Three young siblings caught in their parents' custody fight were berated by a Michigan judge and sent to juvenile detention after they refused to have lunch with their dad.
Omer Tsimhoni and Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni's 9-year-old daughter, and their 10- and 15-year-old sons, have been incarcerated at a juvenile center for more than two weeks, collateral damage in their divorced parents' court battle.
The kids have been locked up since a June 24 hearing before Oakland County Circuit Judge Lisa Gorcyca to arrange visitation with their parents. The children told the judge they didn't want to spend time with their dad, who has a job in Israel but comes to the Detroit area often. Rather than listen to the children's reasons for avoiding their father, the judge belittled and threatened them, according to a hearing transcript first posted by Fox 2 Detroit.
Gorcyca imposed the harsh punishment after the older Tsimhoni son obeyed the judge's command to apologize -- but not to his father. “He’s violent and he -- I saw him hit my mom and I’m not gonna talk to him,” the teen said. Tsimhoni denied hitting his ex in an interview with the New York Observer, and claimed his former wife made up the story and convinced their kids it was real.
Gorcyca ignored the teen's allegation and found him guilty of civil contempt. After praising the father effusively, she called the son a "defiant, contemptuous young man."
"You’re supposed to have a high IQ, which I’m doubting right now," Gorcyca told the boy, according to the transcript. "You have no manners.”
With coaxing from their attorneys, the two younger Tsimhoni siblings each apologized and said they would try to connect with their dad. Gorcyca ordered them to have a pleasant lunch with their father -- or they'd be incarcerated.
“Do you like going to the bathroom in front of people?" she asked the girl, threatening to send her to detention for her birthday.
Gorcyca said she would use security cameras to keep track of the children's behavior. After hearing the judge's warnings, the sister and younger brother said they would rather be sent to juvenile detention with their older sibling.
“Every single adult in this courtroom thinks you have been brainwashed," Gorcyca told them. She said they were like Charles Manson cult members.
Gorcyca sentenced all three children to a youth shelter. The shelter holds three dozen people, said George Miller, director of the Oakland County Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the center.
The judge banned the mother from visiting and ordered that the siblings be "kept away from each other as much as possible." Gorcyca set a review of the punishment for Sept. 8, but said the father may request an earlier hearing if the children start getting along with him.
“When you can follow the court’s direct order and have a normal, healthy relationship with your father, I would review this,” Gorcyca said. "It might be three years. It might [not] be till you’re 18."
Gorcyca won't comment on an open case, a staffer in her office said.
Jennifer Lord, an attorney who belongs to the growing Facebook group supporting the Tsimhoni kids, said judges aren't supposed to "adjudicate how a child feels about his family."
"Family judges, they're the ones who are supposed to be listening to the children," she said.
Tsimhoni and Eibschitz-Tsimhoni declined interview requests. Omer Tsimhoni wrote in an email that he hopes to eventually have a healthy relationship with his kids.
"I am hurt but mostly very sad for my children," he said. "I love them and miss them."
"I cannot understand something like that can even happen in this country," Eibschitz-Tsimhoni told Fox 2. "I want them back home."
Outrage appears to be growing as news of the punishment spreads. A small group protested in front of the courthouse Wednesday afternoon. Petitions calling for the judge’s firing and for the release of the children had more than 2,000 signatures Thursday afternoon.
Kristen Staley, associate director of youth justice policy at the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said she believed the judge acted within her authority. But she said she had concerns about placing non-offenders in a detention center set up for delinquents.
Ronn Torossian, a friend of Tsimhoni's current wife, dismissed public anger over the case, saying the transcript of last month's hearing gives a skewed view of complex divorce proceedings that fill eight volumes.
“This is not a case of, ‘These kids would not have a meal with their father so they were sent away,’” Torossian said. “That’s ignoring five years in court. … There’s been a lot of inappropriate conduct by the mother throughout the years.”
The divorce case began in 2009, after Omer Tsimhoni moved to Israel. Each parent claims the other has been dishonest and is trying to take the children.
Omer Tsimhoni's lawyer contends his ex-wife violates court orders and doesn't allow the children to see their father. Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni's attorney says she feels threatened by her ex-husband and fears for the children's safety.
U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland in 2010 described all three kids as "intelligent, sociable, and pleasant." He said the oldest had a “shy, reserved and polite personality."
Eibschitz-Tsimhoni's attorney has filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking the children’s release, which Gorcyca is set to consider next week.