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Cousin of Zoey Belcher’s mother is awarded guardianship of 9-month-old

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, June 20, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 16, 2013, at 12:54 p.m.

Calling Sophie Perkins “the most suitable person” to raise orphaned 9-month-old Zoey Belcher, a Jackson County probate court judge awarded the Texas woman guardianship Thursday.

In the six months since her parents’ death, Zoey has bonded with Perkins, the judge noted. She doesn’t need another change in primary caregivers, he said. And Perkins offers the more stable home, he said.

But the “primary difference” between Perkins, who is a cousin to Zoey’s mother, and Cheryl Shepherd, the mother of Zoey’s father, came down to the family visitation schedules the two women put forth, Jackson County Probate Commissioner Daniel Wheeler said in his 27-page ruling.

Zoey lost her parents Dec. 1 when her father, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, shot her mother, Kasandra Perkins, at their home in the 5400 block of Crysler Avenue. Belcher then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and shot himself in the parking lot of the team's practice facility.

Shepherd, 54, of West Babylon, N.Y., had suggested that Zoey spend equal time with the paternal and maternal branches of her family. Perkins, 35, of Pflugerville, Texas, had recommended that she raise the child but allow Zoey specific visitation weeks each year with her paternal relatives. Under her plan, the length of the visits would increase as Zoey grew up.

Wheeler found Perkins’ approach “in close accord” with the recommendations of Carrie Contey, a Texas parenting expert who testified during the three-day guardianship trial last week at the Jackson County Courthouse.

Contey testified that she could not recommend a “50/50” guardianship arrangement. She preferred Zoey having a primary caregiver but making frequent visits to the other side of the family.

Perkins, a 1999 graduate of Texas Tech University, has worked for Dell Computer for 13 years.

“Given the tragic circumstances, we think this is the best outcome for Zoey,” said Mark Roberts, a Blue Springs lawyer who helped represent Perkins during the trial.

Perkins declined to comment through Roberts. Attorneys for Shepherd could not be reached.

The women had filed competing guardianship petitions. During testimony last week, both described the bedrooms they had prepared for Zoey and how relatives were eager to accept Zoey into their lives.

But both also had to answer questions about how suitable a guardian they could be and whether some family members might represent a poor influence or even a danger to Zoey.

Though he addressed such issues, Wheeler gave more weight to Contey’s advice.

“The Court concludes that Ms. Sophie Perkins’s plan of care for Minor will most likely allow Minor to develop a secure attachment to a primary care provider and that this will be in the best interest of Minor to a stable and permanent placement,” he wrote.

He briefly touched but largely discarded some of the issues raised in last week’s hearing, such as Shepherd’s smoking habits or the number of police reports to her home over the years, as well as the past alcohol and cocaine problems of Perkins’ father or Perkins’ lack of parenting experience.

And though Shepherd is almost 20 years older than Perkins, Wheeler said he heard no evidence that Shepherd’s age would affect her ability to provide a stable home for Zoey.

“Both parties are appropriate to serve as guardian,” Wheeler wrote.

Wheeler noted that, despite Perkins’ testimony to the contrary, she did harbor ill will toward the Shepherd family because of the events of Dec. 1. However, Wheeler added, Sophie Perkins volunteered that she continues to receive counseling, and so those ill feelings would not interfere with Perkins serving as guardian.

Wheeler also described the reactions of both families to the Dec. 1 events as “heroic.”

“Two families, acquaintances at best, more than a thousand miles apart, were suddenly required to determine how best to care for an orphaned infant,” he wrote. “Two family members came forward.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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