Custody dispute goes viral after judge's decision

When Alaina Giordano's story of losing custody of her two children because of breast cancer went viral online, it seemed like a callous injustice. Blogs and social networking sites rallied to her cause, and soon she had a law firm willing to appeal the judge's decision.

But the real story is far more complicated and features a night in jail for both parents, accusations of infidelity on both sides and corresponding restraining orders.

The case has become an international cause celebre, driven by Giordano's claim that a Durham District Court judge granted her estranged husband primary custody of their children because she has breast cancer. Three days after that ruling, Giordano launched a blog with a post that declared, "I am a mother of two remarkable children. I am not cancer."

As the story spread over Twitter, online allies sprung up to circulate petitions, collect donations and advocate on Giordano's behalf, demonstrating how new media can influence old-fashioned disputes and blur the messiness of reality.

"What's successful online is something that touches people," said Marcus Messner, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies social media. "In this case, a mother has cancer and is fighting for her children. Whoever gets a message on Facebook or Twitter about this case, you'd have to be a pretty tough human being to not care."

Along with a Facebook page that has more than 21,500 people "liking" it as of Thursday, an online petition on Giordano's behalf has garnered nearly 104,000 signatures. A dedicated website for donations has been set up and the case has been widely discussed on blogs, Twitter and other online precincts since the April 25 ruling by Judge Nancy Gordon.

All the attention has helped. Giordano, who didn't have a lawyer when she started her online campaign, is now represented by a Raleigh-based firm, which last week filed a motion seeking to stay Gordon's order that the children be sent to live with their father in Chicago by June 17. Gordon denied that motion Wednesday, saying she lacks the authority to grant a stay. Giordano plans to appeal.

"I am going to continue to fight for what is right for my kids," Giordano said in a statement, which also praised the thousands of people who have expressed their support for her.

But the campaign that drew them in has also obscured the facts of the case, which are laid out in Gordon's 27-page ruling. Gordon does mention Giordano's cancer and uncertainty over her long-term health, but it came alongside numerous criticisms of both parents.

Giordano and Kane Snyder both were arrested and spent a night in jail after a September 2009 fight, and both obtained and dropped restraining orders against each other. The ruling details mutual allegations of mistreatment and infidelity, and says both parents "place their children in the middle of their divorce and unnecessarily expose them to the conflict so the children are compelled to choose sides."

The judge did praise both parents for their love of their children, who are 11 and 6, and cited a court-appointed psychiatrist's report that the case has no easy resolution. The psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Brantley, "testified that this was not a clear cut relocation case" and that the decision of her team that primary custody should go to the father "was definitely not foolproof."

It's extremely rare for judges to make custody decisions based on a single factor, said Raleigh family law attorney Nancy Grace. Instead, as in Gordon's ruling, courts have to weigh anything that might affect a person's ability to adequately serve as a parent.

"People look at decisions judges make and say that's not fair to that mom or dad, but that's not the judge's job in a custody case," said Grace, who isn't involved in the Giordano case. "The judge's job is to determine what is in the best interests of the child."

Gordon can't discuss pending cases. Snyder hasn't spoken publicly, but a lawyer representing him said the case has been badly misconstrued in public.

"This is not a cancer case," said Jeffrey Leving. "This is a clear best-interest case."

Part of Leving's work has simply been to track the huge volume of what's being said about the case online, both by Giordano and her supporters, and in news articles that picked up on the online buzz.

"This has turned into a media circus," he said.

The case, and the publicity and support it generated, is probably a harbinger of things to come, said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. People are becoming increasingly savvy in the use of social media to advance not only political causes, but personal ones as well.

"I'm a little bit astonished at what I'd almost characterize as naiveté people use when they approach these new media," she said. "People assume that everything posted there is true."