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Interpreter Seeks Custody of Deaf Student

May 31, 1995

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) _ A deaf teen-ager who says her parents refuse to learn sign language pleaded with a judge Wednesday to let her live permanently with her interpreter.

Sonya Kinney, 15, said in an interview that the most frustrating moment came two years ago, when she tried to tell her mother she had been abused by her stepfather.

``She didn’t understand me. I told her but she didn’t understand me,″ Sonya said in sign language. Instead, she said, she told her interpreter, Joanie Hughes.

Ms. Hughes is seeking permanent custody of Sonya, whose parents are divorced. No charges were filed against the stepfather, who died recently.

Sonya began living with her father, Norman Kinney, in January after telling social workers of the abuse. A month later, her father agreed to let her move in with Ms. Hughes. Then he changed his mind, and the legal fight began.

Outside court, Sonya threatened to run away if the court makes her live with her father.

``If I have to live with my dad, I’m alone all the time,″ the girl said as Ms. Hughes, an interpreter for the New Hanover County school system, translated.

During the hearing, a court-hired sign-language interpreter translated everything said in the courtroom for Sonya, as well as her testimony from the witness stand.

Sonya said she asked her mother, Christyne Kinney Estes, ``about 20 times″ to learn sign language, and ``she ignored me.″ Ms. Estes did not attend the hearing.

Kinney’s attorney, John Burns, argued that Sonya’s skill at sign language showed that her parents were trying to help her by letting her spend so much time with Ms. Hughes. The lawyer began presenting his case Wednesday afternoon.

Ms. Hughes told District Judge Shelly Holt that Kinney has a history of neglecting his children and is in trouble with the law. Sonya has said that she is afraid of her father’s drinking.

Kinney says he no longer has a drinking problem. The self-employed painter is accused of stealing from George and Mary Hanson, a couple who hired him to paint their home and who let Kinney live in their basement.

George Hanson testified that he saw a pattern of neglect after Sonya and her twin brother, Johnathan, moved in with their father in January.

``They were hungry, and they didn’t have many clothes,″ Hanson said. The children would take food scraps from the table to their basement room, he said.

Kinney was often away overnight without telling the children where he was, Hanson said. The Hansons bought food, clothes and school supplies for the children.

When Kinney was around, he paid little attention to his children, especially Sonya, and showed no affection whatsoever, Hanson said.

During the hearing, Sonya sat with Ms. Hughes’ daughters, ages 19 and 21. The older daughter is also an interpreter for the deaf.

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