NORTH OGDEN — Dale Anderson still feels pain every morning when he wakes up and remembers the car crash that took his granddaughter.
Aubree Jo Anderson died last Feb. 23, just weeks before her fourth birthday, when her mother’s car left Harrisville Road at an estimated 50 mph and hit boulders. Brandi Stilke bumped her head but Aubree Jo suffered injuries that caused her death.
Her grandfather describes it as the day a “bomb went off in his family.”
It’s a tragedy that he and many others believe could have been avoided if only a judge had granted their son, Jared Anderson, full custody of Aubree just months before.
Tests revealed that Stilke had drugs in her system so she was charged with vehicular homicide, drug possession and having an open alcohol container in the vehicle. She pleaded guilty to negligent operation of a vehicle to cause the death of her daughter and is now serving a potential 15-year sentence at the Utah State prison.
Now the Anderson family is continuing to fight for justice for Aubree Jo, if only to leave a legacy in her name by adding language to the state custody amendments to allow more equal treatment for fathers and mothers.
State Rep. Ryan Wilcox is sponsoring HB 88, which the Andersons call “Aubree Jo’s law” that adds one line to the custody amendment: “In determining any form of custody, the court may not discriminate against a parent due to gender, race, religious preference, or age, but shall consider the best interests of the child.” The bill had its first reading Wednesday by the House Rules Committee.
Months before the crash, Jared Anderson had been in a court battle for sole custody of his daughter. Jared started working to get custody of his daughter in 2010 when he realized how serious Stilke’s drug problem was.
“We took the steps we thought would be right,” Jared said. He and his parents, Dale and Julie, started with the Division of Child and Family Services.
Julie remembers the case worker took a look at the file the Andersons had created with photographs of Stilke using drugs as well as lists of prescription drug medications she was abusing.
“She slid it back across the table and told us she couldn’t help us unless she was in the hospital or in a coffin,” Julie said.
They were then instructed to take the case to the courts, but hit roadblocks there as well.
When Jared was fighting for sole custody, Julie remembers the judge asking both Jared and Stilke what their work status was.
Jared told the judge he worked 40 hours per week but had his mom in line to baby sit.
Stilke was not working at the time and was able to be with Aubree Jo around the clock. The judge granted custody to Stilke for that reason and also said she felt Jared didn’t want to pay child support, Julie said.
The Andersons appealed and were able to get custody worked out so Aubree Jo spent half her time with her dad and half her time with her mom. Julie often drove Aubree Jo to Stilke’s house to make the exchange less stressful, but she said she always felt a sense of dread.
“I didn’t ever know if it might be the last time I got to see her,” Julie said.
Fears for her safety
Dale, Julie and Jared always worried about Aubree Jo’s safety when her mother was driving because Stilke had been in six car accidents before the accident that killed Aubree Jo.
Dale and Julie still get emotional when they talk about the events of that day, but have resolved with Jared to help turn tragedy into triumph, hopefully for another child.
“It’s the best thing we can to get something good out of the bad,” Jared said.
Dale thinks the effort will help keep Aubree Jo’s memory alive. Julie and Dale’s living room is filled with photos of Aubree Jo.
“That’s her legacy,” Julie said.
She has noticed through custody battles that the custody becomes about the parents fighting when it really should be all about the child.
“Children are lost because mom and dad choose to fight,” Julie said.
That’s one of the main reasons Wilcox chose to sponsor the bill.
“It has to be what’s in the best interest of the child,” Wilcox said. He noted that there is equal protection for everything else but there is an unwritten, unfair bias in the courts toward mothers.
The best interest of the child is top priority, he said.
“I feel very passionate about this bill,” Wilcox said.
He is confident it will pass in both the House and Senate this session. “It is right on the money and a simple argument to make.”
He has found a Senate sponsor for the bill as well. Wilcox thinks this step to add a simple phrase to the custody documents may be the first step of many that need to be taken to fix a fractured custody system.
“I’m very excited about this bill,” he said.
“We are not mother haters or women haters,” Julie said adamantly. “We just want what is best to be the top priority. If we can get this law passed and it affects someone’s life in a positive way, I’ve done what I needed to do.”
For more information on the law and to hear more about Aubree Jo’s story, visit aubreejo.weebly.com.