Friday, September 4, 2009

Why time matters for Rifqa Bary

In the end, some court somewhere probably will put an end to this farce, and Rifqa will be sent home. But by then, will it be too late to heal the family?

First, a recap:

Rifqa Bary's family emigrates to America from Sri Lanka so Rifqa can get the very best medical care after an eye injury. They wind up living in Columbus, Ohio.

She's an honor student and a cheerleader, neither of which suggests that her parents are fanatical fundamentalist Muslims.

Her form of adolescent rebellion is to renounce her faith and embrace evangelical Christianity, ultimately joining a Facebook group that includes husband and wife evangelical pastors from Florida.

Somehow, just as she is turning 17, she apparently becomes convinced that, as a result of her conversion, her father will kill her. In fact, in the most revealing portion of her heartrending videotaped interview she insists he has to kill her because Islam supposedly demands it.

Someone pays for a bus ticket so she can run away from home. The pastors say they didn't do it, but they know who did, and won't tell.

For days, while her desperate family searches for her and, one imagines, wonders if she is even alive, the pastors don't tell authorities that Rifqa is living with them.

When they finally come forward they exploit Rifqa via the media interview mentioned above.

The Department of Children and Families places Rifqa in a Florida foster home.

In 48 other states, the child welfare agency probably would realize very quickly that Rifqa's fears are absurd and send her home. But since this is Florida, the case immediately is politicized. (I say 48 other states instead of 49 because the one other state I can imagine behaving as Florida has is Texas, as seen in the FLDS case.)

Perhaps the absurdity of DCF's position is best seen by following a suggestion from Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas and trying to imagine what would happen had the religions been reversed. In other words, what if a child from a loving Christian home were persuaded by militant Muslims she encounters on Facebook to convert to Islam. She then runs away and is hidden for days in the home of a radical Imam. She and the Imam then insist that her Christian father will kill her for renouncing her faith.

But Florida Governor Charlie Crist is running for the U.S. Senate and he faces a primary challenge. Compared to his predecessor, Jeb Bush, Crist has been a moderate and he needs to shore up his base. So, just as Bush did, Crist exploits the plight of a child to play to that base – and DCF promptly caves in, working to hold Rifqa in Florida.

DCF claims it just wants the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to investigate and make sure Rifqa would be safe if she returns home. Meanwhile, John Stemberger, an attorney who runs the right-wing Florida Family Policy Council, a group that helped prolong the agony of Terry Schiavo's family in another notorious Florida case, volunteers to serve as Rifqa's lawyer. DCF and the court allow him to participate even though normally children in these kinds of cases get only the equivalent of a CASA - charged with advocating for whatever the CASA thinks is best for the child. (Rifqa winds up with both, and while usually the CASA-equivalent is a volunteer, this time she's apparently another lawyer.)

I've often decried the hypocrisy of some on the left when it comes to child welfare issues; this case reveals the hypocrisy of those on the right who apparently think family values are for Christian families only.

Meanwhile back in Columbus, even Franklin County Children's Services, one of the nation's worst when it comes to needlessly taking children from their homes, concludes there is no reason to believe Rifqa won't be safe in her own home. They reach an agreement with Rifqa's family to place her in a local foster home while offering counseling to the family. And the local District Attorney writes a letter to the Florida court assuring it that law enforcement in Columbus is quite capable of keeping Rifqa safe, thank you.

FDLE concludes its investigation – but the judge agrees to seal the report, so the public can't find out what's in it. And who asked that the findings be sealed? Stemberger – the same lawyer who plasters his Fox News interviews about the case on his website.

At a court hearing yesterday, a lawyer for Rifqa's mother starts to discuss the FLDE report. Fortunately she manages to mention that, of course, the FLDE report was "very favorable" to Rifqa's parents and found "no indication whatsoever" of abuse. And that raises another question about DCF: Since their original position was they were just waiting for the FLDE investigation, now that FLDE has reached its conclusion, why isn't DCF urging the court to send Rifqa home?

But before the attorney for Rifqa's mother could say more, the CASA-equivalent jumps in and demands that the mother's lawyer be silenced because the report is sealed. (Leave it to a CASA-equivalent to make everything a little worse.)

As I noted in yesterday's Blog, in many ways Florida has a significantly better child welfare system than it had just a few years ago. A key to those reforms has been a new policy of maximum openness and disclosure. It's now common, when news media go to court seeking records in case, for DCF actually to go with the journalists in support of the motion.

So the immediate question is whether that commitment to openness will be the next thing to be sacrificed by DCF to support Gov. Crist's attempt to become Senator Crist.

The court ignores the FLDE findings, the Franklin County Children's Services findings and the Franklin County District Attorney – and orders Rifqa held in Florida for at least another 30 days. He orders "mediation" in the case. But whether or not Rifqa's evangelical friends caused her fears by brainwashing her, as some have alleged, there is no question they are stoking those fears now. Stemberger has said he, too, is convinced Rifqa's father could kill her, telling, "She is a person who is ripe for apostate killing or mercy killing." That doesn't bode well for the mediation sessions.

And if all this doesn't raise enough doubts about the judge, the Orlando Sentinel reports that, in a state where everyone's consciousness should have been raised by one news story after another about the misuse of psychiatric medication on foster children, the judge himself actually asked if Rifqa should be doped up. Fortunately, even the CASA-equivalent had the sense to say no.

Eventually, Rifqa probably will be sent home. But by then it may be too late.

In less than a year, Rifqa will be free to leave home and go anywhere she wants. Once she's 18 no one can, or should, stop her. Whether or not she was "brainwashed" in the first place, it's clear that the evangelicals she's fallen in with, including her own lawyer, are stoking her fears, thereby widening the rift between Rifqa and her family.

So with every day this goes on, the odds that she'll ever be able to reconcile with her family diminish – and the odds increase that Rifqa will remain estranged from her family for years. Do we really want her to realize what's happened to her only when it's too late, perhaps after the death of one or both parents?

That's a pretty high price, even for a U.S. Senate seat.