A national feminist, group, may take up the cause of a Thousand Oaks mother who was arrested for fleeing to Pittsburgh with her 5-year-old daughter after a Los Angeles judge awarded custody of the girl to an unrelated Van Nuys man.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said by telephone from Virginia on Monday that the organization has become interested in the case of Catherine F. Thomas. The foundation is looking into the possibility of helping with Thomas' legal defense in Los Angeles, where she faces a charge of felony child stealing, which carries a penalty of up to three years in state prison.
Meanwhile, court proceedings are scheduled to continue today in Pittsburgh, where a family court judge is taking the unusual step of reviewing the California case. In the meantime, he has stayed the arrest warrant against Thomas, 46, and is allowing her to live with her daughter.
The judge acted at the request of Thomas' local attorney, backed by Pittsburgh police, who appeared to question whether the California court had made the proper decision, saying the girl appears to fear the man to whom the court awarded custody.
Smeal, who comes from Pittsburgh, said her heart went out to Thomas when she learned of the complicated case from a television show and from Pittsburgh feminists. "I understand she has an attorney but if we can help with putting together a stronger defense, we will," she said.
Ironically, Thomas and her daughter were seized by police at the Pittsburgh train station Friday morning after they were recognized by another traveler, who had watched the same show. She took her daughter and disappeared during a visit with the child July 29.
"The issue here is a woman who is really, from what I can gather, being denied her parental rights even though she's been a good mother," Smeal said, "and because it appears to us that she was poor and did not have as much firing power and as experienced counsel."
Thomas lost custody of her daughter Courtney in June when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Martha Golden awarded paternity rights and full custody to a former family friend who has no biological ties to the child but contends that he played such a significant role in Courtney's care that she knew him as "Daddy."
The legal father, Kevin Thomas, of Van Nuys, is openly gay and says he and Catherine Thomas, who is single and has two other children, agreed to raise Courtney together when she became pregnant by another man.
Catherine Thomas, who denies ever agreeing to such a formal arrangement, describes Kevin Thomas as a friend and frequent baby-sitter who became obsessed with the child.
Kevin Thomas legally changed his surname from McCain in 1988 after Courtney's birth.
On Monday, a Pittsburgh psychologist--Irvin Guyett, who examined Courtney over the weekend--testified in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court that the child seemed afraid of Kevin Thomas and wasn't eager to be reunited with him.
He said Courtney "demonstrated real agitation" whenever Kevin Thomas' name was mentioned, said Patricia Diulus-Myers, Catherine Thomas' Pittsburgh attorney.
Diulus-Myers said the little girl expressed the same misgivings in her presence as they waited in a Pittsburgh police station, telling her doll "I'll protect you" when the legal father was mentioned.
The hearing, to continue today, was scheduled after Allegheny County Judge Joseph Jaffe issued a temporary stay against Catherine Thomas' arrest warrant and ordered that Courtney be placed in the custody of the county's Children and Youth Services Department rather than be returned to Kevin Thomas, who flew to Pittsburgh Friday to retrieve her after learning of the mother's arrest.
Mother and daughter are being allowed to stay together at a local shelter under Jaffe's emergency order. Diulus-Myers said she hopes to persuade the judge that the two should not be separated even though the mother will inevitably face criminal charges in Los Angeles.
She added that Jaffe appeared "very concerned" and has indicated that he might try to speak to Golden, who is out of the country on vacation.
A Pittsburgh police official--Cmdr. Gwen Elliott--also testified Monday about officers' "mounting concern" over "returning the daughter to the purported father in view of the way the child was behaving, in view of the very clear, loving relationship she had with the mother and obvious anxiety over going with Kevin," Diulus-Myers said.
Kevin Thomas was expected to tell his side of the story today. His attorney in Pittsburgh could not be reached. His Encino attorney, Glen H. Schwartz, said the hearing "defies logic," arguing that Pennsylvania has no right to interfere in a California matter.
"You have a judgment, a valid judgment and then a fugitive pulled off a train," Schwartz said. "The facts should not be re-litigated. That's really casting aspersions on the California courts."