Split Decision

updated 03/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1995 01:00AM

ON THIS SUNNY SATURDAY MORNING, the kitchen of Jeanne Ardizoni's Cape Cod condo looks deceptively like the set of some heartwarming TV special. Honey-haired Sheena Raymond, one of Ardizoni's 10-year-old identical twin daughters, stands in pajamas toasting an English muffin while her mom sets the table. The conversation, however, sounds like a bad segment of Oprah as Ardizoni, 34, discusses the latest wrinkle in her vitriolic divorce and custody battle with the twins' father, Dana Raymond. On Valentine's Day, a stunning court order separated the twins, giving one to each parent. "I didn't want to be away from her," Sheena chimes in, referring to twin Tara, who remains in their father's custody. "Sometimes I cry about her."

"Oh, Sheena," chides her mother. "You do not."

"Like heck I don't," the little girl says. "Last night in bed I was crying."

Five miles away in another part of Wareham, Mass., Sheena's mirror image, distinguishable only by a tiny mole on her right cheek and recently acquired braces, plays alone in the three-bedroom ranch house the twins had shared for the past several years with their father. Angry and hurt, Tara Raymond struggles to make sense of the adult wisdom that has deprived her of her sister—the one anchor she could cling to through the storm of their parents' divorce. "I just don't know why the judge did this," Tara told her grandfather James Raymond Sr., a few days ago. "What right does he have to separate us?"

That's the key question much of the country, including experts in family law and authorities on twins, is asking about the ruling by Plymouth County Probate Judge James R. Lawton, 69. "To separate children, especially twins, at that age is very difficult. Divorce is painful to children in any case, and this would add enormously to the burden of that," says psychologist David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University. To separate the twins, even temporarily, he says, "is asking for a lot of trouble."

Admittedly it might have taken a Solomon to sort out the charges and countercharges the former couple have filed against one another. When they first split in March 1993, Ardizoni did not seek custody of the pair's two children because of her addiction to painkillers, and the girls remained with their father. After months of treatment and counseling, she changed her mind. However, Raymond, 44, claims that his ex-wife, who had repeatedly attempted suicide, is still unstable. He contends that she and her live-in fiancé, truck driver Paul Vento, 43, are violent toward each other, and notes that last year the pair were caught shoplifting. For her part, Ardizoni maintains that Raymond's home is dangerous. She cites her ex-husband's extensive gun collection and the fact that his troubled son by a previous marriage was arrested at Raymond's house on a weapons charge.

But Judge Lawton did not call any of the mental-health professionals who had come to testify during what was expected to be a two-day hearing. Instead he summoned the girls from a Valentine's party in their fourth-grade classroom at Minot Forest Elementary School. In his chambers he asked each twin with whom she wanted to live. (The sisters say they were promised that they would not be split up.) Less than half an hour later, he announced his decision.

Tara, the judge subsequently told reporters, had adamantly refused even to visit the house where her mother and her fiancé live. Ten days later the child gave her reasons. "They hit each other," Tara told the Boston Globe. "I'm scared they're gonna hit us." After the decision, which sent Sheena into hysterics in the courtroom, the twins' father literally hit the wall, denting the plaster in the lobby outside. "It's a disgrace to the judicial system," says Raymond, an unemployed cable-TV installer. "You're at the whim of a man or a woman who has been entrusted with some of the most powerful things that can be—and it's destroying our families."

Of course the Raymond family had been in trouble long before this incident. When the couple met in Plymouth, Ardizoni was only 15 and had never had a serious boyfriend; Raymond, at 25, was already separated with two children (son Albert, "A.J.," now 24, and daughter Shana, 23), who lived with his estranged wife. Within six months the pair moved in together. A year and a half later they took off to Fort Myers, Fla., where they both worked for courier services. The couple married in 1984, shortly after the twins' birth. "I had never even held a baby," says Ardizoni. "When they came it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

In 1986 the family moved back to Massachusetts. The following year, Raymond says, the marriage started to disintegrate. He blames his wife's addiction to prescription medication. But Ardizoni contends the couple's problems were deeper and darker than drugs, a habit her ex-husband seems to have shared (he had at least two marijuana arrests in the early '70s). She repeats claims made in court papers that she was frequently abused by Raymond, often in front of the twins. Logs at the Wareham Police Department chronicle their continuing warfare; officers made numerous domestic-dispute calls to the couple's house.

Despite their turbulent home life, the twins appear to be developing into what Judge Lawton described as mature youngsters who are "very intelligent and articulate for their age." Although they look enough alike to confuse even their father, and share a number of interests—camping, fishing, playing Hide and Go Seek in the dark—the girls have distinct personalities and ambitions. Strong-willed Tara wants to be an emergency medical technician; Sheena, considered the more sensitive, hopes to become an astronaut or an artist.

Lawton, a veteran of 31 years on the bench and the father of five grown sons, says his goal was to respect the wishes of the children. "I was not performing surgery on Siamese twins," he told a local paper, surprised at the controversy his decision aroused.

In hopes of getting both girls back, Raymond has appealed the ruling in advance of the June 30 rehearing scheduled by Judge Lawton. Ardizoni, who also has a 10-month-old daughter, Victoria, with her fiancé, says she will abide by whatever the final decision is. "The fight needs to be over," she says. "My kids can't go through this for another year."

Meanwhile the sisters are trying to cope with their uncomfortable situation. "I think we're drifting further and further apart," Sheena says. Though she and Tara still see each other at school and in afternoon karate class three times a week, since the ruling they've only spent part of two weekends together. Left by the judge to work out visitation between themselves, the parents continue feuding. On Feb. 24 police were called to Ardizoni's home because of an argument between her and Raymond, who had come to see if Sheena could go Rollerblading with Tara. "It stinks," says Sheena of the situation. "I hardly never see her now."

But on that afternoon, Sheena did. "When they were at the skating rink, they went up to each other and grabbed each other's hands," Raymond says. "Tara looks at Sheena and says 'I love you,' and Sheena says, 'I love you too.' And they skated off holding hands."

PAM LAMBERT
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Wareham

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