Tampa Tribune News

Thursday, May 13, 1999

Father wants custody changes

By CANDACE J. SAMOLINSKI of The Tampa Tribune

LUTZ - Stephen Rotell, whose 6-year-old son was found dead a month ago, hopes the death will spur changes.

A month ago, Stephen Rotell got the devastating news that his 6-year-old son, Mathew, was dead.

On Wednesday, Rotell held a news conference to talk about Mathew, his concern for his other son, Adam, and his hope that the family's tragedy will prompt a re- examination of how child custody cases are handled.

``Right now, I'm looking at everything I can do to help Adam,'' Rotell said. ``Not having my other son with me, that's very hard. But I have Adam. I have something to thank God for.''

Meanwhile Wednesday, Rotell's ex- wife, Kristina Gaime, was booked into the Land O' Lakes Jail on charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder. Gaime had been under psychiatric evaluation at Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute since her indictment last week in Mathew's death.

Gaime will be in the jail's medical wing and continue to be medically and psychologically evaluated, Pasco sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers said.

Gaime's Tampa attorney, Angelo Ferlita, said he disagrees with the decision to move Gaime to the jail.

Since Mathew's death, Gaime has suffered from unexplained burns that Ferlita said will require surgery.

``If there was something I could do about this, I would definitely put her in a hospital,'' Ferlita said.

Since their divorce in 1994, Rotell and Gaime have been in a bitter custody battle for their boys. That's something Rotell said he regrets.

``All the time I spent in court and depositions was time stolen from Adam and Mathew,'' he said. ``Not to mention the financial burden it placed on me.''

Rotell said he hopes ``something truly good'' will result from Mathew's death.

``I would like to see the judicial system have a more uniform way of dealing with custody cases,'' he said. ``I'm frustrated at what has happened and what it has cost my family. There's a lot of pain in that.''

Some of the pain comes from the thought that Mathew died thinking his father abandoned him, Rotell said. Also troubling, he said, were Gaime's allegations that he abused his sons.

``I just wish I could've seen Mathew one more time,'' he said. ``I've never hurt my sons. I've only loved them.''

The state's Department of Children and Families said Gaime's abuse allegations against Rotell proved unfounded.

Abuse allegations often surface during custody disputes, said Dean Tong, an author and forensic consultant on child abuse, domestic violence and child custody cases. Even when they are unfounded, they can polarize children against the accused parent.

``I think the parental alienation that accompanies these kinds of allegations should be considered a form of child abuse,'' Tong said. ``I also believe that once an allegation made by a parent has been proven false, custody should be given to the other parent.''

Tong said he knows his ideas aren't the status quo.

``I realize this isn't a popular position and that many people won't agree with me,'' he said.

Candace J. Samolinski covers law enforcement and can be reached at (813) 948-4215 or csamolinski@tampatrib.com