Children's crusade

Legal wrangling stalls a Muslim couple's battle for their children

Sahar Ayad cried when she first learned about the plight of Sam and Kathy Krasniqi, the Albanian Muslim couple from North Dallas who lost their children to the state amid child-abuse charges ("Tell Mama Why You Cry," Observer, Nov. 17, 1994). Sam was ultimately acquitted of those charges, but the children nonetheless were adopted by another couple and converted to Christianity.

An Egyptian-born mother of three daughters and a devout Muslim, Ayad closely identified with the Krasniqis--so much so, that after watching an ABC-TV "20/20" segment on the Krasniqis in late August, she felt compelled to act.

Ayad founded a group called the Muslim Organization of Mothers who, with the assistance of the Dallas Muslim Council and the Islamic Association of North Texas, among other groups, helped organize protest marches on the Dallas office of Child Protective Services and on State District Judge Hal Gaither, who presided over the hearing terminating the Krasniqis' parental rights.

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For the last two months, Ayad and other representatives of the Krasniqi Task Force have regularly met to coordinate their efforts to get the Krasniqi children returned to their biological parents.

Ayad is among hundreds of people--including the second-grade teacher of the Krasniqi son, Tim--who called, wrote, and pledged support to the Krasniqis after learning of their ordeal. Though Ayad is still committed to the Krasniqis' cause, she admits she is growing frustrated as the Task Force faces dwindling options, uncertainty at what to do next, and a legal strategy that seems to be lost in chaos. "It's all just a dead end," says Ayad. "I committed myself to this and it's breaking my heart. I have the energy and I'll do anything, but there's not a damn thing I can do. It's killing me and it's killing [the Krasniqis.]"

Sam Krasniqi agrees. "I don't know what to do," he says. "I don't know what to say. A lot of people with interest calling and calling but nobody doing nothing."

In the summer of 1989, Sam Krasniqi, a native of the Albanian region of southern Yugoslavia, was charged with sexually molesting his 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Lima, in the bleachers at a karate tournament in a Plano gym where his nine-year-old son, Tim, was competing.

Several witnesses claim they saw Sam rub his daughter's genitals under her underpants while he sat in the front row. Sam has claimed all along that his actions were affectionate--reflecting his Albanian culture--and not sexual.

Child Protective Services forbade Sam from seeing his children for the next six months, while the family was given counseling at CPS headquarters. CPS removed the children from Kathy Krasniqi and recommended that parental rights be terminated when Kathy allowed her children to see their father on a Saturday afternoon at a pizza parlor the family owned in North Dallas. Kathy, whose English was very poor at the time, maintains she misunderstood her caseworker, who allowed Sam, under supervision, to visit the children.

A jury terminated the Krasniqis' parental rights after a three-day trial in April 1990. But two years later, a judge acquitted Sam of molestation charges, after an expert in the peasant culture of Sam's homeland testified that Sam's actions in the gym that day were accepted in his culture.

By then the Krasniqi children had been living with a foster family for several years, where they were made to wear crosses, attend church and eat pork, which is against their Muslim religion. CPS refused to consider placing the children with either of Kathy's two brothers, who expressed an interest in taking them.

The Krasniqis appealed the parental rights termination case, but the appeals court never heard it because an attorney representing Sam missed a filing deadline.

Calls and letters from around the nation flooded the Krasniqi home after their story appeared on "20/20," renewing their hopes that a public outcry, coupled with a redoubled legal effort, might help them win back their children, who were formally adopted by their foster family a year ago.

But two months later, the Krasniqis' hopes are again fading. Gary Noble, the last attorney to represent them, told the Observer in early September that he hoped to capitalize on the groundswell of public support for his clients by filing the only legal option he deemed available--a bill of review, asking the appeals court to order a new trial.

Noble never filed the bill of review, he says, because he needs to spend 100 hours on it "to put a brief together that will win." He told Sam he needed $15,000 in order to devote that much time to it.

Sam Krasniqi does not have the money. A year ago he paid Noble $8,500--money Noble says has long ago been spent on research and a motion to overturn the adoption, which Judge Gaither denied.

"Sam told me he doesn't trust lawyers and I should do it for free," Noble says. "I will do it for free, but it's going to take a lot longer."

Their desperation has taken the Krasniqis in some strange turns. In what Noble describes as a carnival sideshow aspect to the case, a wealthy oil man from Canada who saw the "20/20" show recently came to Dallas to offer the Krasniqis assistance. A native of the same Yugoslavian region as Sam, the man showed up at Noble's house with an entertainment promoter in tow at 1:30 a.m. to talk about how to raise money in connection with the case. When Noble told him he needed $15,000, the man backed out. "He would only give the money if Gary would guarantee we get the children back," Sam says.

Unfortunately, for the Krasniqis, there are no guarantees. The bill of review is a long shot--at best. Noble says that after recent disagreements with the Krasniqis, he is not even sure he is still representing them.

Meanwhile, Khalid Hamideh, an attorney for the Islamic Association of North Texas, is also working on a bill of review on both the state and federal level, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel and that the state did not do what is in the best interest of the children. He says he sent a copy of his work to Noble for comment, but never heard back.

Hamideh is also considering filing suit against Judge Gaither for libel, for a letter Gaither wrote to The Dallas Morning News which repeatedly refers to Sam Krasniqi as a child molester, although he was cleared of criminal charges.

As the lawyers continue wrangling, Sahar Ayad tries to figure out where she can help. She recently contacted the popular singer once known as Cat Stevens, who since converting to Islam often champions Muslim causes. A representative of the singer put Ayad in touch with a third-year Harvard law student--head of the Harvard Islamic Law Center--who has requested to see all of the legal documents in the case.

Ayad also helped collect more than 6,000 signatures on a petition asking Governor George Bush to have the Krasniqi case reopened. She planned to deliver the petition to the governor in early November. But the governor recently replied to a letter she wrote on the Krasniqis' behalf, saying there was nothing he could do, the case was closed. In the letter was a copy of the Gaither letter published in the Morning News. Gaither advised Bush on juvenile justice issues during his campaign for governor. "Bush is obviously on Gaither's side," Ayad says. "I wish I could be more optimistic. So many have let the Krasniqis down. I don't want to be the last person to turn my back."

Support for the Krasniqis came from an unexpected quarter last week when Scott Fisher, communications director for the Texas Christian Coalition, joined with Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, to write an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram condemning Gaither's actions and calling for "a review of the case by state and federal authorities."

In desperation, Khalid Hamideh has tried a new tack: He recently wrote a heartfelt letter to the Krasniqi children in care of their adoptive parents. "My only intention in writing these words to you is for you, Tim and Lima, to know the truth," he wrote.

The letter goes on to outline the case, underscoring several points: The leading child abuse expert in the state found no medical evidence of abuse of Tim and Lima, that Sam was found innocent of criminal charges, and how hard the Krasniqis have continued to fight for their children.

Hamideh also included some of the supportive letters the Krasniqis have received, including one from Tim's second grade teacher. "You are victims of a system that used incorrect facts to make a decision to take Tim and Lima," the teacher wrote. "...The wrong done to Tim and Lima under the guise of protection is the crime..."

In closing, Hamideh asked the adoptive parents if they would be willing to meet with Sam and Kathy and discuss allowing the children to learn "the truth"; to have their minister meet with other religious leaders to discuss "the most beneficial and least stressful way to reunite the children with their culture, heritage and religion."

Hamideh asked CPS director Mark Hoffman to forward the letter to the adoptive parents, which he claims he did. Hamideh is still awaiting a reply.

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