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Former stripper regains custody of son

Appeals court reiterates grandparents' rights

Saturday, September 27, 2003

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a story that echoes the plot of the Hollywood movie "Striptease," a former exotic dancer who lost custody of her son to his Armstrong County grandparents will now get the boy back.

Cherina Slepecki of Bellevue, an entertainer in a Pittsburgh gentleman's club until two years ago, is to regain custody of her 8-year-old son as the result of a state Superior Court decision issued Thursday.

Slepecki lost the boy 15 months ago when Armstrong County Judge Kenneth G. Valasek sent the child to live with his paternal grandparents, saying the boy would be better off there than with his mother.

Slepecki and her lawyer, Lisa Marie Vari, believe that evaluation was based solely on Slepecki's profession.

Superior Court said Valasek abused his discretion when he took a child from a suitable parent, one who even Valasek had admitted met the child's needs.

"We won," Vari said yesterday. "But it is still a defeat for parents battling grandparents."

That's because while the appeals court said the facts of the case failed to support taking the boy from his mother, the decision reiterated an earlier state Supreme Court interpretation of a state law regarding grandparents' rights to custody.

The courts have decided that the law clearly states that any grandparent may file suit at any time seeking custody of grandchildren no matter what the situation.

The law goes on to say under what circumstances the grandparent may win -- the grandparent has cared for the child in the home while the parent lived elsewhere, the grandparent has cared for an abused or neglected grandchild or the grandparent believes it is necessary to care for the child because the child is at risk of abuse or neglect.

Many parents are forced to spend thousands of dollars to defend their right to keep their own children. And, if they lose initially, as in this case, parents may be deprived of their children for a time.

Because of that problem, Vari and Slepecki are considering appealing the decision that otherwise is a victory.

"This is a dangerous situation," Slepecki said yesterday. "Parents must have care, custody and control of their children as the 14th Amendment allows. If you are good grandparents, you do not have to sue to see your grandkids."

She estimated that she spent $15,000 in legal fees -- in addition to the $300 a month she had to pay the grandparents in child support.

"It is not the cookie-baking grandmas anymore," she said. "It is control freaks."

Slepecki's problems began when she divorced the boy's father, Kenneth Boarts Jr., and moved to Allegheny County with their son.

Boarts filed for custody, arguing in part that Slepecki's work schedule as a dancer required baby sitters to care for the boy. Boarts was ultimately deemed unfit because of a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.

His parents, with whom he lived, also sought custody.

A psychologist told Judge Valasek that the boy was more closely bonded to the grandparents than to his mother and that the grandparents were more nurturing. The grandparents said the boy told them at times that he didn't love his mother. In addition, the grandparents disagreed with Slepecki about treatment for the boy's Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and insisted they'd be better caretakers because more relatives lived close to them.

Valasek decided that Slepecki adequately tended to the boy's physical needs, but the grandparents could provide a better environment for the child.

The fact that Valasek found Slepecki suitable is the problem, according to the Superior Court panel, which included Judges Debra M. Todd, who wrote the decision, John T. Bender and T.J. Kelly Jr.

The panel quoted a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that also favored parents' rights: "The Due Process Clause does not permit a state to infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make child rearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a better decision could be made."

Vari said it would have been dangerous for all parents if Superior Court had decided Valasek was right to take a child from an adequate mother.

"If better is the standard, then none of us is safe," she said.

That is partly because grandparents often are wealthier and have more time than parents, she said. In addition, she said, "kids don't like parents because they enforce rules and grandparents are the 'Let's have a good time' people. Most children ... will tell you they love their grandparents more than their parents."

Vari will ask Valasek next week to write an order returning custody to Slepecki. Slepecki, who is remarried and no longer works, intends to home school her son so they can spend time together.

She said she will allow the boy to see the grandparents, Kenneth and Beverly Boarts, if he wishes.

Kenneth Boarts Sr. was unaware of the decision when contacted yesterday.

He said only, "I am kind of sick to my stomach. We were trying to help this child as best we could."

Barbara White Stack can be reached at or 412-263-1878.

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