Bitter McLean County Custody Battle Feeds Social Media Frenzy
Most of the what happens in McLean County courtrooms never makes the news. Aside from the occasional high-profile criminal trial, media don't report on most of the cases.
But a recent McLean County child custody case has attracted headlines. It involves a bitter legal battle between parents each with criminal records, threats against a judge, and videos that have gone viral.
Why did the case of 4-year-old Mikey Cadena become such a phenomenon? What does it say about our legal system and our media culture?
"If you find a video that's been viewed by millions of people, it kind of falls into this fallacy of might makes right."
Mikey Cadena's mother recently regained her child after a legal struggle dating back to shortly after Amber Buck gave birth to Mikey Cadena.
Pantagraph reporter Edith Brady-Lunny started closely following the case in 2016 when police arrested Buck on charges she helped her former boyfriend run a methamphetamine lab in their Bloomington apartment.
The state removed her two children from her care. Buck pleaded guilty to felony drug charges. She received a sentence of probation after Buck convinced McLean County Judge Robert Freitag she turned her life around.
Brady-Lunny said she believes the fact that Buck was a mother of two young children might have influenced the judge’s decision to keep her out of prison.
“The fact that she wanted to be a parent again I think was a factor in her favor, and it was one of the components of the probation that (the judge) wanted to see that she could do that,” Brady-Lunny said.
Brady-Lunny added most women in prison have children, and judges try to avoid separating children from mothers.
Pantagraph coverage of the case continued this year when the father tried to gain custody of the boy.
Michael Cadena filed for custody in 2014. He left Illinois with the boy without the court’s permission in March 2017 and went back to live in Massachusetts. He refused to attend multiple child custody hearings with his son.
McLean County Associate Judge Lee Ann Hill held Cadena in contempt of court and sentenced him to six months in jail.
Massachusetts Police arrested Michael Cadena in early October and retrieved the boy to reunite him with his mother. If Cadena wishes to pursue his custody case in Illinois, he likely faces arrest, though his attorneys are appealing the contempt order and are trying to move the case to Massachusetts and to federal court.
Story Goes Viral
Once those stories were posted online on the Pantagraph’s website and elsewhere, they took on a life of their own.
Other websites picked up the case, mostly through social media shares. It went viral.
Nate Carpenter runs the Social Media Analytics and Command Center (SMACC) at Illinois State University. He studies and teaches social media trends.
Carpenter considers it unique that a local story with fairly minimal news coverage snowballed into a story that attracted so much online attention.
“I guess it’s not odd that it doesn’t get picked up in other national-level papers, yet it sees tremendous amount of social media coverage,” Carpenter said. “What may be interesting to see is that we may see the social media coverage get it national attention.”
Carpenter said it was interesting that 332,000 people viewed a video of Mikey at the police station on one website, World Star Hip Hop.
How do stories like this spread? Carpenter said computer algorithms connect web content to viewers who are most likely to be interested in watching.
“(If) there’s a whole lot of people talking about that and YouTube is also connected to Google and if you have a Google account and you’ve been surfing the web and you have particular interests, a lot of people with those same interests might be watching that video. Whatever they are watching will now show up as a video that’s promoted just for you,” Carpenter said.
“Ideally what you’ll see happen with an algorithm is it finds something that a lot of people are paying attention to and then the platform that’s posting that content will promote it as ‘a lot of people are watching this,’” he said.
Cadena’s father has tried to exploit the viral nature of the story to win back custody of the boy, claiming the mom has abused the boy, producing videos on YouTube.
And Michael Cadena isn't the only family member mixing in.
ISU's Carpenter warned viral videos and other online content pose a threat to our public discourse because it can so easily get caught in a digital echo chamber regardless of its accuracy.
“If you find a video that’s been viewed by millions of people, it kind of falls into this fallacy of might makes right,” Carpenter said. “If a lot of people have seen this, therefore it’s really powerful evidence that supports my side.”
The attention has also attracted scrutiny of media coverage. The Pantagraph’s Edith Brady-Lunny said she’s received at least 30 emails from readers critical of her reporting.
“I am surprised. I really shouldn’t be because social media is such an unpredictable universe that’s kind of taken on a life of its own, across not just this country but all over the world,” Brady-Lunny said.
