Please remember that these photos were not taken by a professional photographer. But if you look closely, you can see where the arrows point--to places where this child's fingernails were cut below the quick, so that the fingers were bleeding when the child walked into the visit with her mother.
With These Pictures, We Come to the Story of a Mother Who Must Pay to See the Daughter Born of Her Own Flesh…and of the Three-Year-Old Child Who Pays a Price of Her Own in Order to be Allowed to Spend Time with Her “Mommy"
As a matter of fact, when Bennett Tocci first learned that Johanna was creating a child, he became furious and demanded that she have an immediate abortion. Johanna refused. Tocci’s fury increased and he became more aggressive and threatening: “If you have this baby, plan on spending every dime you’ve got fighting me for custody. I will use my money, my connections and influence to take this baby away from you. I will take you down, Johanna. I will not share ‘my’ child with anyone. My mother will move in with me and raise the baby. I have already talked to my parents about it.”
When Johanna still refused to give in to Tocci’s demands, he began a legal attack beyond belief, suing for paternal rights over the unborn fetus. This suit occurred in Saratoga County, New York, Family Court in March of 2005.
When Johanna was six months pregnant, January 1, 2005, she filed a Domestic Incident Report with the New York State Police, documenting in detail physical abuse, emotional abuse, and repeated threats from Tocci that he would murder the mother of “his” child. That filing is not the only record of the abuses claimed by Johanna. Other documentation exists in the form of witnesses, obstetrician’s records, pediatrician’s records, shelter records and sworn statements.
Sophia Grace was born later in 2005, and by November 9, 2005, Johanna was still living in fear of Bennett Tocci. On that day, she was forced to call 911 after Tocci completely lost control of himself and shoved Johanna repeatedly back and forth across a living room—while Johanna held seven-month-old Sophia in her arms and tried to protect her baby from the abuse being inflicted. A Jackson County Deputy arrived and removed Tocci from the home.
Then came what Johanna terms “a fatal error on my part.” The pastor of her church, a man named Jack Hollis, arrived almost immediately, with a word of advice: Johanna must not press charges against Tocci for the domestic violence, because—among other things—Tocci would then lose his license to teach. It was this advice and Johanna’s decision to follow said advice and refrain from pressing charges that kept the abuse out of legal records. And it was this advice that turned the whole situation around and turned it against Johanna vonGeldern.
After the 9-1-1 call when Sophia was just seven months old, Johanna allowed Tocci to have daily visitation with the baby. But the results were unexpected. The visits had a clear negative impact on the child. Sophia began hitting herself in the head. She began screaming for no apparent reason. She began crying if someone said the word “no.” She demonstrated an extreme fear of men. Her reaction to any form of confinement was dramatic. And Sophia became hysterical at the mere sight of Tocci’s parents.
Then came further details—more clues that there was something terribly wrong with Sophia’s emotional and physical well being. Every visit brought some new negative: neck injuries; leg injuries; bruises; sullen, withdrawn moods; stretched labia; specks of blood in the child’s diaper; and a persistent anal rash and redness. Johanna was doing her best to cooperate with the Tocci’s. One of the major problems for mothers trying to protect their child or children is that the mother is sometimes literally unable to realize the true horror of what is happening to her offspring. Despite what would seem in retrospect to be obvious signs of abuse, this was part of Johanna’s mind-set: Nobody, but nobody did the things she suspected Tocci and his family were doing . Did they?
Before long, Bennett Tocci began stalking Johanna. Over the next few months, he entered her house unannounced, tampered with her belongings and destroyed her mailbox. The final straw for Johanna, however, was when Bennett Tocci returned Sophia to Johanna with the entire side of her face bruised, scraped and raw.[ See the photo above.] The child was only eleven months old. Tocci handed the child, in her car seat, to Johanna; then he turned and walked away without a word. Johanna looked at the baby and asked, “What happened to her face?” From several feet away, Tocci half turned and said, “Oh…she fell. She’s fine.” And he got into his car and drove away.
Through that incident, Johanna came at last to realize that she needed to go far beyond what she was already doing. In the middle of the night, she moved herself and her daughter to a domestic violence shelter, driving two states away. Behind her she left everything of life as she knew it—except for her baby. She left a beautiful home, her teaching position, her church, her friends and all of life as she had known it.
Since there was nothing in Johanna’s background to give Bennett legal grounds to sue for custody of Sophia, he began to search for a back door to custody. To date, he has “manipulated” she says, people in high places in the state of Florida—Jackson County. He has persuaded these people to prosecute her on “bogus criminal charges.”
“As a consequence,” says Johanna, “of his legal warfare and criminal charges, I am not able to work in my career as an elementary teacher. I am only allowed four visits a month—which I pay for—and I also pay my ex-boyfriend for gas money to transport her to and from visits. It costs me close to $500.00 a month to see my own daughter.
No more than four months after Johanna made her escape from Tocci’s grip, his most devastating act of abuse occurred. He managed to create a criminal charge against Johanna, based on a complaint filed by Tocci’s friend, Jackson County Deputy Rusty Booth. The charge read to this effect: “…violating a court order on March 5, 2006…removing child from jurisdiction contrary to a court order.”
However, there was no court order until the created and illegal “order”suddenly appeared on June 20, 2006. Johanna has a letter stating that her entire family was at the Domestic Violence Shelter in March. Even if there had been a court order in place, leaving for safety reasons is an exception to the law.
