Holding on

Two weeks ago, Kathy Krasniqi collapsed at her job, gasping for air, her chest pounding with pain. After a week of tests, doctors have determined that she suffers from serious heart and lung disease.

Albanian Muslims from the former Yugoslavia, Kathy, 41, and her husband, Sam, lost custody of their two children six years ago, after Sam was accused of fondling their 4-year-old daughter, Lima, in public. A Collin County jury later found Sam innocent of the charges and Kathy was never accused of any crime. Kathy believes the pain of permanently losing Lima and her son, Tim--who were adopted by another family last year and converted to Christianity--and the stress of the public battle she and her husband have waged to at least get visitation rights has contributed to her failing health.

"I don't know how I've been this strong this long," says Kathy. "For my life, I do not care, but I am afraid I am going to die before I ever see my children again."

The Krasniqis' plight, first detailed in a Dallas Observer story ("Tell Mama Why You Cry," November 17, 1994), gained national attention this summer when ABC-TV's "20/20" newsmagazine aired their story. The Krasniqis have maintained that they are the victims of cultural bias and ignorance.

In addition to an outpouring of support from around the country, the family last month gained a new ally: The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based legal organization that fights cases involving religious liberty, parental rights, and free speech issues. The Rutherford Institute recently secured the services of Dallas criminal attorney Reed Prospere to represent Sam Krasniqi, who in December was indicted on three counts of felony retaliation for comments he made to a Dallas Morning News reporter.

In a November 28 story, Sam Krasniqi was quoted saying that if he ever again saw a certain witness involved in his case, "I would kill her." The story also quoted him saying that if he had known how his case was going to turn out, "I would be dead a long time ago, but a lot of people would go with me."

In addition to aiding the Krasniqis in Sam's criminal case, The Rutherford Institute is reviewing the Krasniqis' parental termination case "to see if anything further can be accomplished," says Kelly Shackelford, director of The Rutherford Institute's Southwest regional office, which is based in Dallas.

On the surface, The Rutherford Institute appears an unlikely sympathizer to the Krasniqis' case, which has become a cause in the Moslem community nationally. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, the organization is usually associated with fundamentalist Christian issues, but Shackelford says the institute handles a variety of cases, including recent Texas issues:

* Last year, Shannon Welch, a valedictorian at DeSoto High School was forced to remove references to God and the Bible from her commencement address. The Rutherford Institute stepped in and served the school-board members, on their way to church on a Sunday morning, with a demand letter, giving them 24 hours to change their position or face a federal lawsuit. The student was allowed to read her speech as written.

* A number of Houston area families sued the state because they were not allowed to see the questions on standardized tests given to their children--after the tests were taken. With The Rutherford Institute's legal help, the parents won an injunction against the state, but the state has appealed. In a brief filed by the Texas Attorney General's Office on behalf of the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Board of Education, the defendants claimed, "The right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their children is not a fundamental right."

* The Rutherford Institute recently filed a federal suit on behalf of a Denton couple who maintain that the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services violated their civil rights by removing their baby from their care.

Over a period of several months, the couple had brought their newborn baby to a pediatrician for treatment of extreme colic and blood in the baby's stool. After the fourth visit, the doctor prescribed medicine, which did not clear up the bloody stool, but did cause the baby to vomit, according to court documents.

The couple took the baby to the hospital, where a physician stopped the medication. The hospital physician, who apparently believed the mother was exaggerating the child's symptoms, contacted Child Protective Services, alleging that the mother suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a psychological disorder in which a parent fabricates a child's injuries--or inflicts injuries--in order to gain attention.

"CPS took the child away, even though there was no psychological testimony, no allegations of abuse or threat of abuse," says Shackelford. "The couple called us and we immediately got involved. Our experts said that the parents suffer from no such thing. The only reason they gave them the baby back was because our experts convinced their experts. Even then, they kept the child an additional month and a half--out of spite."

The Rutherford Institute got involved in the Krasniqi case--at the behest of Krasniqi supporters--because it involved issues of parental rights, as well as questions of cultural and religious freedom.

"These people's children were taken away because of alleged sexual abuse in a public place," Shackelford says. "They claim it was a misunderstanding of what is culturally appropriate. The wife was told she had to divorce her husband or her children would be taken away. It seems to us that there has been an incredible miscarriage of justice against them."

For the time being, the institute is concentrating efforts on the felony retaliation charges pending against Sam Krasniqi, which Shackelford sees as a freedom-of-speech issue. "We have never heard of a criminal prosecution based on what someone allegedly said to a newspaper," says Shackelford. "In our minds, it is the DA who is retaliating against the Krasniqis for speaking out to the press about what happened to them. It's a total misuse of the law. Haven't these people been through enough?"

The Krasniqis' new attorney couldn't agree more. "These charges raise chickenshittedness to an art form," says Reed Prospere, who is representing the Krasniqis free of charge. "I have spent 50 weeks a year for the past 22 years at that courthouse, so I have more than a passing knowledge of criminal law, and I looked at that indictment and it just defies gravity."

Although the Krasniqis are grateful for the help of The Rutherford Institute and Prospere, they admit they're losing hope of ever seeing their children again. "People call and say, 'I'm praying for you.' I say thank you, but really I am sick and tired," says Sam, who lost his once-thriving pizza business and now pumps gas at a North Dallas filling station.

As for Kathy, she is simply sick. "Are you surprised to hear I am ill?" she asks. "I cannot take any more. If I could just see my children just one more time...

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Ann Zimmerman

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