Brady-Lunny suggested news consumers become more informed before drawing conclusions, rather than relying on blogs and websites that are simply trying to push emotional buttons.
“I wish they would read everything and be fully informed before they make opinions,” Brady-Lunny said. “A lot of these people are just reading tidbits and they are making opinions on the basis of emotion. You don’t know what their personal life is. Maybe this story struck a chord with them.”
Tapping Into Emotion
Todd Fuist said he understands why the story has struck a chord with so many. Fuist is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois Wesleyan University.
“People with lots of different perspectives and points of view have a reason to feel angry about this case, therefore want to share it, want to talk about it with their friends and can get in fights online over it,” Fuist said. “All of which is going to be that activating emotion of anger that’s going to cause people to share something like this.”
While an overwhelming majority of readers and viewers sharing the online content have no personal connection to the case, Fuist said the story and the police station video are compelling.
“Regardless of how you feel about the veracity of the videos, they create a drama here,” Fuist said. “It’s one thing to read a dry newspaper article about a custody battle or about a little boy who’s upset. It’s another thing to see a video of that little boy be upset.”
"It taps into existing narratives about the court system and existing narratives about criminal justice."
Fuist added for many, the case may be relatable to what people have experienced in their own lives.
“It taps into existing narratives about the court system and existing narratives about criminal justice,” Fuist said. “If you have some kind of issue with that or some way you already think about that, particularly one that’s negative or makes you angry, this case might stoke that.
“If you think about what people share, if you scroll through your Facebook feed, this makes sense. A lot of what you see is anger about what this politician said or what this person did or look at this violent thing that happened, something that makes you angry.”
As for the police station video which shows Mikey visibly upset as he’s being told he’s going back to his mother, Fuist said children are products of their environment.
“When you are talking about a kid, the question becomes to what degree is it manipulation and to what degree is it what the kid knows?” Fuist asked. “We all socialize our kids in ways that make sense to us.”
Fuist said the case of a seemingly distraught young boy plays into a media narrative that can distort reality. He draws a parallel to the way cable news has covered cases of missing women.
“If you look at the actual databases of missing women or missing people and then compare them to who gets covered, it is victims who are younger, more attractive, typically white, often blonde,” Fuist said. “They are perceived as sympathetic. They are perceived as innocent in our society in the same way a kid is often perceived as innocent as someone we want to protect.”
The problem, Fuist said, is the picture the coverage paints doesn’t always square with reality. He said it’s easy to do. He gives an example in his own classroom, where he gives students in his criminology class false crime data.
“I say, ‘Crime has been doubling every year since 1980,’ and everyone goes, ‘Yeah of course it has,’ and then I say, ‘Actually of course it hasn’t. It’s at the lowest point in the crime rate since about the 1960s.’ But no one believes that because when you turn on the news the first thing you see is a robbery tonight, a shooting today,” Fuist said.
Media attention also can impact how an attorney prepares his case.
Amber Buck’s lawyer Tristan Bullington said he figured early on this child custody case was going to be different from all the others he has handled in his nine years as an attorney.
“From the get-go, when Mr. Cadena refused to return to the state of Illinois, it was clear at that point that this was no longer a typical case and was going to be something else,” Bullington said.
Bullington said it’s frustrating that cases like this require a strategy to win in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion which plays out online.
“That’s not the way we do court hearings and we are not going to do a hearing over Facebook,” Bullington said. “We are not going to do a hearing over YouTube videos.
“It’s just wildly inappropriate to handle a hearing that way.”
Bullington acknowledged it was tempting at times to refute what he saw online.
“My initial reaction is I want to go in there and create an account to the various social media sites where that’s being shared and respond to every single message with what has actually happened,” Bullington said. “What I actually do is nothing because it’s not appropriate to go and share confidential information on the internet with people who really have no business being involved with this child’s life.”
Bullington dismissed claims by the Cadena family that Buck has abused Mikey. Bullington said he has tried to shield the boy from media scrutiny.
