Friday, November 24, 2017
Education

In Hillsborough, a social worker tasked with helping kids has troubles of her own

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CLEARWATER — As a social worker for Hillsborough County schools, Marissa Mitchell holds one of the system's most sensitive jobs, helping children navigate deeply personal family problems.

But Mitchell has had issues of her own, including a broken marriage and an ugly dispute with her mother-in-law that led to allegations of stalking, and earlier this month landed her in Pinellas County Jail.

As the situation turned from bad to bizarre in recent months, Mitchell's troubles escaped the notice of the school system.

A Pinellas judge released her on Wednesday but not before ordering her to wear a GPS monitor so officials can make sure she does not harass her estranged mother-in-law. Still unclear is whether she will return to her job tending to students at schools in northwest Hillsborough.

"This just came to our attention a few weeks ago," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. "We are watching it very carefully."

Some facts are in dispute, but this much is clear from court records:

Mitchell, 36, a district employee since 2007, married Robert Mitchell III in 2012. They have a young child. They separated in early 2016. The court files in Pasco County contain allegations of domestic violence and child neglect.

Along the way, a rift developed between Marissa Mitchell and Loretta Mitchell, her mother-in-law.

In court petitions, Loretta Mitchell wrote that her daughter-in-law turned on her after an investigation stemming from an injury to the couple's child.

Marissa Mitchell, in a statement in her divorce file, said she was not found to be at fault. But Loretta Mitchell wrote that ever since the incident, she was harassed and threatened, so much that her health suffered and she feared for her safety.

Appearing in court on Wednesday, Loretta Mitchell said she is still afraid of her daughter-in-law. She insisted the judge order her to wear the GPS monitor as part of any plea agreement.

She declined to speak to a reporter. Marissa Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

But her mother, who also attended the hearing, did comment.

"Marissa is a very fine young woman," Pamela Heglar said. "She's very kind, she's very compassionate, she's a wonderful social worker and so it's just really amazing that something so horrible has happened to her. She didn't live on this earth 36 years all of a sudden to become a reckless criminal."

The Pinellas file includes two documents that all parties agree are disturbing.

One, entered in February with Judge Robert Dittmer's name on it, is directed at multiple court officials. "I'm not afraid of you because I have the truth on my side," it says. "The real question is whether any of your families will miss you if you don't make it home for dinner. #blueliveslivetoharassblacklives."

It accuses police of touching Marissa Mitchell inappropriately. It calls court officials "a bunch of racist KKK Donald Trump worshipping crackers aka bullseyes for target practice."

Did Marissa Mitchell write the note? Her mother doubts it.

"She doesn't speak in profane language," Heglar said. "None of that is a part of who she is. We never use that kind of language in the home, the racial epithets, none of it."

With an order in place prohibiting Marissa Mitchell from contact with her mother-in-law, another letter appeared in early June. This one appeared to be typed onto a social work form from Hillsborough County.

It was labeled "Life Termination Plan."

In the line for school, the writer typed "Kissing White A-- Elementary." The writer listed Loretta Mitchell as the student, but began her last name with a "B."

The plan of action described a lawsuit for character assault, "target practice," and discussions on how to "terminate" Loretta Mitchell.

Clearwater police received a similar "termination plan," directed at Chief Daniel Slaughter. Like Heglar, Mitchell's lawyer, Lucas Fleming, said it would be hard to prove his client sent the document.

"I'll be candid," Fleming said. "It seems kind of strange somebody would send something with their name on it. Our position is, it wouldn't be sent by her. I don't have too many clients who put their names on something like that."

Nevertheless, after that incident Marissa Mitchell spent two weeks in jail. She was released after Wednesday's hearing, where she entered a plea of no contest and accepted terms that include a psychological evaluation and an anger management course.

How all of this might affect her job in the schools is unclear, as the offense to which she pled was a misdemeanor.

"She surely has due process, including an investigation and the right to present evidence in a job action," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

Baxter-Jenkins is not involved in the case and could not comment on it specifically. But, she said, "in 22 years of doing this, I have been amazed by how many divorces and custody situations become ugly and spill into work."

Mitchell's mother is trying to take the long view.

"Somebody's doing a heck of a job trying to ruin her character," Heglar said. "But God is not mocked and the truth will prevail."

Staff writers Laura Newberry, Melissa Gomez and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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