A MOTHER'S ANGUISH

By CELIA FARBER

NEW YORK POST, November, 1998

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Tina Phifer is living every mother's worst nightmare: She has no idea where her daughter is. Ten-year-old Amkia Bey Phifer is in a foster home somewhere in the city - her fifth foster home in five months. She is forbidden to call her mother, and her mother can't call her. Amkia's postage stamps have been confiscated. She can no longer write to city officials, I want to go HOME.

Tomorrow, a Bronx Family Court judge will decide whether Amkia will be able to once again speak to her mother. Phifer by all accounts has never laid a hand on her daughter, and has never let her go one day without being well-clothed, fed and loved. Several witnesses have testified that the 39-year-old divorcee is a caring mother who doted on her only child. And yet she not only has lost custody, she's lost all visitation rights and has been denied all contact with her daughter.

Why? Because she's been charged with medical neglect by the city Administration for Children's Services. Over one year ago, Phifer clashed with doctors at Montefiore Hospital over the correct course of treatment for her daughter's gastrointestinal condition, which was first diagnosed as anemia, then as irritable bowel disease, then finally as ulcerative colitis.

The hospital contends that Amkia's condition was life- threatening and that her mother refused to accept the severity of her illness. Phifer insists her daughter's health deteriorated only after doctors began treating her with drugs her body could not tolerate. Custody was first awarded to Amkia's maternal grandparents, and then to a series of foster parents.

According to court documents, all family contact was cut off Sept. 3 after Phifer violated a court order that required all communication between mother and daughter to be audible to the social worker monitoring their weekly one-hour visits. Court papers state that the two spoke in whispers and that Phifer brought a radio to one visit and took her child to the bathroom so their conversation could not be overheard.

Amkia would always cling to me and cry, Phifer told The Post. Was I supposed to just push her away? I would think that would be abusive. Two educators who know both Phifer and her daughter were shocked when The Post told them about the court ban on contact between the two. Amkia's mother always seemed very protective, very concerned, like you'd expect a mother to be, said Rachel Afi Sekyi, artistic director of a prominent Harlem ballet school where the youngster took classes. It was a normal, good relationship.

Sekyi described Amkia as an exceptional child ... The fact that she had home-schooling ... I was always surprised at her communications skills and the way she was able to deal with other people ... She was a talented individual. Sharon Williams, former administrator of the dance school, described Amkia as lovely and wonderful and said her mother was always very concerned about the welfare of her daughter ... but never difficult.

I am really shocked to hear that Amkia is not in her mother's care. It's just really bizarre to me. Phifer last saw her daughter on a street corner immediately after the Sept. 3 visit. I wiped the tears from her cheeks, Phifer said. Later that day, she said, she received a frantic call from Amkia. Within minutes, the phone was disconnected by one of the girl's foster parents. After that, mother and daughter were forbidden to have any contact whatsoever.

Several officials interviewed for this article confirmed that the court has barred Phifer and her daughter from visiting or communicating with each other, but they would not elaborate. Phifer contends she's being punished because I dared question what the doctors were doing. I objected to all the chemicals, the dangerous drugs they were giving my daughter. I objected to it. I have that right.

Her lawyer, Alfredo Johannes, adds, This is not a case of medical neglect. The real issue here is whether or not Ms. Phifer was entitled to a second opinion on her daughter's condition. ACS apparently disagrees, but refused to discuss the details of the case. ACS has reviewed this case closely, and we are satisfied that the best interests of the child are being served, agency spokesman Jennifer Falk wrote in a faxed statement to The Post. She added, The child will remain in the care of ACS until we are satisfied that the health and medical needs of this child will be met. Montefiore Hospital refused to comment, citing patient confidentiality. The Children's Aid Society - the agency charged with placing Amkia in foster care - referred all queries to ACS.

A society lawyer, who requested anonymity, noted that the state is generally reluctant to break up families, and only does so when it's deemed absolutely necessary. She stressed that the Phifer case is not what it seems - as did officials from the other agencies involved. However, none would say anything further. But many of the facts are detailed in court papers.

In one report included in court records, Montefiore social worker Beth Yurdin advised ACS that ... Mrs. Phifer completely disagreed with the recommended medical treatment and was extremely obstructionistic. She added that Amkia has a ... debilitating and chronic illness which requires strict monitoring. She also noted that, like many children in similar circumstances, Amkia's bond to her family is strong, and separation from them will no doubt be devastating. It is unclear to us, she continued, if Amkia has the resiliency to survive such a separation given how isolated she has been from the world thus far. Yurdin refused to discuss the case with The Post.

Both Johannes and ACS spokeswoman Falk agree that it's unusual for all contact between a parent and child to be terminated. But one child-care official said contact is sometimes barred when a parent is difficult. Johannes finds this appalling, noting that even convicted murderers are allowed visits with their children. I have never seen any case quite this horrible, he said. It's right there in the medical records that there have been at least five attempts to restrain the child from calling her mother.

These people are not only stupid, they are actually cruel. I have a case where the child had five broken ribs and a split pancreas, but they would never stop the child from calling. Montefiore records describe Phifer as needing ... intensive therapy to overcome her intense mistrust of the medical community which nearly resulted in Amkia's death. And yet, Phifer herself - according to a court affidavit - had taken the girl to three different specialists in late 1996 and early 1997 in an attempt to find out what was wrong with her.

The third specialist diagnosed Amkia as anemic and prescribed iron supplements and Pediasure, which Phifer said she gave her daughter. Two days later, the doctor told her to take her daughter to the nearest hospital for a blood transfusion. Phifer complied, taking Amkia to Montefiore. Amkia was supposed to be discharged within two days. But within an hour of the transfusion, Phifer said in an affidavit, the girl began bleeding and suffering from diarrhea. Doctors at the hospital started her on a litany of drugs, and her condition rapidly deteriorated. Her weight plunged. At every turn, Phifer objected to the drugs, questioned doctors, and wondered why her daughter was getting sicker and sicker.

I decided I had had enough, and I went to try and have her discharged on the grounds that I was unhappy with the care she was receiving at Montefiore Hospital, said Phifer. She insists that she was exercising her constitutional right to select the best course of treatment for her daughter. Her intent, Johannes stressed, was to seek medical care elsewhere. Instead, Phifer said, she was called to a meeting with hospital staffers and told, You cannot take your daughter out of here because she is a minor. When she returned to her daughter's room, she said, she found two uniformed guards stationed outside and two more posted near the elevators.

Within days, she was charged with medical neglect of her daughter. For weeks, Phifer slept in a chair near her daughter's bed, altering her work hours so she could be with her as much as possible until finally she lost her job as an accounting manager for a publishing house. Amkia was finally discharged from the hospital after three months. After living briefly with her randparents, she's been placed in a string of foster homes. Phifer tells her story as she sits surrounded by pictures of her daughter - ice-skating in the park, with her ballet class. Pictures of a normal, happy life. My daughter always had me to protect her, Phifer said, her voice cracking for the first time. I'm guilty of nothing more than trying to protect my daughter.

Robert Jr. and Carrie Kovalak - Cleveland, Ohio - Subject to Same Treatment as Amkia