Absentee father seeks 9/11 payout

The father of a W. Phila. man who died at the World Trade Center seeks half the $2.9 million. They last saw each other in 1984.

Posted: June 20, 2007

In the 30 years between his birth in West Philadelphia and his death in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, Kenneth M. Caldwell saw his father twice - the last time in 1984.

Leon W. Caldwell left his wife, Elsie, and two sons about 1973. He rarely called and did not visit. He made no attempt to get custody of Kenneth or his older brother, Leon II; did not remember birthdays or holidays; and fell thousands of dollars in arrears in child support.

Today, in a court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Leon Caldwell will try to prove his right to half the $2.9 million awarded to his son's estate from the federal 9/11 Victims Recovery Fund.

Two other New York Surrogate's Courts - they handle wills and estate cases - have ruled against abandoning fathers in 9/11 cases, and Paul J. Bschorr, a lawyer for Elsie Goss-Caldwell, says the Brooklyn judge should follow suit.

"A craven and disgraceful attempt to profit from the death of his son," Bschorr wrote in the petition to disqualify Caldwell from sharing in the award.

Caldwell, 59, a cook who lives in Paterson, N.J., could not be reached for comment. In court filings, Caldwell's attorney, Richard M. Chisholm, accused Goss-Caldwell and Bschorr of creating a "simplistic picture" of her as saint and him as devil.

"The facts of this case are hardly so straightforward," Chisholm wrote. "Simply put, the marriage of Elsie and Leon Caldwell, like most marriages, did not resemble an episode from The Brady Bunch. Neither party was blameless."

Chisholm maintains that Caldwell was a father to the boys from Kenneth's birth until 1975, after he moved to Paterson for a job and his wife began putting "impediments" to visitation.

Caldwell, Chisholm says, could not afford a lawyer to sue for visitation or shared custody.

To some people, Caldwell's action may seem indefensible. Yet he never really has had to defend it. His case is simple: He is a surviving, albeit estranged, parent; Kenneth died without a will; he has a right to the money.

It has prevailed so far. Three years ago, the New York State Workers' Compensation Board awarded Kenneth's estate $50,000 on a claim filed by his mother, who is the estate's administrator. Leon intervened seeking half - and got it.

He later was ordered to return $12,460 to his ex-wife to cover unpaid child support, but the point was made: The law didn't require a good father, just a biological one.

When Goss-Caldwell appealed the board's ruling to New York's Appellate Division, the appeals panel affirmed the decision, 4-1. The majority wrote that New York's Workers' Compensation Law was unambiguous: Parent means "simply the biological father and mother of a child."

Judge John Lahtinen dissented, writing that, regardless of the law's clarity, "the legislature is presumed to have intended to do justice. . . . Justice is not fostered by rewarding in any fashion a parent who purposefully fails to provide any emotional, nurturing and/or financial support to a child."

But the $12,540 that Caldwell received from the Workers' Compensation Board pales compared with the $1.45 million he stands to gain if Judge Margarita Lopez Torres of Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn agrees with him.

Goss-Caldwell, 59, says she is outraged by her ex-husband's actions and has called it his ultimate act of disrespect toward her son.

By all accounts, after Leon Caldwell left the family, Goss-Caldwell did a remarkable job as a single parent. She became a tax preparer, started her own business, and bought a house to raise her sons, and later a daughter by another man.

She still lives there.

All three children were successes. Leon II, 16 months older than Kenneth, earned a doctorate in psychology, and became a professor at the University of Memphis and an authority on mental-health issues involving African American men and boys.

Keisha, 29, is a vocational counselor working with area homeless people.

Kenneth graduated from Hofstra University and on Sept. 11, 2001, was a technology representative for the Philadelphia-based Alliance Consulting, working in its New York office on the 102d floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower.

Shortly after the plane hit the tower, Kenneth called his mother: "I just wanted to let you know I love you. There's a bomb in the building and I've got to get out."

The line went dead. As with other victims of the attacks, Kenneth Caldwell's body was never recovered.

Elsie Goss-Caldwell has since become active in efforts to create a permanent 9/11 memorial in Philadelphia.

In the interim, she and other victims' families raised $15,000 for the city Mural Arts Program to paint a mural featuring Kenneth and eight other victims on a side wall of the building housing her business at 56th and Thompson Streets.

Leon Caldwell's chances to share in his son's estate may fail. At least twice since 9/11, Surrogate's Courts in Bronx and New York Counties - in cases known as In re Estate of Crisman and In re Estate of Gonzalez - have disqualified absentee fathers from sharing in the estates of children who were victims of the terrorist attacks.

Chisholm argues that all estate cases are "fact-sensitive" and that the rulings in the earlier cases cannot be applied to Caldwell's.

Nevertheless, wrote Bschorr, in both earlier cases the judges ruled against the abandoning fathers even though they had some subsequent contact with their children.

"Compared to [Caldwell]," Bschorr added, "the fathers in Crisman and Gonzalez were model parents. At least they had some contact with their children."

To read the lawsuit filed by Elsie Goss-Caldwell, go to:

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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