Started by CaptDMO, Jul 03, 2006, 01:07 PM
MIDDLETOWN -- A Superior Court judge has awarded $3.5 million in damages to a local man, saying his former fiancée falsely accused him of sexually abusing their daughter during a bitter custody dispute five years ago.It was a bittersweet victory for Ajai Bhatia, who lost his $100,000-a-year engineering job and his house, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in a tumultuous legal battle to clear his name. Bhatia was escorted out of his engineering job at the Shelton office of Pitney-Bowes in handcuffs, accused of being a pedophile, on Dec. 26, 2001. He spent four days in jail. He endured a long criminal trial, was acquitted of sexual assault charges resulting from his fiancée's complaint and has been the subject of multiple child-abuse investigations involving the state Department of Children and Families.But the whopping monetary award is little solace to Bhatia, who acknowledges that he will probably never recover anywhere near that amount from his former fiancée, Marlene Debek of Bridgeport. And he remains distraught over the damage the accusations have caused in his relationship with his daughter, now 9.Doubtful that he will ever be able to reunify with his daughter because of the lingering stigma of being accused of sex offenses, Bhatia has taken the extraordinary step of asking DCF to terminate his parental rights.Bhatia said he was recently investigated by DCF and cleared of several new allegations of sexual misconduct with his daughter. They arose after he was granted unsupervised visits several months ago. Although state officials (which ones?)will not disclose the identity of the person who reported the new allegations, Bhatia suspects Debek is making more complaints to keep him from getting custody."Unless I get sole custody, I'm not going to continue," a bitter Bhatia, 40, said. "I feel like [Debek and DCF] are just setting me up for another criminal trial."After Bhatia was acquitted of the criminal charges in 2003, he filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Debek. .In a ruling in that lawsuit earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma found that Debek had no probable cause to accuse Bhatia of a crime.
"She did so with malice in that her motive was to harm the plaintiff and keep him from having any contact with their daughter," Aurigemma wrote. "In the custody battle, Ms. Debek used the claim of sexual abuse as the final weapon in her arsenal against Mr. Bhatia when her other weapons, false-claims of physical violence and danger of [his] flight to India, were not effective."Aurigemma awarded Bhatia $2.5 million in damages for his emotional distress, loss of reputation and humiliation, which the judge said was "staggering."
"It is difficult to imagine anything worse than being falsely accused of sexually assaulting your own child and having the accuser brainwash the child into believing the false allegations," Aurigemma wrote in her ruling.
The judge gave Bhatia an additional $500,000 for his loss of income, $410,000 in punitive damages and $130,000 for attorney's fees from his initial criminal trial. Bhatia was represented in the malicious prosecution case by New Haven attorney John R. Williams.
Debek, who represented herself during the malicious prosecution trial, said she intends to appeal the ruling against her. She said she was overwhelmed by Bhatia's filing of more than 100 motions in several courts in the custody case and couldn't mount a substantive defense to the malicious prosecution charge. She hopes to hire a lawyer for the appeal.
The DCF continues to be the girl's temporary legal guardian until permanent legal guardianship can be decided.Contact Colin Poitras at [email protected].
Tomorrow, the Hamilton man and his sons will spend Father's Day splashing and sliding gleefully at a water park in Niagara Falls. It will be their first Father's Day since the dad was granted sole custody of then five-year-old twins in a precedent-setting decision in Superior Court's family division.In late April, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the custody order issued on Aug. 29, 2005, by Justice Cheryl Lafreniere. The trial judge took custody from a Jarvis woman whom she found had engaged in a subtle and sustained campaign to alienate the boys from their biological father.Ontario's top court recognized that removing custody from an "otherwise good parent" was a dramatic remedy, but stated the judgment was supported by evidence of the mother's "persistent, ingrained and deep-rooted inability to support the children's relationship with the father."
