Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Pulfer: Justin's case

Painfully, shamefully slow justice

I am trying to imagine how it would feel to wake up in the morning as Cheryl Asente.

Her son, Justin, is 6 1/2 now. "That's what he'd tell you," she says, "those halves are important at his age." She, at age 40, would be happy to round off to the lower number. She laughs. An easy, unaffected laugh.

Well, what did I expect? Sniffles? Sobs? Depression? Maybe.

For the past five years, Cheryl and her husband, Rich, have been in and out of courts in Ohio and Kentucky, fighting for custody of Justin. But now, I said, you're in the home stretch, right?

Another laugh, a weary one. "I wish I knew," she says.

We can fast-track our building projects but justice for our children is shamefully slow. Meanwhile, I wonder what the Asentes tell Justin. And I wonder what they tell his brother, Joey. The boys' biological parents, Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning, who live in Burlington, have petitioned the court to return Justin to them. Does Joey wonder why they are interested only in his brother?

Joey, 7, went to live with the Asentes in Girard, a little town in northeast Ohio, when he was 11 days old. Moore asked the Asentes to adopt the younger boy while she was still pregnant with him. Then she changed her mind. And changed it back again.

Justin went to live with the Asentes when he was not quite a year old.

Six months later, Moore and Dorning, asked the court to return Justin to them. Should the Asentes have cut their losses? Should they have packed up his toys and the pajamas with the feet and sent Justin off to Kentucky? That would have been smart. Certainly cheaper.

Their legal bill is more than $500,000. They keep chipping away at it, as do friends and strangers. "I know it sounds weird," she says, "but the whole experience has been more good than bad. People have come out of the woodwork to help us. And we appreciate every minute with our boys. Because somebody could take it all away."

In June, the Kentucky Supreme Court bounced the case back to Kenton County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Summe. Cheryl's dream, she says, is to "get past all this court stuff and become a real, extended family. Jerry and Regina, grandparents, siblings. The whole works. You can't have too many people who love you. And I want the boys to have positive feelings about where they came from."

She says it must be hard for the rest of the world to believe, but "we have a very, very normal life." Rich manages a bank. Cheryl, a stay-at-home-mom, is a substitute teacher.

The boys, she says, don't know yet that their family life is precarious. "They don't know the big picture," is how she puts it.

Cheryl Asente has awakened more than 2,000 mornings with acute knowledge of the big picture. It took the Kentucky Supreme Court 16 months to review the case before sending it back to Judge Summe, ordering her to rule based on Justin's "best interests," a process the Asentes have been told could take another five years - 1,825 mornings.

Or until somebody who can decide Justin's fate finally wakes up.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

Pulfer: Justin's case
Korte: Inside City Hall
Howard: Some good news

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