Ottawa Citizen

Saturday September 11, 1999

'They were here to take my son away'

The father of a 22-year-old mentally challenged man recalls a 'helplessness you can't fathom' when two OPP officers arrived at his house in the middle of the night. He listened in horror as they read a court order that allowed them to seize his son.

Gary Dimmock
The Ottawa Citizen

Gary Dimmock, The Ottawa Citizen / Al Sugerman: 'I just want what's best for Seth. He has rights like everyone else and they have to be respected.'

Al Sugerman photographed two Ontario Provincial Police officers as they executed a child-apprehension custody order for his son, Seth, in a farmhouse near London, Ont.

Al Sugerman photographed two Ontario Provincial Police officers as they executed a child-apprehension custody order for his son, Seth, in a farmhouse near London, Ont.

Seth Sugerman was asked by his father what his choice was: stay in the house or go with the police. 'Stay here in West Lorne' was the answer.

WEST LORNE, Ont. - In a midnight raid on Aug. 26, Ontario Provincial Police roused a 22-year-old, mentally disabled man from sleep and marched him off into the night against his will.

Earlier in the evening, Seth Sugerman had gone out for dinner at a restaurant where he used to work as a kitchen assistant. He'd returned to his father's hobby farm in this village southwest of London, Ont., and by the time police pulled up outside he was sound asleep.

For an hour, Const. Mike Harwood waited in his cruiser for backup. Sgt. Sue Blacklock finally arrived in her vehicle and the two officers walked 30 metres from the dirt road to the back porch of the farmhouse.

They'd come for Seth Sugerman, the subject of a child-apprehension custody order. Mr. Sugerman, however, is not a child. He's 22, and though he is mentally disabled, he can make his own decisions.

When the officers started banging at the door, Al Sugerman figured his son was up and something was wrong. Half asleep, he walked down 12 steps from the second floor to investigate, and found the police officers hammering at the door, their flashlights shining in.

The police said they had come to apprehend his son.

"It was a helplessness you just can't fathom," recalls Mr. Sugerman. "They were here to take my son away in the middle of the night. I couldn't do anything and my heart was just pounding."

They produced and then read a court apprehension order, a document issued by a judge that empowers police to seize and return children to their custodial parent. In this case, the custodial parent was Cheryl Polikoff, Mr. Sugerman's ex-wife.

His son still asleep, Mr. Sugerman told police to stay outside. Through the window of the door, he told them his son wasn't a criminal, had a mind of his own and was old enough to make his own decisions. He said it was the middle of the night and asked if they could return during the day to discuss the matter.

The police officers said that neither Mr. Sugerman nor his son had a choice in the eyes of the law.

"How do you resist against people like this? They had guns and clubs. There was nothing I could do. It was just utter helplessness. This is Canada, not Nazi Germany. I couldn't get through to them. I was helpless against two cops and a piece of paper."

Finally, he agreed to open the door.

Const. Harwood shoved his foot in, and leaned into the door. The officers were now in the kitchen, demanding his son.

"I was full of grief. The whole thing was completely irrational and a gross infringement of my son's human rights and freedoms."

It was now almost 12:30 a.m. and his son, tired and confused, emerged from his bedroom, roused by the noise. He stood by a bookcase, looking dazed while his father tried to convince the police officers to leave them alone.

"Don't you understand that this is the middle of the night?"

The police officers said they were just doing their job and were bound by the court order, which had been granted eight hours before on the strength of an affidavit by Ms. Polikoff. In the sworn statement, the mother said her son has the mind of a 12-year-old boy and isn't capable of taking care of himself.

His emotions running high, and knowing he couldn't obstruct police, Mr. Sugerman grabbed his camera, loaded it with film, and started shooting from the hip.

He considered the blinding flashes his only defence, at the very least a documentation of what was happening. In one of the pictures, Const. Harwood is shown standing watch at Seth's bedroom door, hurrying him to pack his stuff.

Seth didn't pack too much -- just some clothes -- and left behind his collection of Disney movies, books, ball cap and sports equipment.

In a final bid to persuade police, Mr. Sugerman let his son speak for himself. He grabbed a hand-held tape recorder to capture Seth's reaction to what was happening.

Mr. Sugerman is heard telling his son: "You have the right to go back with the policemen tonight. Or you have the right to stay in West Lorne with me. Which do you prefer?"

His son replies: "To stay here in West Lorne," he said.

But the police officers hurried him out of the house. The sergeant leading the way and the constable behind the father and son, they marched down the three-step porch to the waiting cruisers. Mr. Sugerman hugged his son goodbye and then Seth was shown the backseat of Sgt. Blacklock's cruiser.

One hour later, the police cruiser pulled into a gas station in Essex, about 100 kilometres west, where they had arranged to release Seth into the custody of his mother.

