Daniel Etlin, a 12-year-old Fairfax County boy who went to court to "divorce" his father, was ordered back into a foster home yesterday despite his pleas to remain with his mother.
"It's too much. It's too much," Daniel screamed as he emerged from a six-hour custody hearing in Fairfax juvenile court. His face was wet with tears as he walked down the courthouse hall with his mother before they were separated. From the end of the hall he shouted, "It's my life, but they are bigger than me. I just weigh 76 pounds. My life is who I am. It's what I feel. It's who I want to be with."
The story of Daniel Etlin, who has been caught in a custody battle between his divorced parents most of his life, has raised questions about legal rights of children to be heard in divorce cases.
Last Friday, Daniel successfully asked the court to let him be represented by his own attorney, Bruce Fein, a lawyer specializing in constitutional cases. Fein argued that a child should have a constitutional right to be heard independent of his parents in custody disputes.
After the hearing, Daniel chose to go into foster care rather than return to his father, who has custody. In an affidavit, Daniel said his father criticizes him and calls his mother names.
Elizabeth Lender, a social work supervisor for the Department of Human Development, said in an affidavit that a psychologist believes that Daniel felt that he was abused verbally and mentally by his father and that the boy should not be returned to the home of either parent.
Yesterday, Fairfax Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Gaylord Finch ordered that Daniel remain in a foster home for six to eight weeks until a decision can be made on his custody.
Finch heard the case after it was transferred for an evidentiary hearing from Circuit Court. On Monday Circuit Court Judge F. Bruce Bach, citing newspaper articles on the custody case, placed a gag order on Daniel, barring him from speaking with reporters.
Vladimir Etlin, 53, the boy's father, declined to comment yesterday but has said previously that he does not abuse Daniel and that he thought Daniel was "brainwashed by his mother."
Michelle Etlin, 43, Daniel's mother, said the boy was psychologically abused by his father and it was deplorable that he was put in foster care. "Even though the child screams for the mother and cries out for the mother, they refuse," she said.
David L. Levy, a lawyer and president of the National Council for Children's Rights, said in a telephone interview that a case in which a child is placed in a foster home while both parents are living is unusual. "It's almost unheard of for what's happening to happen," Levy said. "Generally a child will live with one parent or the other while custody is arranged."