Kids heal as family wonders why
By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- A year and a half ago, Heidi Hughes-Cihaner stood atop the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, peering down toward death.
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper eventually coaxed her from the edge and took her to St. Anthony's Hospital for treatment. It was her third of four psychiatric hospitalizations.
Two weeks ago, a Hillsborough judge ruled Hughes-Cihaner fit to take custody of her two children, Sarah, 3, and Seyhmus, 5, despite pleas from their father that they stay with him.
Wednesday, Hughes-Cihaner repeatedly stabbed both children with a 4-inch steak knife inside her Valrico mobile home, police say.
The good news: Both children are expected to be released today from Tampa General Hospital.
The bad news: Their future looks as grim as their past.
Their mother sits in a jail cell, charged with trying to kill them.
Social service investigators have argued against returning them full time to their father, Metin Cihaner, a man who once spent three months in jail awaiting criminal extradition to Turkey. They say he has "little grasp of how to parent."
Even Judge Katherine Essrig, who returned the children to their mother, drew criticism Thursday.
"It defies logic," Cihaner's attorney, Robert Tropp, said of the decision. "I'm just at a loss."
Essrig, reached at home, said she couldn't discuss her decision.
"The canon of judicial contact prohibits us from comments or statements of cases pending before us," she said. "I just can't discuss it. I wish I could."
The Cihaners met in a mall. Both said it was love at first sight. But the love turned sour.
She called him "the devil" because of his Muslim beliefs and a "professional con artist" because of his problems with the law. He called her "unstable," attacking her increasingly zealous Christian beliefs.
Thursday, she sat shackled in an orange jumpsuit, eyes closed, head bowed, crying during a hearing in a Hillsborough courtroom. He ended up on the lobby floor of the same courthouse, overcome by chest pains from the stress and heartache.
Among the many unanswered questions Thursday was what sort of life the children, Sarah and Seyhmus, will walk into when they step out of the hospital doors.
The two children have been caught in a nasty tug of war since the Cihaners separated in May 2001.
But the couple's troubles started much earlier.
Not long after they met, Metin Cihaner was arrested in December 1995 and held in jail for three months while Turkey tried to have him extradited.
According to court records, Cihaner was accused of using forgery to obtain a false power of attorney from a Turkish man. Cihaner then transferred the man's home to his own brother, who later sold the property, officials said.
A federal judge found "no probable cause" for the charges and set Cihaner free. He and Heidi married almost immediately, in March 1996.
But by May 2001 they were separated. And despite her August incident on the Skyway Bridge, court records show that she retained full custody of the children.
A judge ruled Metin Cihaner a risk to flee the country with the children and granted him only supervised visitation.
It wasn't until Hughes-Cihaner was hospitalized for a fourth time, in January, that her husband filed an emergency motion to regain custody of the children. By March, he had them back.
But the past nine months have been even worse, both for the parents and their children.
In April, Cihaner filed a domestic injunction against his wife. He said she repeatedly called him "the devil" and taught the children that "Christians are good" and "Muslims are bad." He also claimed she kicked and scratched him.
A judge ordered Hughes-Cihaner to stay 300 feet from her husband.
Meanwhile, a child custody investigator interviewed both parents and watched the children interact with them separately. In a May report, the investigator said she had "concerns regarding both parents."
She said Hughes-Cihaner seemed to have an "emotional detachment" with the children and "no awareness of the severity of her emotional concerns."
She said Cihaner would frequently "dote on and spoil" his children and was "very attentive" to their needs, but that he had a "lack of parenting skills."
Ultimately, the investigator concluded that Cihaner was "in a much stronger position emotionally to care for these children."
Even Hughes-Cihaner's mother sided with Cihaner, calling him a "good daddy" and deeming her own daughter "not in touch with reality."
Cihaner cared for the children, with his wife getting supervised visits, until Dec. 5. That's when Judge Essrig, after hearing more than a week of testimony and considering recommendations from the Department of Children and Families, returned the youngsters to their mother.
"What bothers me," Tropp said, "is that (DCF) recommended that the kids go with the mama. And the mama's the one who stabbed them. How right could they be?"
Cihaner tried to get custody of his children again Thursday. He sat in a small courtroom crowded with reporters, social workers and lawyers, just two seats from his estranged wife.
He left unhappy, looking shell-shocked when DCF officials urged circuit Judge Anthony Black not to grant him custody. The judge agreed.
Cihaner will be allowed to pick up the children from the hospital and have his regularly scheduled visitation with them this weekend. The judge also said he could spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with them.
Otherwise, they must stay with a friend or family member approved by DCF. The case is scheduled to go before Essrig again Jan. 2.
Sarah and Seyhmus remained at Tampa General Hospital late Thursday recovering from surgery. Cihaner himself was taken to TGH after his collapse at the courthouse. Hughes-Cihaner remained at the county jail without bail.
All of them are broken, shattered in their own way.
Tropp said he hoped the new year would bring new hope to the family.
"Hopefully this nightmare will come to an end, once and for all."
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