Monday, March 07, 2005

In The Aftermath Of Accusation

In The Aftermath Of Accusation Acquitted Of Sexually Abusing His Daughter, Middletown Man Seeks Custody
March 7, 2005, By COLIN POITRAS, The Hartford Courant

AJAI BHATIA Posted by Hello of Middletown will be in New Haven Superior Court this week fighting for custody of his daughter Tara. Bhatia was acquitted of charges that he sexually abused the girl, then 5. The charges were made by his ex-girlfriend, the girl’s mother, during a bitter custody dispute. Bhatia now wants custody of the child he has been able to see only rarely in two years. (CLOE POISSON) Mar. 1, 2005
-->Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

Ajai Bhatia is a man on a mission.

Accused of sexually assaulting his daughter during a bitter 2001 custody dispute, Bhatia has spent 3½ years fighting to clear his name.

In the process, he's lost almost everything: an $85,000-a-year job, a $500,000 home, his friends and even his freedom for a short time following his arrest.

Bhatia, 39, has seen his daughter rarely over the past two years, although he was acquitted on the sex abuse charge in a 2003 jury trial. He's fighting for custody this week at a hearing in New Haven Superior Court."I love her," Bhatia said.

"From the bottom of my heart, I'm never going to give up on my child. They can make me eat garbage, but I will not give up."

The Middletown resident claims his former girlfriend maliciously used the state's child protective services to ruin him and to retain her own custody rights.

The former girlfriend, Marlene Debek, is equally passionate in her beliefs. She is convinced her daughter, now 8, was abused by Bhatia when she was 5.

Debek says he did. Bhatia says he didn't. One of them is lying.

The state Department of Children and Families first cited Bhatia for child sexual abuse, then reversed itself and cleared Bhatia after testimony during the trial indicated that the girl may have been coached.

* * *

Finding the truth in child custody claims is as hard as it comes, child welfare officials say; and Bhatia's case is just one of hundreds arising out of custody battles that department investigators grapple with each year.

Every claim is an emotional tinderbox. When the allegations are true, they expose the worst of family horrors, a parent's abuse of a child. When they prove malicious or false, they frustrate busy social workers, drain resources and distract investigators from legitimate cases of maltreatment.

The trauma and emotional damage to the children involved can be devastating either way. There is often only one true victim here, child welfare experts say - the child.

"Really awful consequences can occur when one parent uses a child against another parent," said Gary Kleeblatt, a DCF spokesman.

Credibility quickly becomes an issue when each parent has a vested interest in tossing dirt on the other. Every complaint gets investigated fully. Sadly, Kleeblatt said, many allegations of abuse and neglect prove all too true.

In some cases, child welfare officials say, the swirling emotions and unstable family structure surrounding a custody battle can create a hazardous environment for kids.

"I wouldn't consider it a waste of time if I had to go out on a report like that," said Rose Furmanek, a social worker with the department's special investigations unit in Hartford.

"For a caseworker, it's easy enough to corroborate whether it's true or untrue. Until you investigate, how do you make that determination?"

Attorney Michael Meehan, who represented Bhatia at his criminal trial, said abuse claims that don't arise until a custody battle - as happened in Bhatia's case - or divorce, are always cause for suspicion. Even if the claim proves false, the damage is done, Meehan said.

"For a spouse seeking to hurt a partner and gain custody of children, a charge of child sexual abuse is an ideal, if repugnant, weapon," Meehan said in a newspaper opinion piece shortly after Bhatia's acquittal.

"It is simple, fast and practically guaranteed to get results, regardless of its veracity."

"For a guilty parent, all would agree this drastic step is proper," Meehan said in the article.

"But for many wrongly accused fathers, such an action is devastating."

* * *
Bhatia's case began in October 2001, when Debek, 43, a massage therapist from Bridgeport, contacted the DCF's child-abuse hotline to report that her daughter had been abused. A child-abuse specialist interviewed the girl and found her story credible. The agency substantiated the complaint and police in Shelton - where Bhatia lived at the time - obtained a warrant for his arrest.

Bhatia was escorted from his office in handcuffs on Dec. 26, 2001, a disgraced security engineer for Pitney Bowes and an accused pedophile. He had to sell the house he and Debek once shared, to pay more than $150,000 in legal bills, and he lost his job because he devoted so much time to his criminal defense.

He now lives in a small Middletown apartment. His last job was shoveling snow.

At Bhatia's criminal trial, Meehan's law partner, Edward Gavin, argued that Debek filed the claim after being threatened with possible incarceration and loss of custody for repeatedly denying Bhatia access to their daughter, Tara, for court-ordered visits.

Gavin also elicited testimony from the child that he said proved she was coached. Gavin argued that the girl was bribed with ice cream and other treats and promised trips to Disneyland if she said things that supported the mother's complaint.

Debek said she stopped allowing her daughter to visit Bhatia in the summer of 2001 because Tara began acting strangely.

"My daughter was getting more and more traumatized by the visits," Debek said.

"When I'd go to pick her up, she seemed as though she was devastated by something. I thought, `That's it, I'm not taking her back to this.'"

Debek admitted talking to her daughter about her testimony, but denied giving her daughter treats when she gave the "correct" answers. She said she simply explained to her daughter the importance of telling the truth.

A DCF supervisor reversed the abuse finding against Bhatia in April 2004, after his acquittal.

In a letter dated April 21, 2004, supervisor Nancy Wilcox said Bhatia was being cleared because there was no physical evidence of sexual assault; Tara and Debek had given investigators inconsistent accounts of the abuse; and Tara was not exhibiting any clinical signs usually associated with a sexual assault victim, such as aggression, depression or anxiety.

Bhatia said that he tried to explain to police and agency investigators that Debek's complaint was motivated by the custody battle, but that no one listened. He also said his situation might have been different if his skin was another color. Bhatia (pronounced Ba-TEE-ah) is a native of Bombay, India, and a Hindu Vaishnav Brahmin. Debek is white.

"I've been through a judicial lynching of a minority by a white lynch mob," said Bhatia.

He filed a malicious prosecution case against Debek in Middletown Superior Court last fall. The matter is pending.

"I can survive this," Bhatia said.

"But to do that to my daughter? What if she winds up in a mental hospital?"

Kleeblatt said race and ethnicity do not influence the agency's investigations.

"The cultural background of our clients has absolutely no effect on our investigations," Kleeblatt said.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia, said the child protection and police investigations in such cases can traumatize a child, especially in instances where the abuse is fabricated.

"In sexual abuse cases, the child must undergo a complete medical exam that is, in itself, traumatic," Wexler said.

"So if in fact, Dad was innocent, the only `sexual abuse' in the case came by order of DCF."

Wexler said states can avoid traumatizing children and wasting time and resources by improving the way they screen complaints. Currently, the standards in Connecticut and other states for accepting child abuse complaints are very low, he said.

Teaching the public to report abuse only when there is a "reasonable" suspicion to believe it occurred, making reports confidential but not anonymous and prosecuting people for filing false reports, particularly multiple false claims, would greatly improve the system, Wexler said.

"Clearly false allegations, whether intentional or not, traumatize [many] ... children each year and steal huge amounts of caseworker time from children in real danger," Wexler said.

"And it's simply not true that nothing can be done about it."

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