaint with the State Bar of Texas against Housewirth. She believe is there had been a hearing in the case, Leiliana would be alive today.
The State Bar of Texas determined Clakley’s attorney did not violate any rules handling her case.
In April 2016, a month after Leiliana’s death, Judge William Harris, who appointed Judge Haddock spoke to FOX 4 about the case.
"It certainly appears that there should have been a hearing in this case,” Judge Harris said. “It certainly appears the court should have been given evidence about the mother and her circumstances and I think it was tragic the court was never allowed to hear that evidence."
Clakley said she feels the system failed Leiliana.
She hopes changes are made in the judicial system to require family court judges to read affidavits like the one she filed before signing off on an agreement. She believes that way, the next time there are red flags about a child’s safety, a judge can question them before it’s too late.
Phifer and Quezada are both charged with felony injury to a child. Their trials are slated to begin in Dallas County in April.
FOX 4 receives dozens of calls and e-mails every month from parents and family members who are concerned that the court system is not keeping their children safe.
After interviewing family law attorney Lacy Bowman for this story, FOX 4 has learned some things people can do to make sure their concerns are being heard by the court.
First of all, often, it can be frustrating for a parent, grandparent or relative when CPS will not release a child’s case file to them.
But, according to Bowman, a CPS case file can become public through a court hearing. An attorney can subpoena the CPS case worker and ask them to bring the case file.
However, there does have to be a hearing to get that file entered into evidence. For example, in Clakley’s case, a CPS case worker did show up for the hearing, but since the case was settled outside the courtroom, the case worker’s testimony and evidence was never heard by the judge.
This investigation started as tip from the public. If you would like submit a tip or story idea, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.