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Desperate Effort to Regain Custody Backfires

Court: The state seized the three Christine girls because it feared they were starving. Their parents took them back at gunpoint and are now jailed.

April 30, 2002|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Brian Christine was an Eagle Scout, active in his university's Christian fellowship. Ruth taught English to Tibetan refugees and volunteered at a Mother Teresa home for the disabled. Together, they decided to offer their three young daughters a different kind of childhood: home-schooling in a strict Christian environment and a chance to see America in a converted old bus.

They toured the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park, but never made it past this old stagecoach stop in the Rogue River Valley. Today, Brian and Ruth Christine go on trial in Douglas County Circuit Court on charges of kidnapping their daughters, at gunpoint, from the hands of the state child welfare department, which had seized custody of the girls.

These days, there are two photographs of the Christine family in the court file.

The first--the one the Christines like to pull out--shows Bethany, then 5, 3-year-old Lydia and Miriam, 2, in their Sunday school dresses, ribbons in their hair, healthy and happy at the feet of their smiling parents. It was taken during a supervised visit a few months after the girls were taken from the Christines.

The second picture, taken the day the state took custody, shows the girls huddled on a bench--their cheeks hollow, their skin hanging from their bones, their eyes scared and wary. Lydia has a dirty bandage on her forehead from a wound so infected that it smells. The back of her skull is fractured.

Which is the true picture? "The big question mark, and it still is unanswered," said Josephine County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Newman, "is whether Brian and Ruth realized that their children were starving to death."

The case has become a rallying point for groups across the country that are critical of child protection agencies and the government in general. It is a favorite with right-wing talk radio and conservative publications, which seem to have found the story they've been waiting for--a righteous young couple battling a government run amok.

"I determined they were pretty good people ... caught up in a system that, without due process, coerces people into signing confessions for crimes they may not have committed," said talk show host Roger Fredinburg of Medford, Ore. "All you have to do is have a finger pointed at you, and all of a sudden your life is destroyed."

The Christines had been in Grants Pass for only a few months back in 2000, their bus parked behind the public library, when an anonymous caller told police that Lydia looked dehydrated.

Detective Dan Evans, sent to investigate, concluded that all three children looked malnourished. Lydia had a bandaged forehead and a black eye, Evans said in his report. "She told me her dad hit her

State officials say the girls were not just underweight. Bethany weighed only 25 pounds, half the average weight of a 5-year-old; all three were in the lowest 5th percentile for weight. And Lydia's skull fracture, which came from an undetermined injury about 30 days earlier, was likely very painful but was left untreated, doctors said. A judge found the girls were "at risk for permanent effects or even death" in the custody of their parents.

The Christines' lawyer, Edgar Steele, said both Ruth and Brian are slight--Brian, at 5 feet, 10 inches weighs only 140 pounds. "I hate to say this, but it's only in our generation that the normal kid is fat," Steele said.

In an interview, Ruth said the family fasted about once a month, skipping breakfast and lunch. "We tried to eat a real healthy diet, a lot of fruits and vegetables. We tried to eat organic food," she said. "When the police came, we were eating lunch and drinking water. I told them, I don't think there's a problem.... But it was a really hot day, and really stressful and really difficult for the children."

She agreed to let the girls be examined at the hospital, and then was told she would have to leave them with the state. "That was the last time I saw them for eight months."

The Christines were horrified at what was happening to their children. Although there was no allegation of sexual abuse, "a [state] worker took photographs of our stripped daughters' bodies and genitalia and tried to submit the photos as evidence to the court.... [They] also administered invasive, painful sexual examinations to our daughters over their objections," Brian wrote in a statement. "In addition, [the state] violated our daughters by injecting them with live viruses [vaccinations], which is deeply against their religious beliefs."

The Christines probably would have been able to get their children back from foster care within a few months if they had agreed to undergo psychological examinations and parental counseling. But they refused. They also refused court-appointed attorneys.

After eight months, the state allowed the Christines to see their children, but only permitted three visits. In court papers, officials cited evidence that the Christines might be planning to abduct their children.

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