Sunday, July 29, 2007

Brother is pivotal in Cuban girl's custody dispute

Posted on Fri, Jul. 27, 2007

Brother is pivotal in Cuban girl's custody dispute
While his sister is at center stage in a tense U.S.-Cuba custody drama,
a 12-year-old boy ponders a future without her.

The preteen brother of a 4-year-old girl at the center of an
international custody dispute is emerging as a key player in the drama,
which has pitted the girl's birth father, a Cuban national, against
Florida child-welfare administrators and the boy's adoptive family.

Alan Mishael, the attorney for the Coral Gables family that adopted the
12-year-old boy and wishes to adopt his sister, announced at a court
hearing Thursday that he will ask a judge to make the boy a party to the
dispute. If that is approved by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen,
the boy would be allowed to help in trying to sway the judge's ruling.

Regardless of the judge's decision, the boy's plight already is casting
a large shadow over the dispute, which involves children born to the
same woman, but who have two different birth fathers.

''This is a major issue we are facing: [The siblings] are beginning to
ponder the possibility of separation,'' the boy's adoptive father told
the judge. ``There is an enormous amount of pain. There is an enormous
amount of anxiety for each child.

''The children have to be first,'' he added.

At issue before Cohen is whether the birth father is fit to raise the
girl in Cuba, or whether she was abused, neglected or abandoned by him
in the past. Unless Cohen determines the girl was mistreated, and is
therefore a ''dependent'' of the state, the question of where she will
live cannot be addressed in juvenile court.

But the judge has said repeatedly that she does not want the girl to be
emotionally traumatized by being ripped from her foster parents, who
have cared for her for more than a year.

Cohen gave hints Thursday that she may be receptive to an argument that
the boy has a legitimate interest in keeping his sister as part of their
new family.

''That is an issue, and a very complicated issue in this case,'' the
judge said during the 2 ½-hour hearing Thursday.

''We are very careful to keep siblings together, especially when the
siblings are older,'' the judge added. ``We like to keep children
together, because the truth of the matter is, that's all they've got, is
each other.''

Ira Kurzban, an immigration attorney who is representing the birth
father, countered that the 4-year-old also has a half-sister in Cuba,
and both that little girl and her mother now are in Miami staying with
the birth father.

''Children are separated all the time in this courtroom,'' Kurzban said,
'but I've never seen so much hand-wringing as we have over these kids.
Foster kids' families are separated. That somehow this creates some
right would destroy the whole system.''

Kurzban also suggested that foot-dragging in the case has exacerbated
the separation of father and daughter. In a hearing last week, Kurzban
complained bitterly that Department of Children & Families caseworkers
waited four months to even alert the birth father that his daughter was
in state care.

''We have asked that custody be changed [to the birth father]. The
faster we do that, the faster we accomplish that, the less anxiety there
will be,'' Kurzban said. ``Nobody is making a serious effort to reunify
this father with his child.''

Until this week, the birth father has been given only short, supervised
visits with the girl. The visitation schedule was approved by a panel of
psychologists who recommended that father and daughter -- who separated
when the girl left Cuba with her mother at age 2 -- get to know each
other gradually.

This week, for the first time, the father was allowed a daylong,
unsupervised visit with the girl, and a therapist who observed the
interaction pronounced it a success.

To protect their privacy, the names of the children and their caregivers
are not being revealed by The Miami Herald.

The battle began in December 2005, when the children's mother was
hospitalized following a suicide attempt. Both children were taken into
custody by the DCF, and the children's birth mother later came to court
and announced she did not wish to regain custody.

'She basically walked in here and said, `I don't want my kids,' '' Cohen
said. ``She let herself be beaten down by life, and she did not want to
fight for her children.''

The boy's father agreed to allow the foster parents, prominent Cuban
exiles living in Coral Gables, to raise him. But the girl's father, a
fisherman and part-time office worker from Guayos, Cuba, insisted that
she be returned to him -- setting in motion the emotional drama.

Most of the spectacle has occurred behind closed doors. Early in the
case, the judge ordered that the courtroom be closed to the public and
that all participants in the case be barred from discussing it. The case
was ordered open last month by the Third District Court of Appeal,
ruling on a request by The Miami Herald.

Following a 15-minute debate Thursday over a request from the DCF, Cohen
ruled that though the hearings are open, the gag order will remain in place.

''I don't see where the public has a right to know the intimate details
of these children's lives,'' she said. ``All it would do is raise the
hostility level.''

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