Custody hearing held for young daughter in doctor’s cyanide poisoning case |
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Dr. Autumn Marie Klein collapsed on April 17, 2013, and died three days later with a lethal concentration of cyanide in her system.

An Allegheny County judge ruled on Wednesday that the 6-year-old daughter of a slain UPMC doctor should remain with her maternal grandparents rather than her half brother, the son of the man charged with poisoning the victim.

Common Pleas Judge David Cashman issued the ruling at a closed hearing, rejecting media requests to open the session. Neither Cashman nor the attorneys involved, who are prohibited by court order from discussing the case, would comment.

Robert Ferrante, 64, of Schenley Farms, a University of Pittsburgh researcher, is awaiting trial in the slaying of his wife, Autumn Marie Klein, 41, a UPMC neurologist. She died April 20 of cyanide poisoning.

Their daughter, Cianna, has been staying with William, 76, and Lois Klein, 78, of Towson, Md. Cashman rejected a custody request by Ferrante’s adult son, Michael Ferrante of Boston, who argued that he and his wife could provide better care for Cianna than her grandparents.

Pennsylvania law gives grandparents standing to pursue custody of their grandchildren in some cases, said Downtown divorce attorney Scott L. Levine. If the mother dies, her parents can request sole, partial or shared custody, he said.

“As long as it’s in the best interests of the child,” Levine said.

The child may experience feelings of guilt and remorse — even at such a young age — but she shouldn’t blame herself for the tragedy, child advocates said.

“Kids need an undisrupted family life, and when it’s broken, they often think it’s because of them,” said Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, an early childhood education consultant who focuses on children of incarcerated parents. “Girls tend to implode and to be self-punishing.”

Children suffer emotionally, mentally and financially when a parent goes to jail, said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh, a South Side nonprofit that serves about 160 children ages 4 to 18 whose parents are incarcerated.

“One of the most common challenges amongst all the children is the shame … and not having an outlet to process the emotional trauma,” Hollis said. “Many caregivers think they’re protecting the child, but the kids tell us they’d rather be told what’s going on.”

On Monday, Cashman kept frozen all but $280,000 of Ferrante and Klein’s more than $2 million in assets. The rest of the money is to be used to support Cianna and any potential civil litigation.

The district attorney’s office has said the girl could be a witness in the criminal trial. Investigators allege Ferrante bought cyanide with a Pitt credit card and had it shipped overnight to his laboratory. Two days later, paramedics found Klein unresponsive on the kitchen floor of the couple’s home after she walked home from work. She died in UPMC Presbyterian.

Brandolph and Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected]. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or [email protected].

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