Custody Trial Opens in Case Of Adopted Girls Hit on Plane
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Testimony began yesterday in Family Court in Queens in the custody trial of an Arizona couple who are accused of beating their newly adopted children on a flight from Moscow to New York City last May.
A detective and a caseworker for the city testified that the parents had told them they had struck the children, but said they were disciplining them after the children had become hysterical during the 10-hour flight on May 28.
Before the trial began, lawyers for the parents, Richard and Karen Thorne, tried to reach a deal with city officials that would have let them return to Arizona with the children. There, the family would have been supervised by social workers and the Thornes would have attended parenting classes.
Cheryl Solomon, a lawyer for the Thornes, said, ''They will jump through as many flaming hoops as they have to jump through'' to be reunited with the children.
The two 4-year-old girls have been in foster care since the plane landed at Kennedy International Airport and the Thornes were arrested and charged with assault, harassment and endangering the welfare of the children. The Thornes face a separate criminal trial on the charges. The parents were released on bail and have visited the children four times under supervision.
But after six hours of negotiations between officials from the city's Administration for Children's Services and lawyers for the Thornes, no deal was reached.
Earlier last month, the city had made its own offer to the Thornes, saying it would grant them custody and parole in exchange for a plea of guilty to reduced charges. But the Thornes' lawyers rejected the offer, maintaining that the Thornes had done nothing wrong.
The city intends to call eight witnesses at the custody hearing, including the pilot of the Delta plane and a flight attendant, who have said the Thornes were abusive to the children, officials said.
Defense lawyers say that three other passengers on the plane have come forward in defense of the Thornes, and that a fourth passenger signed an affidavit that the Thornes had done their best with an out-of-control situation.
Testifying for the city yesterday were John Trotter, the Port Authority detective who arrested the Thornes, and a caseworker for the Administration for Children's Services who has interviewed a number of people involved in the incident.
The caseworker testified that the girls apparently began the trip calmly. Then after another passenger spoke to them in Russian and then walked away, the girls began to cry.
The caseworker added that Mrs. Thorne told her that the girls were jumping up and down in their seats and ''smacking'' her in the face. ''She said she was frustrated and embarrassed,'' the caseworker said. ''She tried to comfort the child, but it didn't work.''
Both Mr. Trotter and the caseworker, whose identity is being withheld at the request of the court, said that the Thornes had told them that they did strike the children. ''He said he disciplined them because they had pulled Mrs. Thorne's hair and were misbehaving, but that he didn't do anything wrong,'' Mr. Trotter said of Mr. Thorne.
Mr. Trotter said Mrs. Thorne ''said yes, she had hit the child, but it was discipline and it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.''
Mr. Trotter said that an unspecified number of passengers on the plane willingly missed their connecting flights out of Kennedy because they wanted to make sure the Thornes were arrested. ''They were adamant in remaining,'' he said.
The court is to reconvene July 14 to hear more testimony.