Court to weigh pedophile parental visits
Court of Appeals expected to decide if teacher imprisoned for molesting boys can see his child
By ROBERT GAVIN Staff writer
Times Union photo by STEVE JACOBS, 1/22/08, Ballston Spa,NY-- CULVER SENTENCE -- Christopher Culver, ex-Shenedehowa schools teacher convicted of molesting students is escorted by Saratoga County Sheriffs outside the Saratoga County Courthouse en route to his sentencing, Tuesday morning, Janaury 222,2008 ( FOR SARTU STORY ) 1 of 2 photos
ALBANY -- Convicted pedophile Christopher Culver is serving 12 years in state prison for sexually molesting eight young boys in a Clifton Park classroom.
But the disgraced ex-teacher did not think that's any reason to keep his young daughter from visiting him in the jailhouse -- and a state appeals court agreed with him.
So now, the Court of Appeals will be expected to decide whether Culver, 36, who admitted to a 49-count felony sex crime indictment in January 2008, will be allowed to visit the 5-year-old daughter he has not seen since she was 18 months old.
The judge not only allowed the visits, but ruled that Culver's ex-wife, Kristi Van Patten Culver, should pay for the child's counseling before each visit -- as well as telephone conversations between her daughter and the inmate.
The appellate court ruling said the father should bear those costs, but still stunned national advocates for women and children, who were well aware of the ex-teacher's crimes at the Okte Elementary School in the Shenendehowa School District.
Culver was found to have fondled first-grade boys over a five-month period in 2006 and 2007, at times in a hidden portion of his classroom set aside for tutoring.
Authorities suspect he planned to flee to South America rather than face trial when a judge signed an order to seize his passport.
"This is a travesty of justice -- and it's inexcusable," said Randy Burton, a former chief prosecutor of sex crimes in Houston who founded Justice for Children, an advocacy organization. "A child should not be forced by court order to have contact with or visit a parent who is a convicted child molester ... This child cannot be expected to form a healthy emotional bond with a father who sexually abused his students."
Marcia Pappas, president of the National Organization for Women for New York State, has noted that a mother in Brooklyn was jailed for 50 days because she refused to allow her 9-year-old son to comply with a court order to visit his father -- a serial rapist.
And on Long Island, she added, a Suffolk County Family Court judge permitted overnight visitation of children to a father convicted of raping a minor and possessing child pornography.
Pappas said she plans to set up an appointment with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office and key state lawmakers to pass a law banning such visits between children and sex-offending parents.
"The thing that really is disturbing about this is in our society, I think we all agree that sex offenders not have access to children," Pappas told the Times Union, noting bans on sex offenders in places such as playgrounds and school areas. "Yet we have judges who are saying, 'well, if you are the sperm donor, if you're the father, that doesn't matter ... it is such a contradiction in terms of how we look at protecting children."
The Culvers, whose child was born in 2005, separated without a custody agreement in March 2007.
In November 2008 -- after Christopher Culver was convicted and the couple were divorced -- the convicted sex offender filed a petition requesting regular visitation with the child, who lives three hours from his cell at Clinton Correctional Facility.
After Hall, the Saratoga County Family Court judge, allowed the visits, Culver's ex-wife appealed to the Appellate Division. She argued that while her daughter and Culver had a "decent father-daughter relationship," she did not know him.
The mother opposed any visitation.
The appellate decision, issued March 3, noted a child psychologist, Jerold Grodin, had testified the visits would be "healthful and safe" and in the best interests of the daughter.
Another mental health specialist, Steven Wood, testified the visits could be traumatic for the girl -- but the majority of the court still allowed them.
"While the father's prison term is long and the offenses for which he is incarcerated are undeniably disturbing -- and visitation will likely not be easy -- we cannot say that Family Court's discretionary conclusion is unsound," stated the ruling, written by Associate Justice Edward Spain and supported by Associate Justices Leslie Stein and Bernard "Bud" Malone.
"During the time this 'relationship' was forming, the father was sexually abusing young boys in his classroom," the dissent stated. "A 'relationship' may have existed, but one cannot conclude that it was a healthy parent-child relationship. Moreover, at the time of the fact-finding hearing, the father had not engaged in sex offender treatment. Strikingly, in testifying at the hearing, he refused to acknowledge his criminal conduct and declined any need for sex offender treatment, instead asserting that he had been 'railroaded.'"
In January 2010, Culver lost his criminal appeal on convictions of first-degree sexual abuse and course of sexual abuse against a child.
Reach Robert Gavin at 434-2403 or firstname.lastname@example.org.