AS DISTRICT COURT JUDGE SHELLY Holt read her ruling on June 1, a ripple of excitement spread through the packed Wilmington, N.C., courtroom. Fifteen-year-old Sonya Kinney had to wait a moment before the judge's decision was translated into sign language. Once it was, the deaf teenager broke into a grin; her longtime interpreter Joanie Hughes, 40, had just been awarded permanent custody of her. One principal reason: Sonya's natural parents had refused to learn sign language.

"I'm saved," Sonya told Hughes, her fingers flying. "You saved my life." In her decision, Holt found that Sonya's divorced parents, Norman Kinney, 40, and Christyne Kinney Estes, 38, had been neglectful of the bubbly, auburn-haired eighth grader and that her father had put "his need to consume alcohol over his child's craving for affection."

While Sonya was a child, Norman Kinney would stamp his foot and point to things when he wanted to communicate with her. Even by her teenage years, the best he could do was write notes. Though Sonya asked him to learn sign language, Kinney says, "I've never had to, because we've always communicated."

Sonya's deafness dates from 1980, when she and her twin brother, Johnathan, were born three months prematurely. Although Johnathan suffered no disabilities, Sonya's hearing was left severely impaired because of undeveloped inner ears. After her parents separated in 1986, she, Johnathan and two sisters, KaNaesha, now 18, and Consuelo, 19, lived with their mother, who remarried after her divorce became final in 1990. By the time she was 13, Sonya says, her stepfather—now deceased—was sexually abusing her. Scared and confused, she tried to alert her mother, who also had refused to learn sign language. "I told her," says Sonya, "but she didn't understand me."

One person who did understand was Joanie Hughes, a freelance sign-language interpreter assigned to Sonya when she entered elementary school. Hughes, a divorced mother of two, began taking Sonya on family outings and quickly grew to love her. Last January, after Norman brought the twins to live with him, Sonya continued to feel alienated. "I was alone," she told PEOPLE last week through an interpreter, "because my brother and sisters could talk to my daddy but I couldn't."

So in February, Sonya's father agreed to let her live with Hughes. Three weeks later he reneged; when he threatened to take Sonya away, Hughes filed a petition for protective custody. "All this is about money," the elder Kinney says, referring to the monthly $458 Social Security disability check he had received until May—and which Hughes is now routing to Sonya's private savings account. And Sonya "ain't all the way deaf," says the elder Kinney in his own defense. "She can talk."

In fact, Sonya describes her hearing as minimal and says she often turns music up loud enough to "feel the beat" so she can dance. From now on, though, communication should be easier. At the three-bedroom ranch home she shares with Hughes, Sonya has found a new family—Hughes's two daughters, Traci, 22, and Kelli, 19, who both know sign language. "We love her," says Traci, who brushes Sonya's thick tangle of hair each morning.

Sonya (who remains estranged from her mother) now refers to Hughes as Mom. And despite all that's happened, she hopes someday to mend her shattered relationship with her father. "I love him," she signs, then lets her fingers rest momentarily above her heart. "I told him, 'I'm sorry.' I'm kind of mad right now, but I'm happy too. I'm happy I have a new family."

KEVIN GRAY
TOM NUGENT in Wilmington

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