*Note: This story references allegations in court filings against “Gene Burbage.” More specifically, the allegations are against Gene “Wayne” Burbage Sr., 69, of Berkely County, S.C. *
One afternoon last May, Justina Burbage received a phone call that is every parent’s nightmare – on the other end was an investigator from Elmore County DHR telling Burbage that a report had been received stating her 4-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted.
Burbage said the allegations involved a family member, but that’s all she could learn from the worker. An investigation was underway, she was told, and interviews would be conducted of her children.
Burbage, as you might imagine, was a mix of terrified, furious and confused. She was also worried that her children’s lives would never be the same – that all of their lives would now be forever changed.
She was right. But not in the way she feared.
Over the last six months, Justina Burbage has gone through one weird, baffling experience after another. She’s watched as the investigation into those sexual assault allegations was bungled time and again, she said. She had a judge force her to allow her daughter to visit with the family member who allegedly assaulted her. She had a guardian ad litem mistakenly turn over her daughter’s medical records to another attorney, and then had that attorney post the entire, unredacted record online. And she’s paid out more than $10,000 in attorney’s fees to stop a circuit court in Elmore County from allowing the accused family member to obtain permanent visitation rights.
“It’s just insane – that’s the only way I can describe this,” Burbage said. “Every day, it’s something else that is simply unbelievable. Every day, it seems like, I’m asking myself if this is real. If this is even America. I’m fighting with a court over who I – the sole parent here – allow my daughter to see. And they’re trying to make me – have made me – grant visitation to a person who is accused of sexually assaulting her. There’s an ongoing investigation into this right now. And a judge here has given the accused three tele-visits with my daughter.”
At its core, the Burbage case is a product of Alabama’s shortsighted, reactionary Legislature. In 2016, facing the cries from grandparents, the Legislature passed a new Grandparents Visitation bill. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings, which have established that parents have a “fundamental right” to dictate the care, custody and control of their children, the Alabama Supreme Court struck down a similar grandparents’ rights bill in 2010.
The new 2016 bill, brought by then-Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, more narrowly defined the process that grandparents could undertake and made it much tougher. But the bill still allowed for a legal process. And allowing for a legal process means that a parent, such as Justina Burbage, has to essentially defend themselves in court. They have to hire attorneys and pay fees and go through the spectacle of a court hearing in which their decisions are questioned and all aspects of their lives are laid bare to be judged.
“What’s happening to (Burbage) should never happen to anyone, and it’s not how we were told the process would work,” said an Alabama attorney who deals with family court matters. “But when politicians write these bills, even when they’re attorneys, they don’t consider the nuances of everyday life. They don’t consider small town politics. They think of a poor little old grandmother who can’t see her grand-babies because her daughter-in-law is mad at her ex-husband. They don’t think of the single mom who’s forking over thousands to defend herself against bulls**t allegations from a manipulative, toxic grandparent.”
Justina Burbage had a terrible 2022. In January, just a few days into the new year, her boyfriend and former husband, Richard Burbage, passed away unexpectedly from congestive heart failure – a condition he’d battled for most of his life. A few days later, Justina’s mom passed away.
Suddenly, she was without two of the most important people in her life. Her daughter, and two kids from a previous marriage, were without their father. The next few months were a blur, as she tried to simply navigate life without them while also dealing with unimaginable grief.
In the midst of that, she developed a relationship with Richard’s father, Gene Burbage, and his wife Trina, who lived in South Carolina. Justina said she was not close with the Burbages while Richard was alive, but following his death, Gene Burbage had expressed an interest in remaining in the life of his son’s daughter. Justina agreed.
Over the next several months, she allowed Gene and his wife to visit with the kids. There were phone calls and video calls. They each visited the other. And gradually, as these things do, Justina said she became more comfortable leaving the kids for longer periods of time with Gene and Trina.
“Honestly, this was really, really helpful for me,” Justina Burbage said. “I’ve just lost these two very important people and I’m just struggling trying to manage. I mean, I could manage, but if you’ve had kids, you know how hard it can be sometimes, even when there’s two of you. But now I have no one in the span of two weeks. Gene and Trina helping with the kids really helped me.”
