(WOMENSENEWS)–Michele Egan-Byron filed a petition two weeks ago asking a state family court to vacate a four-year-old ruling awarding custody to her ex-husband. The lawyer who helped her file for a new hearing was arranged by U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida.
It’s rare that a public official takes an active role in a custody case but Egan-Byron’s case is unusual: She says she lost custody of her son after she lost her job for revealing financial misdeeds in the workplace.
Thus, hers is not only a custody case; it’s a custody-injustice case combined with accusations of whistleblower backlash.
She says reporting six years ago possible embezzlement at her employer–the AIDS Coalition of Volusia and Flagler County, a nonprofit that had about a dozen full-time staffers assisting patients in and around Daytona Beach–prompted angry supervisors and co-workers to testify against her during the court custody battle.
Her ex-husband, who Egan-Byron said abused her and their son, including duct-taping the son to a high chair, won custody in 2004 after a former co-worker testified against her. The attorney who currently represents her ex-husband said she would not comment on the case.
But her story began two years earlier, in 2002, when, in her first month as a caseworker for AIDS patients, Egan-Byron said she noticed money missing from patients’ housing stipends.
When she reported her suspicions to her supervisor and nothing happened, she brought them to the Volusia County Health Department. After that, she claims, she was attacked twice physically in her office, which she reported to the police. She was fired in December 2002 after six months on the job.
Exposed Embezzlement at Nonprofit
Beginning in the spring of 2005, Egan-Byron began talking to law enforcement agents investigating the embezzlement.
The money turned out to be going to the father of a co-worker, Ebony Davis, who pleaded guilty to embezzling about $2,000.
The AIDS Coalition of Volusia and Flagler County closed in 2006.
Now Egan-Byron’s custody petition asks a court in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where she now lives, to take jurisdiction of the case from Volusia County, where she lived when she worked for the AIDS Coalition.
She hopes new jurisdiction will help, because her credibility has been improved by the recent guilty verdict in the embezzlement case.
“My allegations were validated and still that court would not send my son back,” she said of her workplace allegations.
“I think my client got shafted,” said John Fenner, the attorney Wexler helped arrange for Egan-Byron.
Fenner said Egan-Byron’s credibility was undermined during the custody battle when her ex-husband’s lawyer at that time used her allegations of embezzlement to make her look mentally unstable and no one investigated her claims. Now that her allegations are validated, he said, she deserves a second chance. “There’s also a concern of how long do you keep this boy in the middle of a lawsuit?”
After Egan-Byron’s Sept. 17 petition was accepted, her ex-husband was notified by the court and has 20 days to respond. Egan-Byron hopes for a hearing date within the month.
None of her former co-workers, including a massage therapist who testified against her mental condition, admit they were motivated to act by any retaliation, Egan-Byron said.
Egan-Byron told Women’s eNews about Wexler’s help in July. She says she is exclusively telling Women’s eNews her story because she wants other women to know what she went through and ensure it doesn’t happen to another mother.
“I had no idea my baby would be used like this,” Egan-Byron said. “No mother would do anything like I did thinking that their child was in danger.”
When reached in August, Wexler aide Darcy Robinson Farnan confirmed the congressman’s office has been helping Egan-Byron for years while she tries to retrieve custody.
Wexler knew Egan-Byron through her previous work as an AIDS coordinator for the health department of Palm Beach County. At the time, he was an attorney interested in public health and frequently read about her work with HIV patients in the news.
Wexler first intervened on her behalf in 2004, when Egan-Byron, desperate after losing custody of her son, began contacting politicians for help. Wexler, a “godsend,” she said, helped her at a point when she was living in a homeless shelter. She lost her house and savings after paying for the court battles with her ex-husband.
Wexler called the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which partially funded the AIDS Coalition, and vouched for Egan-Byron’s claims.
“He said, ‘If Michele says there is embezzlement, then something is wrong,'” Egan-Byron said.
Same Law Office for Both Cases
After Egan-Byron reported the missing funds and was fired, her former husband filed for custody. On a visit to his lawyer’s office, Egan-Byron realized her ex-husband was using the same law office that represented her former co-workers, the AIDS Coalition employees. Her status as a fired employee who raised allegations about her colleagues had become fodder for debate in the custody case.
A judge transferred temporary custody to her ex-husband while she was recovering from surgery in the hospital, she said. The temporary custody became permanent this year. Egan-Byron did not see her son for three and a half years while he lived with his father in Crystal Lake, Ill., and accuses her husband and his lawyer of manipulating their son and influencing the outcome of the decision.
In July 2007, her son, who is now 15, came to Florida for a 10-day visit filled with movies, dinners and bowling. She said her son is a special-needs child and suffers from the separation. Instead of staying in his bed, he slept on the floor outside her bedroom door each night, she said.
“He stopped growing the day they took him,” Egan-Byron said.
Mo Therese Hannah, a professor of psychology at Sienna College in Loudonville, N.Y., is a leading advocate for the custody rights of battered women. She says politicians rarely help women with custody cases and she has never heard of a custody case with a whistleblowing element.
However, Hannah added, “When people object and complain and do things to try and fight the system, often they’ve been retaliated against.”
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.
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