Archive for September, 2007

Ties That Bind
September 30, 2007

Should DNA always trump TLC?

Maybe not, but at the moment, that’s the law in Florida child custody cases.

But not for Rafael Izquierdo just yet.

Although the judge ruled the farmer/fisherman is a fit father, though he is diligently following a case plan to reunite with his five year old daughter, though his home in Caibaguan, Cuba has passed official inspection, Izquierdo can’t have custody just yet.

Now the state social service agency and the girl’s foster parents will argue she will be emotionally harmed if she is taken from their home and family. There is certainly compelling reasons not to rip a child from the only home she has known, or take her away from the people she knows as mommy and daddy. But in this state, the law sometimes requires it.

The place we call juvi court has seen countless custody cases in which the Department of Children and Families bends over backwards to get children back to the biological parents who lost them or gave them up – to some who couldn’t possibly have deserved to be called a parent. But DCF’s oft-stated priority, its mandated goal is to reunite families. Always. Unless a parent is deemed unfit. In this state and in this country, a parent has a fundamental right, some say God-given right, to raise his/her child.

But in this case, a DCF attorney told the judge the state’s goal was to place the girl permanently with her foster parents. Why? What don’t we know?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the case of “Baby J” more than a decade ago. The similarities are there, if you take away the conflicts of politics and culture.

A South Florida woman named Kathryn Reiter had been fostering “Baby J”, whose drug addicted mother had already given up three other children and whose father was no where to be found. From the start, Reiter and her husband hoped/planned to adopt her as a sibling to their son, whom they had also fostered and adopted. They raised her for two years before the state, then HRS, awarded custody of Baby J to a cousin of her mother who had come forward. Of course, there are many more details to the story, including a desperate Reiter taking both children and disappearing for three weeks to protect her “family”, but the upshot is this: A loving, nurturing woman raising a little girl who knew no other family– had to relinquish that child to a biological relative she didn’t really know and move away to a new home, new caregivers, new everything, and never go back.

I will forever remember the day state social workers tore a screaming Baby J away from Reiter, away from her “mommy”. It was one of the most heart wrenching scenes I have ever covered.

Baby J would be about 14 years old now. I wonder how she adapted, recovered, developed.

At What Cost?
September 26, 2007

What a shock.

Criminal charges were filed in the last few hours against the two men who peeled off $4000 in cash for a boat trip to Bimini, veered impossibly off course, then came back without the four-person crew who took them. Those charges don’t include murder yet. Sadly, the signs point to that possibility. At this writing, as we near midnight, there is no sign of the crew.

As we reporters played detectives today (as we often do, without the power of law to open doors), a picture began to emerge of how a 19 year old former Cuban refugee in Hialeah hooked up with a 35-year old disgraced former military investigator/current criminal fugitive from Arkansas and hatched a plan to hijack the 47-foot Joe Cool for an escape to Cuba. The details and motives of that plan, if there is indeed such a plan, are still emerging. Those have been, and will be, the focus of the reporting in the next few days, along with the intensive search for the four person crew.

That crew is family, literally and figuratively..
Capt. Jake’s uncle helped him start his charter business when his dad died suddenly last year of heart-related complications .
The “Joe Cool” is named for his dad.

The captain’s wife is not usually part of the crew. She decided to go along on the short jaunt to Bimini.
The two have a 3-year old daughter and 4-month old son, who are being cared for at the moment by other family members. How hard is it to think of what they might have to be told one day?

Another crew member is a half brother. The fourth is long-time trusted colleague.

I have never – never – met a family member of a missing person who did not hold out hope until the very end that their loved one might have survived whatever ordeal he or she endured. Tonight, I get the feeling this family has.

When the boat was located, they were encouraged to hear the life raft was missing, because that meant the crew could be on it.
Until it was found with only the two charter passengers in it.
They were hopeful that the crew had access to the dozen or so life jackets stocked aboard the boat.
Until an inspection of the Joe Cool found all of those jackets still on board.