That July of 2022, the kids went to visit in South Carolina. When they returned, Justina said she received a disturbing report from one of her older children – her then-3-year-old daughter had been left in a hot car while Trina went into a Dollar General to pick up some items. She said she called and confronted Gene.
“He said it was a mistake, that she was only in there for a minute, that it would never happen again and he’d make sure of it, and he apologized over and over,” Justina said. “I remember thinking that day, ‘OK, you’ve got to pay more attention to what’s going on.’ It had been easy to let them take over watching the kids, get a break, but that was so, so dangerous.”
During an October 2022 visit in Millbrook, where Justina and her children live, she left her daughter with Gene and Trina. A few hours later, Justina said she received a text with a picture of drawings on her daughter’s butt. She said that Gene explained that her daughter wanted tattoos on her backside, so he drew them on.
She showed APR portions of the pics, with her daughter’s body obscured but the drawings visible, and screenshots of the accompanying text message conversation. Justina said she laughed off the situation, but that it made her uncomfortable and she decided then that she needed to curtail the kids’ visits with Gene.
But she did allow the kids to go in March on a planned visit to South Carolina and stay with Gene and Trina. When they returned, something was different. Her daughter was throwing temper tantrums, Justina said, and suddenly began wetting the bed – something that had never happened. And her behavior – subtle things and mannerisms – had changed, she said. Justina said she suspected something had occurred on the trip that was bothering her daughter.
A few days later, a package in the mail led her to cut off communication with Gene Burbage. Without a conversation with Justina, she said Gene sent a tablet to her 4-year-old daughter, along with a wifi hotspot.
“I decided to cut off all communication with him for a while,” Justina said. “I boxed up the tablet and hotspot and sent it back to him without a word, hoping he’d get the message. That’s just not OK. That was hard for me to do, because I didn’t have anyone. And that’s (my daughter’s) granddad, her deceased father’s father. I wanted her to have that connection.”
In May, a few weeks after sending the tablet back, Justina said she received the call from DHR. Over the next few days, her daughter and other kids were interviewed about the sexual assault allegations. Over the course of that investigation, and from conversations with her kids, Justina learned that the allegations involved Gene.
She said she told an Elmore County DHR investigator that she had cut off all communication between her kids and Gene Burbage. The investigator, she said, told her that was the “absolute right thing to do.”
In early May, Justina said she received a notice from Elmore County Circuit Court that Gene had filed suit, claiming that she was mentally unstable and asking a court to grant him visitation rights with the 4-year-old. As proof of her “erratic behavior,” Gene cited Justina’s decision to return the tablet and hotspot.
The investigation ultimately did “not find sufficient evidence” that Justina’s daughter had been sexually assaulted by Gene Burbage, according to a “not indicated” letter sent by Elmore County DHR and filed in the case.
In an affidavit, Gene Burbage also specifically denies allegations that he acted inappropriately with his 4-year-old granddaughter, or that he showered with her, as is alleged in court documents. Included in the documents is an affidavit from Justina’s 14-year-old son, who states he witnessed Gene Burbage take the 4-year-old into the bathroom at Gene’s house in South Carolina, and that he believed they were showering together.
APR attempted to speak with Gene Burbage’s attorney, DeeDee Calhoon, who is running for a family court judgeship in the 19th judicial district. Calhoon repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about the case and warned that printing allegations contained in public court documents could be considered “slander.” She abruptly ended the phone call and in less than an hour filed a motion with the court to have the case sealed and a gag order issued.
In an apparent attempt to bolster her motion to seal the case, she filed an unredacted copy of the 4-year-old’s medical records. Those records also contained the partial medical records of a second child who is unrelated to the case. How that mistake was made is unclear.
The fact that Calhoon had her daughter’s medical records is a sore spot with Justina, who told APR that the guardian ad litem, attorney Katie Stienwiender, mistakenly turned them over to Calhoon. Justina’s attorney, Julia Collins, said Stienwiender has apologized and said it was a mistake. An attempt to reach Stienwiender for comment was unsuccessful.
It was far from the only mistake in this case.
