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Runaway teen will stay in Florida as officials investigate abuse allegations

ORLANDO — Rifqa Bary gets to stay in Florida — for now.

Circuit Judge Daniel P. Dawson ordered Friday afternoon in a hearing that the girl be kept here as courts settle who gets custody of her. The judge scheduled the next hearing for Sept. 3.

Bary is the 17-year-old girl from near Columbus, Ohio, who fled to Florida on a bus last month because she believes her Muslim family must murder her in an Islam-dictated "honor killing" due to her conversion to Christianity.

Her parents deny that. Mohamed and Aysha Bary say they don't want to kill her. They just want her home.

The judge on Friday also ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to take the next two weeks to investigate abuse allegations the girl has made against her parents. He also ordered mediation for after the next hearing.

The hearing on Friday, cramped in a small courtroom, capped a day of protests outside the courthouse and statements from politicians from around the state. It was the latest in this strange story of a teenage runaway turned custody battle set to the drumbeat of a culture war.

In the courtroom, the girl with the twig-thin legs wore heavy rouge and spent most of the time reading her Bible, while her mother sat across the way in a blue and purple gown and head scarf wiping tears from her face.

"It's a good day," said John Stemberger, Rifqa's pro bono private attorney, who is also one of the state's most prominent social conservatives.

He said the judge "protected the child's safety."

Two of Florida's top Republican politicians also lauded the decision.

"The first and only priority of my administration is the safety and well-being of this child," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement.

State House Majority Leader Adam Hasner said in a statement that the ruling saved her from "an unthinkable fate."

All of this started on July 19 when Rifqa disappeared in Ohio. She stayed for nearly three weeks in the Orlando home of evangelical pastor Blake Lorenz from the Global Revolution Church before he put her on TV on Aug. 10.

"My life is at stake!" she said in the seven-minute interview with WFTV-Ch. 9. She's been in foster care since.

By Friday, in an early afternoon news conference in front of the courthouse, Tom Trento, from the Florida Security Council, a group that says its aim is "securing Florida against terror," called the Bary case "a watershed event."

He said the girl, a cheerleader and an honor student last year at New Albany High School in Ohio, was "a dead girl walking" if the judge sent her home.

Elsewhere outside the courthouse, a husband and wife had signs and a megaphone, talking about "Islamic creep" and the faith's "global revolutionary agenda."

Others milling around said they were praying for the judge to keep this girl away from her parents.

In the hourlong hearing, attorneys for Rifqa and the state Department of Children and Families argued that she should be kept in Florida, citing threats to her safety back in Ohio.

"This can become the child's home state," Krista Bartholomew, the girl's guardian ad litem, told the judge, "if you truly believe it's in the child's best interest to remain here."

Stemberger, the girl's attorney, also said the girl wanted to be here, not at home, and that she loves her foster mother, who shares her Christian faith.

The DCF's attorney also supported keeping her here at least until after the investigation and mediation.

Mohamed Bary's court-appointed attorney countered: "Rifqa," she said, "her entire life is in Ohio."

The Bary family came from Sri Lanka to the Columbus area in 2000 to seek medical treatment after their daughter was blinded in her right eye in an accident with a toy airplane.

Her parents had signed papers in Ohio with Franklin County Children Services, saying they would be okay if she was brought back to the state and placed in a foster home for at least 30 days.

"I love my daughter," her mother said in Friday's hearing, through tears, "and I need my daughter back."

Her father, a jeweler, reiterated what he's said for the last couple of weeks: "She's free to come and practice whatever religion she likes."

Rifqa also spoke in the hearing.

"I just want to say I love my family, I love them so much," she said, "but I'm still in fear for my life."

The girl can have DCF-supervised visits, the judge decided, and Stemberger said the girl wanted to visit with her brothers, but not with her parents. That won't happen until mediation.

During the hearing, Aysha Bary kept looking over at her daughter, again and again, hoping to make eye contact. But the girl seldom looked up, keeping her head down, reading her Bible.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Runaway teen will stay in Florida as officials investigate abuse allegations 08/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 1:36pm]
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