Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, December 10, 1999

International tsunami
over Cuban boy

PSYCHOLOGIST Marvin W. Acklin calls it the "mother of all custody cases." Jim Hoenig thinks it would be a particularly challenging family dispute to mediate. And family law litigation attorney P. Gregory Frey emphasizes that the well-being of the child must be of paramount concern.

They're all referring to the intriguing story of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who on Thanksgiving morning was found bobbing in an inner tube off the Florida coast.

The youngster was one of only three survivors rescued after a 16-foot fiberglass boat, crowded with Cuban refugees, capsized and sank three days before. Elian's mother, Elizabeth Broton Rodriguez, is presumed to have drowned.

Elian is now living with a great-aunt and great-uncle in Miami. TV news footage shows him grinning, wearing nice clothes, playing with other kids, and fiddling with the latest toys and electronic contraptions as Christmas Day approaches.

But the yuletide spirit can't silence the roiling tirades in Cuba and the U.S. over Elian's fate.

His father, a hotel doorman in Cuba named Juan Miguel Gonzalez, says his son was kidnapped and is demanding his return. Fidel Castro has publicly reiterated that demand, while Cuban nationals and expatriates are on both sides of the very vocal debate.

What to do? Give Elian back to his parent, or keep the lad in the land of the free, home of the brave? Three Hawaii Family Court professionals chimed in with their opinions:

Bullet Frey, partner and director of litigation at the Honolulu family law firm of Coates & Frey, says the decision must be based on what's in the best interests of the child, rather than what any of the adults want.

He cautioned that people in the U.S., including Elian's American relatives, are making a leap of assumption that his mother fled with him from a "bad" situation in Cuba and that, therefore, Elian should remain in this country.

However, the U.S. is a signatory to several international child-custody laws and treaties, which may warrant the immediate return of the boy to his father.

Bullet Acklin -- an Aina Haina psychologist, child custody evaluator and custody guardian ad litem -- says this case is complicated by international dimensions, namely the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

A usual custody evaluation would involve an assessment of the caregivers, the home, caliber of schools, child's psychological status (for example, Elian's recovery from the death of his mother and his ordeal at sea), and provisions for visitation or access to the minor. This may be tricky, though, given that Elian could be detained in Cuba if he ever did go back to see his dad.

Bullet Hoenig, an experienced mediator at Dispute Prevention & Resolution in downtown Honolulu, said his job would be to get both sides together and help them reach an agreement.

However, in Elian's case, his father is steadfastly refusing to even meet with U.S. officials to discuss the issue and provide documents corroborating his parental claims.

Hoenig said he would hope that the adult parties in this matter would subordinate their own wants and needs, and vault little Elian's best interests to the top of the priority list.

Fat chance, yeah? When the warring parties are two countries in which political posturing reigns supreme, the "mother of all custody cases" has probably only just begun.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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