Justina told APR that she has since learned that Elmore County DHR also bungled the case. As part of the interview process of a minor sexual abuse victim, the interviews are often conducted by a third-party that is trained in working with young children. In the Burbage case, Butterfly Bridge was the entity.
Justina said she was told by Millbrook Police that neither Elmore County DHR nor Butterfly Bridge contacted them to make an officer available for the interview. It is standard protocol to have an officer present during the interviews. Justina said that when she asked officials at Elmore County DHR why that didn’t happen, she was told it was a mistake.
Additionally, Justina said that she was told by a case worker at Elmore County DHR that some of the allegations couldn’t be investigated because they occurred in South Carolina and officials there would have to take up the case. Justina said that when she contacted the sheriff’s office in Berkely County, South Carolina, where the Burbages live, she was told that no one from Elmore County DHR had contacted their office or passed along the allegations.
Justina did pass the allegations along, and the sheriff’s office there has opened an investigation. An Oct. 9, letter from a detective with the Berkely County Sheriff’s Office, which Justina provided to APR, states that “there is an active investigation” involving Justina Burbage’s juvenile children, who are alleged victim(s).
Two messages left with Elmore County DHR director Michelle Wood seeking comment specifically about the Burbage case and the alleged problems with it were not returned. In a text message between Wood and Justina, which Justina provided to APR, Wood states that DHR would not continue to investigate because Justina’s daughter did not indicate sexual abuse during her forensic interview and the drawings on her buttocks did not rise to the level of child abuse.
A Parent’s Rights
Somewhere amid the court filings and allegations, a rather basic issue was pushed to the back burner: Justina Burbage has the right to determine the people in her 4-year-old’s life, and no one else’s opinion matters.
Every day in this country, parents make decisions to exclude people, including close relatives and even grandparents, from their childrens’ lives for a variety of reasons. And courts have consistently upheld the rights of parents to make such decisions.
But in the Burbage case, things have seemingly been turned upside down, with Justina Burbage forced to prove that she is a fit mother, despite a clean criminal record and no allegations of abuse or neglect. In fact, the entire case appears to be built on the fact that Justina sought mental health treatment to deal with grief in the immediate aftermath of the unexpected passing of her boyfriend and mother. She wasn’t hospitalized and didn’t threaten to harm herself or anyone else – she merely talked her way through a difficult time with a professional.
In the hundreds of documents filed in the case, there is not one containing specific allegations that would suggest Justina has ever placed her children in harm’s way. And yet, a judge, Bill Lewis, using the Grandparents Rights Bill for support, has usurped her rights as a parent by ordering that she subject her daughter to three visitations with Gene Burbage, who remains under investigation in South Carolina for sexual abuse.
Over the course of the last six months, Justina has been forced to attend numerous court hearings and pay thousands in legal fees. Lewis ordered the parties to mediation and appointed a guardian ad litem in an attempt to “determine what’s in the child’s best interest.”
In one of his orders granting the visitation between the 4-year-old and Gene Burbage, Lewis wrote, “All parties shall focus on the central issue of a four year old child being harmed by not having contact with a grandparent.”
“It’s the most blatant example of a court overstepping that I’ve ever heard of,” said an attorney who has practiced family law for more than 20 years. APR asked three attorneys with family law experience to review the filings in the Burbage case and offer their assessments with the understanding that they would be granted anonymity. All of the attorneys expressed disbelief with the court action, and with some of the filings from Calhoon, in this case.
“I’ve never seen one of these go this far with so little,” the attorney continued. “I’ve had parents with extensive criminal records and the courts kick these grandparents’ rights filings because they simply don’t have standing. For better or worse, our courts, from top to bottom, have been clear on this issue – parents rule. They make the decisions for their kids and everyone else can butt out.”
That hasn’t been Justina Burbage’s experience.
“I was told at the beginning of this that it would be about someone proving that I’m an unfit mother, but instead it’s turned into me having to prove that I’m not an unfit mother,” she said. “It’s not right. All I’ve done is try to protect my children the same way anyone would. Let me ask you – would you let your kids have contact with someone who was accused of sexually abusing one of them? Of course not.
“These are my kids. They’re my kids.”