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Published on January 19, 2007 by Richmond Times Dispatch

Judge Grants Sole Custody of 9-year-old Girl To Father
by Kiran Krishnamurthy

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SPOTSYLVANIA -- A judge granted sole custody of a girl to her father after a medical expert testified yesterday to believing the man physically and sexually abused the child.

"It's unconscionable," the girl's mother, Tina Wilson, said after the hearing in Spotsylvania County Circuit Court.

Wilson said she would appeal the ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals.

J. Bruce Strickland, the father's attorney, had previously argued Wilson has engaged in Parental Alienation Syndrome, which describes how a parent can brainwash a child into becoming indifferent or hostile to the other parent and, sometimes, manufacturing abuse allegations.

The syndrome has not been accepted formally by the medical establishment.

Circuit Judge Ernest P. Gates, a retired judge from Chesterfield County appointed to hear the case, ruled that a "material change of circumstances" occurred because of Wilson's repeated allegations that the fa- ther abused the 9-year-old girl and because Wilson had moved from the Fredericksburg area to Henrico County.

The Times-Dispatch is not naming the father to protect the girl's identity. Wilson has changed her last name.

Richard Ducote, Wilson's attorney, said after the hearing that Gates' ruling, and similar ones by other judges, puts Wilson and other parents who suspect abuse in an untenable situation.

"If she suspects abuse and doesn't report it, she's an unfit mother. If she reports it, this happens," he said.

Another attorney in a separate child-custody case arising in Hanover County and now on appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court argues parents should not be penalized for acting in what they consider their children's best interests.

That attorney, Cullen Seltzer, also contends the state's high court needs to clarify a provision in state law that permits a judge to consider, when determining custody, whether a parent supports a child's contact and relationship with the other parent.

In yesterday's Spotsylvania case, the judge said he thought the father would be supportive of the child's relationship with Wilson, but he said she would not be similarly supportive. Wilson last June violated a court order by taking the child to a domestic-violence shelter because she said she feared for the girl's safety.

"The hatred that she has for the father has compromised the child's needs," Gates said, adding that the girl seems to thrive in her father's custody.

The hearing came after Gates in November ordered a psychiatric evaluation of the girl.

Dr. Sheila Furey, a Hopewell child psychiatrist paid by Wilson, testified yesterday that she believes the father verbally, physically and sexually abused the girl and that the child would be in jeopardy if she lives with him.

The father has been convicted of domestic abuse against Wilson, but she still agreed to shared custody. She later made the child-abuse allegations.

Furey testified the girl likely performed better in school while living with her father because she feared him, while the girl acted up when living with Wilson.

"Acting out will occur in a place where they feel safe," Furey testified.

The judge allowed Strickland, the father's attorney, to reopen testimony after its conclusion so the father could answer the child-abuse allegations from the witness stand. The father denied the allegations, and the judge determined them unfounded.

"It's the right ruling," Strickland said afterward. "This case is probably going to continue, which is not good" for the girl.

Contact staff writer Kiran Krishnamurthy at or (540) 371-4792

Copyright © 2007 Richmond Times Dispatch
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