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Theda countered that Ferguson drove around town with the children even though there were warrants for his arrest on traffic violations, that he was careless in feeding Christian and that the child had fallen ill almost a dozen times within 24 hours of visiting his father. She claimed her younger son accused Dawan of "repeatedly touching [the boy's] genitals in an inappropriate manner."
This time Judge Frawley sided with Dawan. At the recommendation of the boys' court-appointed guardian ad litem, Frawley awarded custody to their father until a new hearing could take place.
Outraged, Theda assembled family and friends for what was to become the first of many protests outside the family court building on North Vandeventer Avenue. "I like Martin Luther King Jr., and the idea of standing up for my rights," Thomas says today in defense of her actions. "I felt like if I didn't have my child, I would die. My parents couldn't protect me. What else could I do besides protest?"
Thomas also fired her attorney, Ruby Bonner.
Now the director of the city's Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, Bonner lets out a long sigh at the mention of the case. "I was trying to help her understand some of the responsibility she shared for disobeying the court's order," Bonner explains.
"Though there were all kinds of trust issues between Mom and Dad, I really believe her primary concern was for the welfare of the sick child in particular," the lawyer adds. "It would just tear her up every time she had to take that child to the father."
Nathan Cohen, the children's court-appointed guardian ad litem, says Theda's behavior tilted the scales against her. "Theda was saying things like the father would never see the children again and she'd go to jail before she let him see the kids," Cohen says. "It was pretty clear that she was trying to interfere completely in this father's relationship with his kids."
Standard of living, too, might have factored in the judge's decision. Court records indicate that Theda was earning $5.50 an hour as a home-health aide, while Dawan was making $2,080 a month working for his stepfather. John Steffen was helping his stepson in other ways, as well. Dawan was living in the Gate District just west of Lafayette Square, in a two-family house Steffen owned. Steffen also hired prominent Clayton divorce lawyer Cary Mogerman to represent his stepson and helped foot Dawan's legal bill.
In a 22-page order handed down in early 1999, Judge Frawley awarded Dawan full custody of Christian and Connor. The judge granted Theda visiting rights, six hours on three Saturdays a month, and ordered her to pay Dawan $229 in monthly child support.
Through a court spokesman, Frawley declined to be interviewed for this story.
On the morning of January 16, 2001, Dawan Ferguson went to wake Christian at 11 and found him unconscious in bed, lying in a puddle of vomit. Ferguson pulled open his son's eyes. Christian didn't flinch. Then he vomited again.
It was only a mile from the Fergusons' home to the emergency room at Cardinal Glennon, whose staff, over the years, had had ample opportunity to get to know Christian. According to medical records from that day, Christian suffered a massive seizure in the ER that lasted more than three minutes, then lapsed into a coma.
As medical staff attempted unsuccessfully to revive their child, Dawan and Theda went at each other. "There they were, punching each other in the ER," recalls Nathan Cohen.
Over the next several days, the exes' battle continued in a blizzard of paper. On January 18 Dawan filed for a restraining order against Theda, asking that she be barred from seeing Christian, alleging that his ex "threatened the doctor that has cared for him since birth (seven years) by pointing her (Theda) finger in her (the doctor's) face and telling her to 'Do your job!' in a loud and threatening tone and also telling her that 'You will get yours!'
"Also on Tuesday, January 16, 2001, she verbally attacked and attempted to provoke me in the hospital's hallway while being held back by her husband.... If her behavior is allowed to continue in or around his room then the doctors have warned that such stimulus elevates his blood pressure and puts him at grave risk of his condition worsening...."
Donna Erickson, a Cardinal Glennon social worker, chimed in with a letter to the family court. "Christian is currently on the intensive care unit; he is on life support and there is a possibility that he will not survive this episode of his illness," wrote Erickson. "At this point, it is probably preferable that parents have little or no contact with each other....
"There also needs to be clear behavioral guidelines that must be observed while visits are being conducted. Parents may not threaten, either verbally or physically, any staff person or physician."
Erickson suggested that Judge Frawley establish separate visiting hours for each parent.
Cohen says he told Dawan and Theda they might be required to visit separately if they could not act civilly toward each other and warned of a scenario in which their son might be near death and only one parent would be permitted to be in the room with him. "I told them: You should each take half of the room, forget the [separate] shifts," Cohen recalls. "But [Theda] didn't want it. She wouldn't have it. And Cardinal Glennon couldn't afford the security to look after them" if they were visiting together.