Expert Counsels Judge to Place Boy with Father Now; Evan Johnson's Mother Won Custody from an Atlantic Beach Couple Last Year

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Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

A 4-year-old boy raised by an Atlantic Beach couple until a judge placed him with his birth mother last year in a fierce custody battle should now live with his biological father, a court-appointed evaluator has recommended.

Her report, filed in court in preparation for a final custody hearing in April, also recommends that Evan Johnson's placement with his father be conditioned on drug testing and anger-management coaching.

Child custody evaluator Judith Erwin said Evan's placement with his mother in Illinois was appropriate last year after the courts ruled Dawn and Gene Scott of Atlantic Beach had no legal right to the child. But since that time, the mother's husband has been charged with physically abusing Evan.

"I really do not believe at this time, with the information that I have been provided, that Evan was intentionally abused in his mother's home. However, I cannot be certain," Erwin wrote in the 69-page report. "I cannot recommend that Evan be returned to his mother's home in the face of the charges still pending against his stepfather."

Evan has been living with his father, Stephen White, in Maine since November when the stepfather was arrested on the child-abuse charges.

The boy's plight made national headlines when Jacksonville Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace ruled the Scotts had to give him up. His mother, Amanda Hopkins, consented to the Scotts adopting Evan after he was born, but White contested the adoption. Evan remained with the Scotts for three years while that issue played out in court, then Hopkins sought and won custody.

Erwin blamed all three sets of parents for the problem-plagued case.

"The parties are all guilty of clamoring to believe the worst of one another," she wrote. "From the former guardians who love the child deeply, to the birth parents, their respective relatives and friends, any words from Evan that remotely resemble an indictment of one of the other parties is seized upon and amplified to favor the self-serving position of the reporting party."

White couldn't be reached for comment, but his father, an attorney in New Hampshire, said the family is pleased with Erwin's report. Hopkins' lawyer couldn't be reached.

As a court-appointed custody evaluator, Erwin was asked to recommend to Wallace what would be in Evan's best interest. She said several factors weighed in White's favor.

In addition to the child-abuse charges against Michael Hopkins, Erwin said the Hopkinses appeared to hamper contact with White, Evan appeared happier and more at ease with his father and White appears better-suited to provide for the child in light of the threat the criminal charges pose to the Hopkinses' financial situation. …