Questions surround tragic adoption

Date: 2002-08-22
Source: Boston Globe

Author: Emily Ramshaw, Globe Correspondent

BRAINTREE - When a 2-year-old boy died last week of a blow to the head and his adoptive mother was charged in his death, the North Carolina adoption center that brought the Russian child to the United States insisted that both parents had been subject to extensive background checks.

But, despite numerous calls from reporters over the past week, the agency has not explained how a restraining order filed by Natalia Higier in 1995 to protect herself from her husband Louis apparently was overlooked during baby Zachary's 2001 adoption process.

In a May 1995 affidavit filed at Quincy District Court, Natalia Higier wrote that her husband repeatedly punched and slapped her, destroyed a bedroom door, called her "fat" and "poor," and ripped up one of her childhood photos. "I am afraid that it happens [sic] again," she wrote.

But six years later, the couple was considered ready for parenthood by the Frank Adoption Center of North Carolina. A statement released by the center noted that the Higiers underwent a "thorough home study," conducted by Dr. Laura Neymeyer of Adoption Resource Associates of Cambridge, before they were given permission to travel to Russia to adopt Zachary. The statement said the Higiers were tracked by social workers, and, like all prospective parents, had to release information on their financial status, physical and mental health, and criminal background.

"A review of the family's extensive adoption application file including the first post-placement report filed in May 2002 reveals only that this family was very well-suited to adopt a child," said Pamela Deese, counsel for the Frank Adoption Center, in a brief statement to the Globe yesterday.

Deese did not return calls left at her office in Washington, D.C.

Natalia Higier, who according to authorities also uses the name Natasha, told investigators that on Aug. 15 around 11 a.m. she left Zachary playing with his toys on the kitchen floor, to go to the bathroom. She told police that when she returned, she found him lying on the floor motionless and assumed he was sleeping.

Two hours later, Natalia said, she took the child to his pediatrician and the doctor called for an ambulance to take the child to Quincy Medical Center. Tests showed Zachary's skull was fractured, his brain was swollen, and blood had pooled around the fracture. He was taken to Children's Hospital, where he died.

An autopsy report listed blunt force trauma to the head as the cause of death, and prosecutors said contradictory facts in her report led investigators to believe her son's death may not have been an accident. For example, Higier says she found her son on the floor at 11 a.m., but doctors say the injuries occurred before 8 a.m.

Prosecutors described Zachary's head wound as "consistent with a fall from a multistory building," and Natalia did not have a clear explanation for his death.

She pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter in Quincy District Court and is being held on $100,000 cash bail.

The case has prompted state officials to criticize the Higiers' neighbors for turning a blind eye to domestic problems after one of Zachary's baby sitters told the Globe she had noticed injuries on the child.

But other residents on Beech Street, where children can be spotted riding bikes and playing ball under the watchful eyes of their parents, said yesterday that they never saw anything amiss.

"Parents in this neighborhood are teachers, Little League coaches, stay-at-home moms, nurses - and they are very active in the community and in their children's lives," said Sheila Troy, who lives next door to the Higiers.

"I know for a fact that if anybody had suspected anything, they would have told someone immediately."

Troy said that Zachary liked to play in her yard with her husband and children, and that they never saw any signs of violence or heard unusual noise from next door. Troy said the adoption of Zachary around Christmas 2001 came as a surprise to neighbors, and the Higiers seemed "thrilled."

"They had the baby all bundled up in a snowsuit and they were taking him for a walk to get him some air," Troy said.

"We've all really been shocked and sick to our stomachs that something like this could happen."



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