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Religious discrimination is a powerful factor behind Chad and Sara Prigges’ custody fight for 17-month-old Joshua S. Late last week the East Hartford, Conn., couple was to confer with lawyers in Hartford, after extending their time to appeal the decision of Middletown Juvenile Court Judge Carl J. Schuman, who ruled that a Bloomfield, Conn., couple should be allowed to adopt the child. Joshua was orphaned June 10, 1999 when his mother, Kelly Silk, stabbed her husband to death and killed herself and two of their four children by setting their East Hartford home ablaze. If the Prigges can work out legal fee and visitation issues, they plan to seek custody of Joshua as the guardians designated in the Silks’ wills, and may seek redress from the Department of Children and Families which seemed to oppose their custody from the start, says Prigge. He’s a minister in the Truth Baptist church, which allows corporal punishment of children and puts more faith in prayer than in Prozac. CHARACTERIZED AS A CULT In the emotional aftermath of the murder-suicide, the Silks’ church was characterized as a cult by relatives and neighbors who talked to authorities and the press. In subsequent maneuvers by DCF workers, the Prigges were left off the approved visitation list for Joshua in the hospital, and Chad Prigge was told to leave the initial probate hearing. The DCF officials seemed to write off the Prigges and other members of their congregation from any serious consideration. “What we’ve seen in the courtroom and in the tactics of the state agency DCF leads us to believe that there has been a genuine religious discrimination in this matter,” Prigge said on Sept. 20. In Schuman’s 24-page Aug. 21 opinion, he concluded there was no legal reason why the Prigges should not become the parents of Joshua, but decided the baby should stay with Aldo and Lisa Vallera of Bloomfield because he had begun to bond with them. The judge criticized DCF for failing to give the Prigges a fair chance to be considered, and for destroying handwritten notes needed as evidence. Schuman clearly wanted DCF to behave in a more accountable manner. Prigge said the detailed opinion by Schuman bolstered his faith in government. “I think that’s the blessing of the American legal system. The details, the records, the truth has come to the fore. We have some concrete things we can hang onto and use in a court of law.” The Prigges are represented by Ronald T. Scott and Robert T. Rimer of Brown, Paindiris & Scott in Hartford, who declined comment. The Valleras are the foster parents that Schuman said should raise Joshua — not because the Prigges were in any way unfit, but because Joshua had bonded with them in the months since DCF’s early placement. They are represented by Dominick J. Thomas Jr. of Derby, Conn.’s Cohen & Thomas. Joshua’s one surviving sibling, Jessica, 9, has been placed with her biological father in Minnesota. Thomas said he agreed with Schuman’s conclusions, but said the judge ignored much of the factual record in reaching his result. “I don’t agree with many parts of the decision, but ultimately, he did the right thing,” by leaving Joshua with the Valleras, Thomas said. Throughout the case of the orphaned infant, Thomas says matters of first impression arose at every turn. If the case is appealed, that’s not likely to stop. Scott, the Prigges’ lawyer, had one prospective comment: “The most interesting part of this case is yet to come.”

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