The court order that led to Seth's apprehension by police was signed by Superior Court Justice Lawrence Morin and states that Mr. Sugerman is not to contact either his ex-wife or his son. The order is an interim ruling pending further hearings in the case.

In granting the order, Judge Morin reviewed recent hospital records and a sworn affidavit by Ms. Polikoff.

In the affidavit, Ms. Polikoff says her son is capable of watching television, can dress and feed himself, and completed Grade 12 at a special education school. Ms. Polikoff also says her son can't be left alone and can't manage his finances (he receives disability compensation from the Ministry of Health). For instance, she says, he can't make change for a dollar.

Neither Ms. Polikoff nor Seth Sugerman could be reached for comment story. Their respective positions are drawn from the affidavit and other documents.

Seth's parents are long divorced and at odds about what their adult son can and can't do. He's lived with his mother his whole life, spending weekends at his father's farm.

Though over the age of majority, Seth now finds himself without a say in his life's next turn.

Again and again, he has told anyone who will listen -- a psychiatrist, advocates for the mentally challenged, physicians and, finally, the police -- that he wants to live at his father's farm. Still, it has become clear that Seth , described by a psychiatrist as insightful and by police as clear and understandable, is at the mercy of a court that considers him a child.

Ms. Polikoff turned to the courts for the apprehension order after Seth refused to come home in late July. The man and his mother had just moved into a new home in Essex. The upheaval was particularly troubling for Seth, who started wandering off during the day. He also grew so hostile about working with his mother's cats -- she breeds Siamese -- that he assaulted her one night.

She admitted him to a hospital emergency room, where a psychiatrist, Dr. Lal Fernando, paid him a visit and noted the following:

"He has found the move stressful and he said, 'I miss my farm.' He regretted assaulting his mom and said he lost control of himself. He said prior to the incident, mentally, he was stable. He was cheerful most times. Good appetite, slept well. He denied hearing voices, being paranoid or confused or suicidal," Dr. Fernando wrote.

Because Seth said he missed his farm and wanted to be with his father, the psychiatrist released the patient to him on Aug. 3 for a visit.

Three days passed, and his mother insisted that he be returned home, but Mr. Sugerman figured his son could do what he wanted. Together, they spent those days enrolling Seth in community-support group programs designed to help the mentally challenged.

"In 30 years from now, (neither) his mother nor me will be around and it's time he started getting on with his own life, with people his own age. He can lead somewhat of a normal life and it's not impossible that he might have a family of his own one day."

Two weeks later, the day before the midnight raid, Mr. Sugerman's ex-wife turned to the courts and won a custody order forcing him to return Seth. Mr. Sugerman complied with the court order, and agreed to hand him over at the Essex OPP detachment in Maidstone Township on Highway 401.

Inside, Sgt. Rick Gorchinsky was puzzled by the presence of Seth, Mr. Sugerman and Ms. Polikoff, and wondered why they'd make such an exchange at a police station. In any event, Sgt. Gorchinsky filed a type-written report about what happened.

According to that report, Mr. Sugerman said his son should be the one who decides what he wants. But his ex-wife told the sergeant that Mr. Sugerman had abducted her son and that she had a court order to regain custody.

The police officer had no evidence that anybody had been abducted and no one could produce a copy of such an order. Ms. Polikoff's lawyer, Peter Eberlie, said that the order had been signed by a judge but had yet to be filed with the court clerk.

"(Ms. Polikoff's lawyer) was quite adamant that writer (Sgt. Gorchinsky) should assist his client in seizing custody of Seth and help her leave the detachment area unaccosted. Writer on several occasions tried to explain to (Ms. Polikoff's lawyer) that police would not take sides in this type of situation unless a court orders us to apprehend and deliver a person to a place," Sgt. Gorchinsky wrote.

"Writer spoke to all parties involved at great length. Finally, when resolution was not forthcoming, writer spoke to Seth," the officer wrote.

In a private room, and in the presence of a fellow officer, Sgt. Gorchinsky asked Seth what he wanted to do. He found him easy to talk to and understood his every word.

In his report, he identified Seth as a victim and then continued: "Seth advised that he was very positive that he wanted to go home with his father, Albert Sugerman. Seth was asked several times and each time he was quite sure of his decision. Seth was allowed to go of his own free will and he immediately went outside to his father and left for West Lorne. ... Understandably, Cheryl (Polikoff) was quite upset and was advised by writer that without an apprehension order, police would not involve themselves save for a keep the peace," Sgt. Gorchinsky wrote.

The next day, Aug. 26, Ms. Polikoff turned to the courts again and won the apprehension order that led police on their midnight raid.

During the hearing, the mother won the relief order on the grounds that her ex-husband had flouted the previous court order and that her son is not capable of making his own decisions.

The case is now making its way through the Superior Court of Ontario and Mr. Sugerman is mounting his own motion. He wants the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee to intervene and examine the case.

"I just want what's best for Seth. He has rights like everyone else and they have to be respected."

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen