Stewart Accused of Child Pornby Lauren Viera (2/11/00)
For one local mother, what began last summer as an errand to drop off a roll of film has turned into a defense of her own morals.
Forty-eight-year-old Oberlin resident Cynthia Stewart was charged on two counts after film-processing employees decided that the personal photographs of her eight-year-old daughter in the shower were sexually oriented and alerted the Oberlin police, who deemed them inappropriate. It is an accusation that is actively opposed by the greater Oberlin community. Nevertheless, Davis is currently facing two charges: a criminal case for pornography-related issues and a domestic case to determine whether she is a suitable parent.
Faculty, students and community members, in addition to concerned individuals from 38 states and several foreign countries, have offered Davis their support, both vocally and monetarily. Recent donations have pushed contributions to the Cynthia Stewart Legal Defense Fund above $30,000. Stewart's trial was initially scheduled for March, and is now postponed until May 16 due to court calendar scheduling.
Part of the complications surrounding local opinions of the case revolve around the fact that few individuals have actually seen the photographs to make a judgement on their own. The prosecution may use copies of the photographs in court. However, the defense maintains that a misinterpretation of the vague juvenile nudity laws during the indictment should lead to an automatic dismissal.
"Several different kinds of people in the community, including more than one of the child's teachers, have seen copies of the photos and have found them terribly unremarkable and unobjectionable," said Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies Marc Blecher, who has been an active member of Davis' support committee since the incident gained public attention. "The extraordinary thing is that everyone in town has come to support her, including people who have seen the photographs in question."
The support committee organized a last-minute rally on Feb. 2 drawing a crowd of over 100 supporters at the Lorain County Courthouse. Stewart, an Oberlin graduate, is a school bus driver for local Oberlin elementary schools, and is known to be an active, friendly member of the community. While being a bus driver may be an unusual vocation for Oberlin college graduates, Blecher said that Stewart views her job as a positive interaction with the children. "She's deeply concerned about and very interested in working with children, and thinks of herself as a part of the educational team," he said. "She's just an extremely caring person, and [driving the bus] is her way of taking care of children."
Through his work at the Good Food Co-Op in Harkness basement, senior Benjamin Fried shared friendly interactions with Stewart, a frequent customer, and her daughter. "The people that developed the roll of film decided on their own that [the photos] were inappropriate," he said. "I've seen [Stewart and her daughter] around the store, and it seems like a pretty healthy mother-daughter relationship to me."
Fried, along with over 1,000 other students, faculty and community members, signed one of several locally-distributed petitions in support of Stewart's defense. The petitions were drawn up by architect and former Professor of Art Stanley Mathews, who has taken a large roll in Stewart's support community along with his wife, Professor of Art Patricia Mathews. The petition states, "Cynthia Stewart had neither obscene intentions, nor did she plan to distribute these very private photographs. [She] is a devoted mother and artist who honors and cherishes her daughter's mind, spirit and body, and sought to record her daughter's life."
Stewart's hearing for the child's custody case will take place next Thursday. The domestic relations court, represented by the Children's Service, has gone through two phases: the first is completed, resulting in a finding last week that the child was not abused, but nonetheless is "dependent." Under the law, a "dependent" child is "a child whose condition or environment is such to warrant the state, in the interest of the child, in assuming the child's guardianship." If the state decides that the child is better suited in a different environment than her own home, Children's Services has the right to take her into its own custody.
Next Thursday will mark the continuation of the proceedings for disposition, and the domestic relations court will complete the next phase of decision making as to the future of Stewart's domestic relationship with her daughter. While the court legally has the right to take Stewart's child into its custody, the prosecution made a public statement yesterday reassuring the community that this will probably not be the case. County prosecutor Greg White was quoted in yesterday's Elyria Chronicle Telegram as stating that Children's Services is "seeking protective supervision in the case and does not want custody of any kind." Legally, complete custody is still an option, but a less rigid decision for placing Stewart's child under protective supervision is more likely to rule next week, if any action is taken at all.
"This [statement of a "dependent" child] is so vague that any child could be declared a 'dependent' child. It's all out of proportion from anything that's reasonable," said Professor of Physics Daniel Styer, another faculty supporter in Stewart's defense, who has written numerous letters to the editor to various papers covering the case. "It makes me very distressed because it is something that bothers me very severely. I feel very bad about this in that I know there are cases in which a child is abused and the state needs to intervene in the best interest of the child, but in using this law in such a way that it is common sense that this is not appropriate, prosecutors are not going to be able to use the law in such a way that it is appropriate. Why is children's services pursuing Cynthia's daughter who lives in a warm, welcoming environment, and leaving these other children in limbo?"
Supporters of the Stewart case will be given the opportunity to voice their concerns at a silent candle light march Wednesday in Tappan Square. No speeches and no pickets will be taking place. Rather, Blecher described the event as a peaceful opportunity for individuals to show support for Stewart and her family, and write messages of support on the Tappan Square rocks. Additionally, Blecher and the other support committee members have organized a benefit concert Sunday to raise money for the Stewart defense fund.
In May, prosecuters agreed to only give Stewart a six month rehabilitation program on the condition that the two photographs in question would be destroyed. If at any time Child Services feels that Stewart's daughter is in danger, they have the right to take necessary steps to protect her.
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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