But it was not over. On August 15, 2007, Johanna was arrested on this trumped-up “violating a court order” charge, near the shelter where she and Sophia had been staying. The police threw her into the car, as if she were a hardened criminal. She spent the night in a freezing cold cell, hungry and sobbing as if her heart would break over the pain of not knowing what was happening to her daughter. Every breath she took was agony about the pain and fear she imagined the child must be experiencing. Johanna had had no opportunity to say good-by to Sophia or try to explain what was happening.
The police were no help. Detectives advised Johanna that the baby was hysterical and inconsolable and wanted to know if “she had had a nap,” as if a simple thing like a nap would solve the problem of a mother who had suddenly been disappeared from her sight. Johanna tried to explain that the hysteria and panic were quite natural for a child who was still nursing, and who had never been away from her mother for more than four hours at a time, never left with a sitter or a stranger.
Suddenly, like some lost soul, the child was ripped away from her mother and placed in a foster home with total strangers. And the following day, Sophia was handed over to Johanna’s abuser—who was also Sophia’s abuser.
At the time that Johanna left Florida, paternity of Sophia had not even been legally established. No custody order existed. Johanna seems to have been well within her legal rights—as set forth in Section 742 of Florida Statutes to maintain custody and control over her daughter. Yet Johanna feared that Bennett Tocci would follow through on his continual threats to use family money and family influence, as well as “mob connections” he seemed to be constantly boasting about—to hunt Johanna down and kill her as his solution to the problem of gaining control of Sophia.
The first death threat was made in August, 2004, when Tocci sneered at Johanna, “I’ve got our solution. If you are out of the way, I can have total control of her.”
In addition to that charge of violating a court order that didn’t exist, Johannna was to be arrested again—a mere three days before her first scheduled contact with Sophia in over two months—this time for “making a false report of child abuse.”
There was nothing false about the report. Johanna was deathly concerned for her daughter’s safety. Her report was made the day that Sophia was handed over to Tocci.
In December, 2006, before Johanna felt forced to flee with her daughter, the pediatrician’s report shows that Sophia had anal irritation and an anal tear. On the basis of that report, DCF conducted a superficial investigation, concluding that since Sophia’s hymen was intact, Johanna could not be telling the truth. Thus Rusty Booth and the state prosecutor, with the help of DCF, proceeded to charge Johanna with “false reporting of abuse.”
Bennett Tocci is a charming, gregarious elementary school teacher. Behind closed doors, however—where Johanna and Sophia know him well—there is a Tocci that few people have met.
Also extremely distressing to Johanna are Tocci’s bouts of paranoid delusion and manic mood swings. During one such episode, Tocci’s father explained to Johanna, “When Bennett gets upset like this, he doesn’t respond because he can’t hear anyone talking to him.” The father’s solution to the problem was to “grab Bennett by the elbow and whisk him out of the house whenever his son ‘lost it’.”
Likewise, there are other examples of mental difficulties in the household. The father, Anthony Tocci, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and his mother, Natalie, with clinical depression. Both control their illnesses with medication. Two of Bennett Tocci’s uncles committed suicide within the last three years.
Such is the story of Sophia Grace, three-year-old battered child, trapped in her father’s attempt to steal the child from her mother. Legal files show that since Sophia was handed over to her abuser, she is withdrawn, she hits herself in the head, she throws her stuffed puppy on the floor and punishes it, she is emotionally shut down. During visits, she plays a game where her stuffed bunny is sad because he can’t find his mommy.
The first time Johanna managed to see Sophia after two and one-half months, she bent down close to the child and asked the question that choked her throat with tears, “Do you know who I am?” Sophia nodded and smiled softly, but at the same time she appeared dull and lifeless. It is as if, says Johanna, “the sweet, curious, vibrant, joyous little girl I raised has been reduced to a hollow shell.” During visits, Johanna adds, “she revives in my presence, and I catch glimpses of the pure spirit inside her. It is unforgiveable what her ‘father’ and his parents are doing to this child.”
For nearly a year, this problem has been dragged out—intentionally, Johanna believes—by opposing counsel. Tocci is so intent on keeping Johanna out of her daughter’s life that he even found a way to have the judge who granted Johanna visitation removed from the case.
Today, visits consist of Johanna's reminding Sophia how much she is loved. During visits Johanna showers the child with tender care, hoping against hope to make up for some of the tragedy Sophia endures with her father. Johanna shows her photographs, feeds her homemade cookies and gives her homemade cards. And all the time these things are going on, Johanna is asking herself, “What kind of a father wants his child to suffer like this?”
Every visit closes with the same question from Sophia. “Do you have to go bye-bye? I want to stay with you!” How do you explain to a three-year-old where her mommy went—and why? And besides, Johanna is not allowed to discuss any facts about the case, so she must simply smile and pretend everything is fine—when both of them know their hearts are broken.
Sophia was born a free citizen of the United States, but the United States “justice” system has failed to protect her and her mother. Bennett Tocci has filed for sole custody. Johanna has hired five attorneys to combat attempts to convict her of crime. She is still waiting for some of the charges to be dismissed, so she can be Sophia’s mommy once again. She has spent her life savings. She has been forced to file bankruptcy.
And Sophia? She continually cries and asks when she can go to “mommy’s house.”
If we heard about such legal contortions as this in another country, we would shake our heads and declare, “What a shame! What a damn shame!” But it is not taking place elsewhere. It is taking place in the United States of America. It is happening to thousands of women and children. And it is the United States of America and our justice system that is the subject of the head shaking and the shame.
Where is the person—or persons—with authority who will put an end to this kind of gender bias in the courts? An end to this torment of mothers and children?