The mother maintains the boys remain deeply insecure and upset 10 months after the court ordered them to leave her home and live with their father.Lafreniere observed that the mother seemed unable to comprehend that she, by her behaviour, might well be causing her children's reaction.The mother rejected that notion in a recent interview.
"These children have their own minds and they know where they want to be. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with what they've known, what they've grown up with and what's familiar to them," she said.
The mother corrected misinformation previously reported in The Spectator that she cancelled access to the father 95 per cent of the time. His access was cancelled no more than 15 times in four years, she said.Lafreniere, a former family lawyer who was appointed to the bench in 2004, carefully structured the custody and access order so the children's transition from their primary residence with the mother to their father's home would be gradual and cause as little disruption to them as possible.The judge gave generous access to the mom, who has her sons two evenings a week and three out of four weekends a month. The rest of the time, they live with their dad.The father acknowledges that on occasion one of the boys will be a little sad when the mom drops them off, but within 30 seconds he and his brother are involved in some activity and everything is fine again."When the boys are with me, they're happy. They're living for the moment and no, they're not devastated. I do everything I can to make sure they're secure and happy," he said."When they were younger, I used to stop at construction sites and watch the heavy machinery in action. It (was) amazing how they could name the equipment and would even correct me if I called something by the wrong name," said the dad."I am sure mom does a ton of stuff with them that I could not do or would not be too interested in doing with them. I appreciate that she would have different interests than mine and I like the fact they're being exposed to what we both have to offer them."The mechanical engineer and his ex-wife, a primary school teacher, began to live together in May 1998 and were married that December. The union was short-lived, however, and they separated the following October when the wife was pregnant.
The husband demanded a paternity test, which became a source of burning resentment for his estranged wife.The man hired a lawyer three months before the boys were born, but was not able to see his children until they were 81/2 months old.His first glimpse of his sons had been a photograph taken by a lab technician who conducted the DNA tests. The lab called at 10 a.m. to say the tests were done. Dad was there by noon to see pictures of the babies, then just a few months old.
Dr. Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist, first coined the term "parental alienation syndrome" in 1985 to describe the troubling behaviour of children who reject the access parent on the basis of brainwashing or indoctrination by the custodial parent.Gary Direnfeld, a child behaviour expert, said the syndrome must be differentiated from "parental alienation," which refers to the conduct of a parent who is attempting to sabotage the child's relationship with the other parent.
The Hamilton social worker stressed that parental alienation is entirely unrelated to gender. He said fathers and mothers are equally capable of such "short-sighted" behaviour.
"Originally, it was used as a defence by men whose wives were trying to withhold custody or access of the children.
"And hence, women's groups picked up on it and said it's just another way of blaming the mother when, in fact, these fathers have been bad and that's the basis for these kids not wanting to see them."But as more divorced fathers sought joint custody and greater access to their children, social workers doing family assessments for the courts began to see alienating behaviour on the part of both mothers and fathers, said Direnfeld.Mary-Jo Land, who initially had been hired by the mother to do an assessment, testified she had serious concerns about the mother's negative view of the father and the inability of the parents to communicate in a civil or friendly fashion should they bump into each other at their sons' soccer game."That kind of negative behaviour creates for the children a feeling of divided loyalties. It creates for them confusion and ambivalence. They love their mother and, therefore, they love the people their mother loves. So what do they do when ... their mother hates their father?" Land asked in testimony.The child psychotherapist's first report was comprehensive and involved 20 hours of interviews and watching the children in the company of each parent. Land recommended the mom should continue to be the custodial parent, but she warned that if her alienating conduct continued, the mother's custody should be reviewed.The mother, who had found Land in the Yellow Pages, rejected both her report and her qualifications and refused to co-operate further with the assessor. The mom also has complaints about the competency of the lawyer who represented her at the trial. She has written a letter outlining her complaints to the Law Society of Upper Canada. Land did not have an opportunity to observe the mother with the children for her updated assessment report.That second report recommended custody of the boys go to the father."What I want out of all of this," said the dad, "is two 23-year-old boys who are happy, well adjusted and respectable."