Florida Court Gives Father Custody of Cuban Girl in 'Elian II' Case

The father of a 5-year-old Cuban girl at the center of an international custody battle did not abandon or neglect her, so he should get her back, a judge ruled Thursday.

Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen said she would not immediately return the girl to her father, Cuban farmer Rafael Izquierdo, who wants to take her back to Cuba.

The girl went into foster care after her mother brought her to the U.S. in 2005 and then attempted suicide days before Christmas. She has been living with foster parents in Miami for the past 18 months and they want to keep the girl here.

The Florida Department of Children & Families said Izquierdo abandoned the girl and officials want the girl to stay with her foster parents, Joe and Maria Cubas, a wealthy Cuban-American couple. The girl has bonded with the Cubases and she wants to remain with her half brother, whom they have adopted, the department said. The state's attorneys said removing the girl after such a long time would cause her serious emotional trauma.

Cohen said she would hold a follow-up hearing to listen to the state's arguments, but urged the department to "take the blindfold off and see the forest for the trees."

Izquierdo has denied that he abandoned his daughter and has professed his desire to return with her to Cuba.

"The court cannot deny Izquierdo custody of his child," Cohen said.

At a news conference outside the courthouse, Izquierdo said in Spanish: "Truth wins."

"I'm asking for what's mine. I want only what's mine," Izquierdo said. "I'm dying to go home. I want to be with my family, be together."

His lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said he is unaware of any cases in Florida where a father, after being found to be fit, was denied custody based on "nebulous" psychological harm the child would suffer from being separated from her foster parents.

DCF spokeswoman Flora Beal said afterward that "to separate siblings from each other does have an emotional and psychological effect."

The father, foster parents and mother were all in court as the judge read her 47-page ruling over several hours. The judge said Izquierdo's efforts to regain his daughter once she was put in foster care "were not marginal for a man of his circumstances."

"He has diligently participated in what must seem to him a mysterious and daunting legal process. While geographically, Cuba is only 90 miles from the United States shores, the two countries are philosophically and politically worlds apart," Cohen said.