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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Father Loses Custody Of Deaf Girl Judge Cites Dad’s Use Of Alcohol, Refusal To Learn Sign Language

Martha Waggoner Associated Press

A deaf girl’s father who had refused to learn sign language lost permanent custody of his daughter on Thursday to the girl’s school interpreter.

District Court Judge Shelly Holt said both Sonya Kinney’s parents had been neglectful and her father, Norman, placed “his need to consume alcohol over his child’s craving for affection and attention.”

Sonya, 15, was overjoyed by the ruling.

“I’m saved. You saved my life,” Sonya told the interpreter, Joanie Hughes, through sign language.

She ran to the bench and held her arms up to the judge, who took her hand.

Sonya had been living with Hughes since March, when the interpreter won temporary custody. “I just know that she’s safe and happy now,” Hughes said after the ruling.

Kinney testified during the three-day hearing that he knows only two words in sign language - book and dog.

He demonstrated by holding his hands in front of him as if holding a book and by snapping his fingers.

He also said he used to stomp his feet and point at objects to communicate with Sonya when she was younger, and they use pencils and paper now.

“I just feel guilty about Sonya being hearing impaired,” Kinney said earlier Thursday.

“If the courts give Sonya back to me, I want her to teach me sign language. I want to learn to communicate with Sonya.”

Kinney left court without comment after the ruling.

Sonya, who was born hearing impaired, testified that she is scared of her father, especially when he drinks heavily.

Kinney said he has called his four children “retard” and that he has called his son Johnathan “fag.”

He called those family nicknames, and said that in turn his children call him “the nerd.”

Kinney and Sonya’s mother, Leanne Estes, are divorced.

Estes, who also does not know sign language, gave up permanent custody of Sonya to Kinney in January, after about five years of shared custody.

Estes said she did not attend the hearing because Sonya’s lawyer advised against it.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Estes said her daughter isn’t completely deaf and can speak with those who understand her, mostly family members.

“She needs to use her voice more,” she said. “Everybody wants her to totally rely on sign language when she can talk.”