“Let’s assume that all of the things that are being said (about abuse allegations) are true, which I don’t believe that to be the case. I still wouldn’t want that out about a child,” Bullington said. “That doesn’t help the child at all, that doesn’t keep him safer, that doesn’t protect him, that just opens him up for bullying and harassment in the future.”
Bullington said Buck has been threatened on various social media pages, but he noted the threats are typically taken down once reported.
He said the viral police station video of Mikey being told he’s being reunited with his mother was evidently created and posted to sway public opinion in the father’s favor.
“I don’t see any reason why that video would have been made, period, but for trying to garner support on the internet,” Bullington said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of that has been now used for fundraising purposes to try and make money off of a member of the public who don’t know what’s going on.”
Bullington said he understands why many viewers have a strong reaction to the police station video.
“While I understand they may have made a response based on the emotional reaction that people have to that video, they don’t know the full facts of what’s going on and they probably never will unless they show up in court when we eventually have a full hearing on the best interests of the minor child,” Bullington said.
Bullington has departed from his rule against responding publicly. He distributed a video to the media and to Mikey Cadena's family and friends taken shortly after Mikey came back to Illinois with his mother. The clip shows Mikey at a playground and taking cookies to the police department in Massachusetts.
Bullington said he took the videos down after a short time. He said they were there solely to counter claims the boy was unhappy going with his mother.
“I know some people have expressed concern that the video is staged, the video doesn’t show enough information, the video doesn’t show him playing with other children,” Bullington said. “No matter what we released, there was going to be criticisms of it.
“The point of the video was not to show everything. It was to respond to one particular point that Mikey is fine, leave us alone.”
Bullington acknowledged Amber Buck's criminal past likely played a role in raising public sentiment against her. He suggested that is out of proportion.
“From what they read, it comes across as two days ago there was a meth house and now the child is going back there,” Bullington said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. My client has been sober for two years.”
The case has drawn so much online vitriol that it led to threats made against the judge who granted custody to the boy’s mother.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said his department has issued subpoenas to gain access to phone numbers where the threats originated, but he doesn’t expect to make any arrests.
“Although a lot of these messages were somewhat harassing in nature, we have found that nothing is prosecutable,” Sandage said. “We have some contact with some of the people who have sent them and let them know that some of the messages they have left are borderline criminal.”
Sandage said the courts received vague references to violence but not direct threats against Hill or anyone else.
McLean County Trial Court Administrator Will Scanlon confirmed the courts heightened security following the threats, but did not disclose specifics.
“It’s a sad situation that anybody would put a child in the middle (of a dispute) like that,” Sandage said.
He added that family court, which typically get the least amount of attention in the media, is often the most volatile.
“Whether it be child custody or child support, that’s where we usually see more incidents than in any other courtroom,” Sandage said.
Sandage said judges and all public figures have had to become increasingly protected given what he has noticed as an increase in vitriol they face from a public.
“I think a lot of it has to do with social media,” Sandage said. “There’s more avenues for people to express their feelings now. They are putting it out there, and sometimes it does cross the line.”
Sandage said his office generally isn’t able to monitor social media around the clock but does respond to complaints.
Despite the time it can take to investigate online threats, Sandage said social media has in many respects made the police’s job easier.
“It’s a great investigative tool,” Sandage said, noting that many criminals leave footprints, sometimes you can find them online.
“People like to brag and usually in this day and age, the way they brag, it’s going on social media,” Sandage said.
He said social media can also help identity someone in cases where they get only partial information at a crime scene.
As for Mikey, attorney Tristan Bullington said the boy is getting psychological treatment and doing well. He won't say where the family lives.
Regardless of how the case plays out in court and in the media, Bullington said the custody struggle will be a part of the boy’s life for years to come.
“That’s what’s been really unfortunate about this is that evidence is out there and that’s something that this child is going to have to deal with for the rest of his life since it’s not going to disappear off the internet.” Bullington said.
Michael Cedena’s attorneys in Massachusetts, Diane Nordbye, and in Bloomington, Adele Saaf, refused GLT requests to be interviewed for this story.
Judge Lee Ann Hill announced plans in September to retire. Her last day on the bench is Dec. 19.
The new judge appointed in the case, associate judge Charles Feeney, on Wednesday ordered the parents to begin setting up telephone visits between the father and son.
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