Counselor defends adoption approval

Date: 
2004-04-16

Counselor defends adoption approval Mattheys were loving parents, social worker who placed boy with family testifies.

MATTHEW J. DOWLING

The social worker who approved Robert and Brenda Matthey to adopt three Russian children in 1999 testified yesterday that the Hunterdon County couple appeared to be caring parents toward their four biological sons and expressed a desire to expand their family.

"They had more love to give and they wanted to give it to a child in need," said Nancy Dykstra-Powers, the branch director for Bethany Christian Services, who performed a home study on the Mattheys. "I believed that they were suitable and I approved them for adoption."

Dykstra-Powers said she initially approved the Mattheys for the adoption of two children, but when Robert Matthey called from Russia to seek approval for a third, she amended her report to allow the couple to also adopt 7-year-old Viktor Alexander Matthey.

Viktor died on Oct. 31, 2000, 10 months after Robert and Brenda Matthey returned from Siberia with him and his younger twin brothers. The Mattheys are charged with aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment in Viktor's death.

Dykstra-Powers said her pre-adoption interviews and visit to the Mattheys' home in Union Township showed good parenting skills. At a follow-up home visit six months after the adoption, Dykstra-Powers said a fellow social worker from her
office noted no serious problems with Viktor or his brothers.

"Things were going at an acceptable pace," said Dykstra-Powers, who exchanged smiles with Brenda Matthey during a few points in her testimony. "They were lovingly cared for. I found it to be acceptable."

But during cross-examination by Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Dawn Solari, Dykstra-Powers said her visit to the Matthey home in September 1999 lasted about 90 minutes and came with advance notice to the family.

Dykstra-Powers told the jury that the follow-up visit by one of her employees to check on Viktor -- a requirement under Russian adoption laws -- in June 2000 lasted about the same amount of time and was scheduled with the Mattheys.

That home visit was the last contact the Michigan-based adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, had with Viktor before his death four month later.

Viktor was rushed to the hospital on Oct. 29, 2000, after his mother called 911 to report he had stopped breathing. Viktor's body temperature was recorded at 83.2 degrees upon his arrival at Hunterdon Medical Center. His heart was restarted after 80 minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but he died two days later.

Prosecutors, who rested their case on Tuesday, have accused Robert and Brenda Matthey of locking Viktor in an unheated basement "pump room" overnight as a form of punishment. The Mattheys are also charged with excessively disciplining
Viktor by beating him and forcing him to eat uncooked beans.

Defense attorneys contend Viktor was a troubled boy who suffered from a rare medical condition called kwashiorkor, which caused his sudden hypothermia death.

Viktor acquired kwashiorkor from severe malnutrition he suffered as a young boy before he was taken from his alcoholic birth parents and placed in a Russian orphanage, according to the defense.

Dykstra-Powers was one of several witnesses to testify yesterday before the 10-woman, five-man jury as the defense continues to mount a case that the Mattheys were loving parents who pursued adoption out of a Christian act of kindness.

Two members of the Mattheys' church, the Flemington Assembly of God, testified yesterday that the entire congregation had been praying for a successful adoption once the Mattheys revealed their intentions.

"The whole church was very excited to see the new additions to the family," said Gail Kovach, former secretary of the Flemington Assembly of God. "We'd been waiting for this. It was a very exciting time."

Kovach said she saw Viktor two or three times a week at church functions along with the rest of the Matthey family. She said he appeared to be healthy and adapting well until about three or four weeks before the boy's death.

"He just seemed a lot thinner with circles under his eyes," Kovach said. "I just recall his face. In the last month, I think I saw him less. I mentioned to the pastor that Viktor didn't look well to me."

Others have testified that Viktor's condition seemed to deteriorate in October 2000 prior to his collapse on a Sunday while Bob Matthey was at church with the rest of the Matthey children. The Mattheys did not seek medical attention for Viktor until his heart stopped that morning.

Kovach's husband, John, also testified yesterday that he observed Robert and Brenda Matthey interact with their children on numerous occasions at the Flemington Assembly of God and found them to be "outstanding" parents.

"They're loving parents," John Kovach said, adding that discipline was always handled evenly. "They would be together in their discipline. Bob and Brenda had a plan."

Testimony is expected to resume Monday morning with additional members of the Mattheys' church, including the pastor. The defense is also expected early next week to call several witnesses who are being flown in from Siberia to testify about the conditions surround Viktor's early life that led to him being taken from his birth parents.

If convicted of aggravated manslaughter, Robert and Brenda Matthey face up to 30 years in state prison. They are also charged with child endangerment and witness tampering. The trial is expected to last through the end of the month.

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