A 12-year-old Fairfax County boy who hired a lawyer to represent him in a custody battle between his parents has lost his bid to "divorce" his father, the child's attorney said yesterday.
Fairfax County Juvenile and Relations Court Judge Gaylord Finch last week ordered Daniel Etlin, who had been living in a group home since August, into the custody of his father, Vladimir, effective Jan. 18, said Bruce Fein. "The judge felt that it was in the best interests of Daniel for the time being," he said.
The boy's mother, Michelle Etlin, 43, whom Daniel sought as his legal guardian, was ordered not to see the boy for six months, Fein said. Michelle Etlin, according to Fein, has said she will continue to fight for custody of her son.
"We are happy that Daniel is going to come back," said Alice Etlin, Daniel's stepmother. Neither Michelle Etlin nor Vladimir Etlin, 53, could be reached for comment yesterday.
Daniel's legal battle has raised questions about a child's constitutional right to legal counsel in divorce cases. When a Fairfax circuit judge in August agreed to allow Fein to represent Daniel, the decision marked what some say could be the first recognition of a child's right to legal representation in custody disputes.
Last week's closed proceeding was called to determine if Daniel, who has been caught in a custody battle for a decade, had been subjected to parental abuse or neglect, but Finch found no evidence of emotional or physical abuse as defined by Virginia law, Fein said.
However, the judge determined that Daniel was "a child in need of services," and ordered that the boy and each of his parents undergo counseling, Fein said.
"It's not because of abuse, but because his emotional development was skewed and needs some assistance in light of the fact that this poor child has been in litigation in one form or another since age 2," Fein said.
In August, Daniel emerged teary-eyed from a Fairfax County courtroom after a hearing before Finch. "It's too much. It's too much," he said at the time. "It's my life, but they are bigger than me . . . . My life is who I am. It's what I feel. It's who I want to be with."
At the time, Daniel chose to go into foster care rather than return to live with his father, who had legal custody, stating in an affidavit that his father criticizes him and calls his mother names.
Michelle Etlin, a secretary and founder of Women Opposed to a Misogynist System, was ordered to jail after taking her son to South Africa and Oregon to hide him from his father, who she contends abuses the child.
Vladimir Etlin, a Soviet e'migre' and engineer who lives in Falls Church with his wife and daughter, has said his ex-wife has "brainwashed" the child, and he has denied the abuse allegations.
Fein said he will not appeal last week's ruling. Daniel did not express his feelings on the judge's decision when notified of it yesterday by telephone, Fein said.
According to Fein, the custody war is likely to continue. The custody issue is still pending in Fairfax County Circuit Court before Judge Bruce Bach, who issued the original decree last year remanding Daniel to his father's care, Fein said.
Michelle Etlin "has lots of suits outstanding," and the nature of custody decrees is such that they are always subject to revision, Fein said.
"Since age 2, he has been involved in disputes," Fein said. "We are not trying to pretend that we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again and he will live a normal life. It's just like telling a Jew who has been to Dachau to go and live a normal life. You've got scars . . . .
"But everyone is trying to get the best available for Daniel from a situation that has been difficult from all angles."