Mother Loses Round in Controversial Custody Hearing

Updated 6.11 p.m. ET (2311 GMT) November 8, 1999 By Michael Y. Park   

NEW YORK — By many accounts, Tina Phifer was a model mother who doted on her 9-year-old daughter, Amkia, took her to ballet lessons, was meticulous about keeping her on a healthy diet and home-schooled the girl so well that she scored above her peers on intelligence tests.
But according to a city agency, Phifer overstepped her bounds and now deserves to be stripped of her rights as a parent. On the recommendations of the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), Amkia hasn't lived with her mother for nearly two years. And at one point, the two weren't allowed to speak to each other for months.

Phifer's crime? She tried to switch her daughter's doctor one day in 1997 after openly disagreeing with doctors at Montefiore Hospital about how to care for Amkia.

On Monday, a Bronx Family Court judge sided with the city, finding Phifer guilty of the charge of medical neglect. The ruling could decide both mother's and daughter's futures.

"It's ridiculous," Sharon A. McDermott, one of Phifer's lawyers, said Monday. "Murderers get custody of their kids."

ACS says an "obstructionistic" Phifer endangered Amkia's life by interfering with the doctors who were treating the girl for ulcerative colitis. The fact that Amkia was home-schooled was used against her mother, even though her education has been tested as superior to that of other children her age.

A spokeswoman for ACS did not return a call for comment by Monday evening.

Phifer says doctors were making the girl's condition worse by pumping her full of heavy-duty drugs her frail body couldn't take.

"I'm being punished because I dared question what the doctors were doing," Phifer told The New York Post. "I objected to all the chemicals, the dangerous drugs they were giving my daughter. I objected to it. I have that right."

Because Phifer was found guilty on Monday, it could well mean that the 39-year-old accountant will have to wait an additional year before she brings back the child she raised in a small middle-class community in northeast Bronx. If ACS wishes, it could file to have her parental rights terminated and Amkia put up for adoption.

On Dec. 21, Family County Judge Allen Alpert will decide whether it is safe for Amkia to return home to her mother.

From letters she's written to her mother and from testimony in court, it appears Amkia wants to live with her mother again.

"It is hard coming out of school and seeing all the other kids go home with their parents," Amkia, now 11, told Alpert in one hearing last year.

Amkia and her mother have been under strict orders on how to act when near each other. They have to speak so a social worker can make out every word they're saying. They can only see each other for an hour a week.

"We go to a bench on Third Avenue, we sit to get fresh air and we sit close and cuddle and try to catch up on all the time we've lost," Phifer said Monday after the ruling, removing her sunglasses to dab at her eyes.

"In spite of the separation, we still complete each other's sentences," Phifer said, smiling despite her tears.

In September 1998, Alpert ruled that Phifer had broken the rules, and until December, visits were cut off, the two weren't allowed to call each other and Amkia even had her postage stamps confiscated. Alpert struck down those restrictions later, when he noted how much Amkia yearned to be with her mother.

"She's hurt, she's stuttering, she told me she's cried so much she can't cry anymore," Phifer said. "I missed her first day of school in September. I want her to come home with me."

Amkia's been a series of foster homes and is now living at her sixth. According to Phifer, she still bleeds, lives in poor conditions and doesn't get the dental care she needs.

"She's living amongst rats and roaches," Phifer said. "She found a mouse crawling under her bed one night. All her foster homes have been deplorable."

A spokeswoman for ACS refused to comment on the condition of the foster homes where Amkia has lived. Phifer has not actually seen the foster homes, meeting her daughter instead at a social services office.

Phifer's hopes have risen and then been dashed — including one incident in which a New York Supreme Court judge tried but failed to reunite the two.

Alpert, whose court is a small, crowded room in the chaotic Bronx Family Courthouse, refused to comment on the case.

But in his ruling Monday morning, he laid out the three factors that led to his decision against Phifer.

For one, he said, Phifer had waited for nine long months before seeking the appropriate help for her daughter's colitis, from November 1996 to August 1997.

Phifer said she thought that the colitis had been cured and there was no way to know Amkia was still suffering from it because it had gone into remission.

Second, Alpert said, Phifer hadn't had Amkia immunized since she was 2 years old.

McDermott said that Phifer had read articles that highlighted dangerous side effects from immunizations. And in any case, McDermott said, a parent should be allowed to have opinions and exercise some control over her child's medical care.

Finally, Alpert pointed to the fact that Phifer had never enrolled Amkia in a regular school.

But Phifer said the outstanding results of her home-schooling speak for themselves.

Phifer didn't get the chance to make these arguments to the judge herself Monday — a scheduling mix-up at McDermott's law office ensured that she didn't even get there on time to hear Alpert's ruling, Phifer said. She wasn't surprised by the decision, she said, and was already prepared to keep fighting.

Even if Alpert decides it's not safe to return Amkia in December, she will keep struggling, whether in appeals court or in the civil courts, where she has filed lawsuits against Montefiore Hospital and ACS.

Until then, Phifer will be spending her precious little time with her daughter talking about their lives in the present — not about the future they may or may not share together.

"I don't tell her about those things," Phifer said. "I try not to get her hopes up."