So the biggest question remains. And it’s a question that really cannot be asked yet without conceding all hope.

Whatever the selfish, underhanded, criminal plan…. Why not spare the crew??

Wisdom of Solomon
September 21, 2007

King Solomon suggested dividing the baby in half.

Too bad that’s not an option for Judge Jeri Cohen.

Her dilemma isn’t so different: who should be the real parent? In this case, though, the future of a five year old Cuban girl is at stake.

Clearly, Rafael Izquierdo is her biological father, a Cuban pig farmer who has traveled to Miami, subjected himself to the Florida state court system and bared some difficult personal intimacies for the public court record in an effort to gain custody of the daughter he helped create, however casually.

Only he hadn’t cared enough to keep in touch with her until she was in crisis. But he’s trying now.

Clearly, Joe and Maria Cubas are her foster parents, a well-off, well-connected couple who have dedicated much of the last two years to her welfare and safety, who have already adopted her teenage half brother, the one constant male figure she’s known in her whole short life.

Only that set up was supposed to be temporary. But they’re hoping it’s not.

Judge Cohen doesn’t often leave court watchers wondering what she’s thinking. And so we’ve watched her struggle out loud with the evidence, the heartbreak, the politics and the law. The next time you see her on the 6 o’clock news will likely be the day next week she renders her legal opinion. The general consensus among my friends in the legal community: “I wouldn’t want to be making that decision”.

That decision will point a five-year girl squarely in the direction of her geographical, psychological, emotional, social, economic (et al) future.

So who deserves to raise her?

King Solomon instinctively knew a real parent would concede to giving away his/her child rather than sacrifice that child’s future.

Izquierdo hasn’t made that offer. Cubas hasn’t made that offer.
And the judge hasn’t suggested cutting her in half.

Over the next few days, Judge Cohen will need the Wisdom of Solomon to decide whether Rafael Izquierdo is a fit parent.

Oh, and after that comes the “what’s in the best interest of the child” arguments. And they may be even less clear-cut.

Unhappy Anniversary
September 14, 2007

How’s this for the cruelest of ironies:
That ten-year federal ban on assault rifles that expired three years ago?

The expiration date was September 13, 2004.

Thursday, the day a murderous criminal with an assault rifle sprayed a fatal barrage from that AK-47 at a team of Miami-Dade officers, marked the anniversary of the day 19 types of semi-automatics and assault rifles once again became legally available.

Before sitting down to write this, I went back and read and reread the Second Amendment. I studied it with all the objectivity I could muster (which is usually in good supply).
Then I read Fred Thompson’s comments this morning he made over cafecitos.
Then I heard in my head that tired refrain: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Ugh.

People with guns kill people.
People without guns kill fewer people.
People with guns kill people more easily, more quickly and from more of a distance than people without guns.
People with semi-automatic guns kill people who happen to be in general vicinity of where they spray bullets.

Four Miami-Dade officers would have likely gone home to their families Thursday if guns were not so obtainable. So would have BSO Deputy Chris Reyka. So would have about a dozen other South Florida police officers, including my college friend Scott Rakow whose funeral I had to cover as a rookie reporter.

And while we’re at it, so would have countless children.

Daddy Dearest
September 11, 2007

There is an ebb and flow to the hours of testimony by the Cuban father trying to win custody of his now five-year old daughter. Eruptions of passion and indignation punctuate long stretches of plodding questions and answers.

And every once in a while, someone says something that makes you look up, freshly attentive and grateful for a common sense headline that crystalizes a simple and stunningly clear fact of life.

It’s the headline of the day. And Judge Jeri Beth Cohen had it today.

Ready? Here it is:

“We don’t live in a perfect world. There are a lot of less-than-perfect fathers.”

How true is that?

In 16 words, the judge handed the Department of Children and Families the reason that Rafael Izquierdo’s less-than-monogamous sex life, slack correspondence from rural Cuba and less than urgent travel arrangements may not matter in the big picture of whether he can shoulder the responsibility of parenting the child he fathered five years ago. He’s certainly trying now. We’re still waiting to hear why, his agenda, his motivations — but he is trying.

