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NEW YORK — A judge in Brooklyn last week heard testimony in a case that pits the mother of a man who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center against her former husband, who wants half of their son’s $2.9 million award from the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Brooklyn Surrogate Margarita Lopez Torres held a daylong hearing that included testimony from the mother of the late Kenneth Caldwell, Elsie Goss-Caldwell; the father, Leon Caldwell; their eldest son, Leon Jr.; and family friends. The case might turn on Lopez Torres’ interpretation of New York law, which precludes the distribution of a deceased child’s estate to a partner who has refused to provide for, or abandoned, a child before the child reached age 21. Goss-Caldwell of Philadelphia testified that her former husband physically abused her before and after they were married and abandoned their children sometime between 1974 and 1975, when he moved to New Jersey. Leon Jr. has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and is a visiting professor at the University of Memphis. Kenneth, who had lived in Brooklyn, was a 30-year-old executive at Alliance Consulting, which had offices in the World Trade Center. During a break in the testimony, Goss-Caldwell said her former husband’s attempt to claim a portion of the award was “despicable.” “He did nothing for [Kenneth] in life,” she said. “I think he’s immoral.” Caldwell, a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives in New Jersey and works as a cook, would not comment beyond his testimony. He has already received $25,000 from the Workers’ Compensation Board as a result of his son’s death, though the board garnished about half that for failure to pay child support. During his testimony, Caldwell said he never abused his wife and at most pushed her away when she hit and pushed him. He said he paid child support for a year, until he lost his job, and continued to pay later. Asked why he did not maintain a relationship with his sons, he said Goss-Caldwell would not let him. Goss-Caldwell’s attorney, Paul Bschorr of Reed Smith, who is handling the case pro bono, called numerous witnesses in order to portray this case as one of abandonment. Leon Jr. testified that his relationship with his father was “nonexistent.” He said he only tried to get in touch with his father once, as part of his studies in family psychology. Caldwell said his son had called him on other occasions. When Leon Jr. learned that Caldwell had traveled to New York to assert his right to receive part of Kenneth’s estate, Leon Jr. said, “It was extremely alarming that he would do that.” Bschorr and his colleague, Wallace Neel, also called a friend of Goss-Caldwell’s, a sister in their parish, and the former basketball coach at the boys’ parochial school in Philadelphia. The witnesses said either that they did not know Caldwell or that he had played no role in his sons’ lives that they were aware of. Caldwell’s attorney, Richard Chisholm of New Jersey, cast his client as a man shut out by his former wife. Caldwell testified that his ex-wife hung up on him when he called and prevented him from seeing his children. Chisholm also offered brief testimony from Caldwell’s current wife. Lopez Torres gave little indication of her interpretation of the case. She showed considerable interest, however, in Caldwell’s testimony about the efforts he made to visit his children. “Did you ever go to court?” the judge asked. “I just didn’t do that,” Caldwell replied. He said he could not afford an attorney. When the judge asked if he had gone to court without an attorney, he said he did not know what to do because he was living in New Jersey and his children were in Philadelphia. After the terrorist attacks, Caldwell said he read in the newspaper that his son’s father was unknown. “I got mad, so I went to New York to let them know I was still around,” Caldwell said. “Did you go with a lawyer?” the judge asked. “No,” Caldwell said. Lopez Torres gave the parties 60 days to submit final papers and reserved decision.
Tom Perotta is a reporter for the New York Law Journal , an ALM publication.

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