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Lesbian seeks to regain custody of daughter from man with a past

A week after a lesbian mother won a favorable ruling, another custody case that pits a lesbian mother against a father who did prison time for murder went to the same appeals court.

After arguments Wednesday, Mary Ward of Pensacola told reporters that the day she lost custody of 12-year-old Cassey last September was one of the darkest in her life. Now she hopes the 1st District Court of Appeal will restore custody of the child.

"I lost her because I am a lesbian in a committed relationship," Ward said, reading from a statement and struggling to remain calm. "I know I am a good mother. I try to raise my daughter to be the best person she can be. I do not understand why my sexual orientation should make any difference in the love and good upbringing I give Cassey."

Ward, 47, was flanked by her partner, Marjorie Wright, two adult daughters and Kathryn Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

Kendell told reporters that lesbian parents across the country often have had to fight for custody.

"This is very common," she said. "What makes this case unusual is that we have an absolutely outstanding mother who lost custody to a marginal father."

John Ward, 44, didn't attend the hearing before the three-judge panel, which will issue its ruling at an unspecified date. But his attorney, Ed Fleming of Pensacola, told the court that sexual orientation was not an issue in the case.

"That's kind of a straw-man issue that's been created by the appellant in this case," Fleming said.

Cassey lived with her mother until last summer, when a Pensacola judge revoked her mother's custody, saying he wanted to give Cassey a chance to live in a "non-lesbian world."

Cassey moved from her mother's home in Pensacola to live with her father and his third wife in nearby Milton.

John Ward pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of his first wife in 1974 and served eight years in prison.

Fleming said the trial judge wasn't concerned with what Mary Ward thought or desired, just what happened in her home, where an adult daughter and her girlfriend lived with Mary Ward and her partner.

"We have four cohabitating lesbian adults with a young girl, who is pre-adolescent or adolescent, about to make the transition into womanhood," Fleming said.

Cassey, he said, wasn't interested in wearing women's perfume but did want to wear men's cologne. She didn't take any pride in her appearance and had a negative attitude about heterosexual sex, he said.

But Charlene Carres, a Tallahassee lawyer representing Mary Ward, urged the three judges to read the entire record to consider the context of Cassey's day-to-day life with her mother. Cassey, she said, is normal for a child her age.

"Why do we care whether she preferred the smell of Brut to the smell of Chanel No. 5?" Carres asked. "If I prefer a unisex cologne that doesn't make me bisexual?"

Mary Ward also was represented by Kendell, who told the court that there was no evidence "that under any circumstance or at any time Cassey Ward was exposed to or experienced or viewed any inappropriate sexual behavior whatsoever.

"And it is our contention that can't be assumed simply because of Mary Ward's sexual orientation."

Carres said she was fairly optimistic because of last week's decision, when the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a state judge in another Panhandle county could not assume without evidence that a homosexual environment would harm a child.

The ruling granted a new hearing to Valerie Maradie of Niceville, who lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter last September.

Maradie argued that it was unfair to award sole custody to ex-husband, John Maradie, a traveling sales representative, just because of her sexual orientation.

A court-appointed psychologist testified he saw no evidence that Maradie's sexual orientation hurt her ability as a parent or harmed the child.