I can think of too many instances when DCF worked so very hard to give biological parents chances that they probably didn’t deserve. And some of those results were heartbreaking. It kind of makes you wonder why they’re giving Izquierdo such a hard time.

He has certainly been a less than perfect father.

But I sure have seen worse.

Lost in Translation
September 6, 2007

Even his address wasn’t an easy answer.

Rafael Izquierdo took the better part of an hour to provide DCF’s attorney with his street address in Cabaiguan, Cuba. I’m still not sure why that is, as he lives in a home, it’s on a street, and he can get mail there.

Maybe something is lost in translation? Rather, it seems the Cuban father trying to win custody of his daughter took the stand convinced that every question was meant to trick him. He’s not far from wrong. No doubt DCF is trying to catch him in lies.

Remember, the girl’s mother has spent the last five days lying under oath, then insisting that Izquierdo’s attorneys conspired – and involved them in fabricating years’ worth of letters and photos to support a story that Izquierdo has kept in touch with his daughter from Cuba. Attorney Ira Kurzban objects to the accusations at every opportunity.

After Izquierdo’s address was nailed down, he spent the rest of the day explaining two letters in evidence: they are his handwriting, they are not his handwriting, they are his more educated sister’s handwriting because she helped him craft correspondence. Not exactly clear and credible.

There was a photo of the little girl (she turns 5 on Saturday) with a new bicycle referenced in one of the letters Izquierdo says he wrote in spring 2004. Apparently she didn’t have the bike until her foster parents gave it to her for Christmas 2006. Izquierdo says he was writing about a different picture, but couldn’t explain which.

The custody case has been usurped by a once-unfathomable but increasingly credible probe into whether two of South Florida’s most well-known veteran litigators schemed to skew evidence.

But does that make a Cuban farmer an unfit father? Or just a desperate one?

True Lies
September 5, 2007

In case you missed my report today, here’s a recap:

The witness who lied under oath, then lied about lying, then lied about lying that she lied… well, she lied again.

Then she said she didn’t.

I think.

During this, her fourth day on the stand, Elena Perez again admitted to skewing her testimony, intending to lead the judge to eventually award custody of her young daughter to the girl’s Cuban father. Aside from her reasoning (if I may use that term loosely), Perez has now knowingly perjured herself (how many times?) under oath. And we know she knows that full well, because she returned from lunch break that first day on the stand and told the judge her attorney had taught her what “perjury” means. She was worried that she was already in trouble. But an exasperated, frustrated judge, took on a cajoling, maternal tone, assured Perez no one was looking to get her in trouble, implored her to feel comfortable and safe in telling the truth and help the court make the best fact-based decision for her little girl’s future. And Perez said she would.

And then for the next three days she lied again, lied about lying, and then lied about lying that she lied.

I think.

So you have to wonder at what point the judge says “basta ya” and calls the state attorney to consider charges. And you have to wonder whether this case will become some sort of precedent for leniency with other people who take the oath to tell the truth and then don’t.

The scary part is Perez may, at some point, tell the truth. Maybe she already has.

Only In Miami
September 2, 2007

A Cuban citizen needs Florida state law to get custody of his daughter.
The mentally unstable mother perjures herself at will.
The foster father made a living sneaking ballplayers away from Fidel Castro.
The state’s attorneys forget to bring case files to court.
Veteran lawyers are accused of hatching plans and fabricating evidence.

Oh, and the presiding judge channels Judge Judy.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Truth be known, we came very close to not staffing coverage of the trial we’ve come to call the Cuban Custody Case underway for a week now at the Dade County Courthouse. It was to be a fairly common child custody case, heartbreaking for those involved, but not too significant as news. I made the case to cover it for various reasons, not the least of which: the politics of Cuba and exile make even the common and simple, different and complex.

But no one could have ever guessed the case would devolve into a real-life telenovela.