International adoptee's death tears apart once-hopeful family

Date: 2004-05-27

COPYRIGHT 2004 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service


Byline: Russell Working and Alex Rodriguez

CHICAGO _ Alexei Geiko needed rescuing. At 20 months, he had been removed from alcoholic parents in Russia who underfed him and made him sleep on the floor of their roach-infested apartment. He then spent nearly five years in an orphanage.

Dino and Irma Pavlis offered themselves as his rescuers. The Schaumburg, Ill., couple hoped to start a family last fall by adopting two needy children: Alexei, 6, and his sister, 5.

To the judges who approved the adoption in the southern Russian port city of Yeysk, the match looked ideal. "The applicants are kind and good spouses," they wrote, "and the marriage is stable. ... The adoption agency will control the children's future life."

But six weeks after the family arrived in the United States in November, Alex Pavlis _ as he became known _ was dead and his new mother jailed on charges of murdering him.

Police say Irma Pavlis, 32, admitted to striking the child and slamming him into a closet when he threw a tantrum Dec. 18. He died in a hospital the next day. Her attorneys dispute the statement, maintaining that she is innocent and the child suffered from prior and self-inflicted injuries. A trial date has yet to be set.

Most foreign adoptions conclude happily, and Alex's death is a rarity amid the more than 20,000 foreign children _ nearly a quarter of them from Russia _ who find homes in the U.S. every year. Yet it sheds light on hundreds of cases in which parents have taken in children only to find themselves overwhelmed by medical and behavioral problems that often are poorly documented in Russian medical records.

Since 1996, adoptive parents have been accused of killing at least 12 Russian children. Experts know of no other country from which so many children have died.

Follow-up in international adoptions can be minimal. When a couple adopts through a foreign facilitator, as the Pavlises did, there are few advance educational requirements and little supervision after the children arrive.

"The system failed the (Pavlis) child, the mother and everybody it could," said Dr. Todd Ochs, a Chicago-area pediatrician who specializes in internationally adopted children but is not involved in the case. "The safeguards that we thought we had in place weren't there."

The story of how Alex's short life intersected with those of the Pavlises has been gleaned from police reports, court documents in Russia and the United States, adoption and medical records, and interviews in Chicago, Moscow and Yeysk. Dino Pavlis agreed to be interviewed in the presence of the couple's lawyer and later by e-mail.

Irma Pavlis is a former Mexican journalist who met Dino Pavlis_then manager of an avante-garde jazz theater called the Bop Shop_while she was in Chicago on vacation in 1992.

After exchanging letters, he visited her in Mexico City twice. She finally came to Chicago in November 1994, and they married the following year.

The couple had long hoped to create a combined family of adopted and biological children. Irma Pavlis is a devout Roman Catholic with a strong social conscience, her husband said. Adoption, she thought, was a way of helping needy orphans.

"When you work all day and you're worried about regular life, it's very hard to do anything for God," said Dino Pavlis, 40, now a sales manager at a local company. "But by adoption, you obligate yourself that every day you do something that's selfless."

The immediate spark for adopting was a miscarriage Irma Pavlis had suffered. She is still able to have children, her husband said, but as she sought to deal with the loss she began searching the Internet for adoptions. She found the children's pictures on the Web site of an agency called Dove Adoptions, in Portland, Ore. The photos were linked: When she clicked on Alexei's face, his sister's picture popped up.

Once she saw their faces, she began worrying about their welfare. Every day she would say, "Oh, they're never going to have parents."

Vasily and Svetlana Geiko, the parents of Alexei and his younger sister, lived in Yeysk, an industrial city of 94,500 along the Sea of Azov. Vasily, 35, worked on the assembly line at a can manufacturing plant; Svetlana, 37, stayed home with Alexei, the girl whom the Pavlises would also adopt, and their older sister, Natalya, now 11. (The Chicago Tribune is not naming the youngest girl in order to protect her privacy.)

The family's flat on the second floor of a dilapidated, Soviet-era apartment building was often filled with piles of dirty laundry and infested with cockroaches and mice, neighbors said. Natalya was often seen in her apartment window, begging neighbors for food. At times, she slipped out unnoticed by her parents so she could get food from neighbors.

The couple apparently tried to avoid any contact with neighbors, even going so far as to dry their laundry on clotheslines inside their apartment instead of outdoors. The flat was humid during the summer, and mold covered the wallpaper, neighbors said.

A neighbor, Nina Zyuganova, said women in the building urged Alexei's mother to take the children for walks. "She answered, `I don't care; they don't need it,' '' Zyuganova recalled. The boy appeared listless and detached, neighbors said.

Because of the conditions in the household, authorities supplied the Geikos with a liter of milk a day when the younger sister was born, to supplement her diet. Svetlana divided the milk among the children. Zyuganova once asked if that was enough milk for three children.

"It's enough," Svetlana replied, "and I even give a cup to Vasily."

In Russia a doctor or nurse is usually assigned to check weekly on newborns for the first few months of the child's life. The nurse assigned to the Geiko family, Yelena Ilyashenko, said Alexei suffered from a central nervous system disability that severely handicapped his motor functions. He also was badly malnourished and suffered from anemia and rickets. Physicians who reviewed photographs at the request of the Tribune say Alexei's facial features indicate his mother drank while he was in the womb.

Ilyashenko's hospital reported the conditions at the Geiko household to local authorities, who took custody of Alexei and his younger sister in December 1998 and placed them in an orphanage in Yeysk. Natalya was placed in a local orphanage in May 1999.

Svetlana was severely depressed when the children were taken away, crying for hours without saying a word, neighbors said. However, the Yeysk municipal court judge assigned to the Geikos' neglect case, Mikhail Okhrimenko, said neither parent visited the two children at the orphanage.

"The biological parents practically repudiated their children," Okhrimenko said.

The Geikos have since divorced, and the Tribune could not locate them.

A photo from the orphanage provided by the Pavlis' lawyers depicts a carpeted classroom where Alex sits with 11 other children. The shelves are furnished with Soviet-style toys: a plastic phone, a picture game called Lotto, an alphabet puzzle, some dolls. The children are dressed in slippers, shorts and the woolen tights commonly worn by preschoolers in Russia. The children have been treated to ice cream cones.

Amid the young faces, Alex stands out. His head is bandaged, and it lolls to his left. Stuart Goldberg, one of Irma Pavlis' two attorneys, says this proves the boy suffered head injuries dating back to Russia.

The Pavlises obtained a home study _ required for international adoptions _ through the Baptist Children's Home & Family Services in May 2003. The agency, based in Mount Vernon, Ill., would not handle the actual adoption, but it saw nothing to worry about and recommended the couple be allowed to adopt up to three children "as soon as possible."

"Their approach to discipline would include taking away privileges, time out and an explanation of discipline to the child," according to a copy of the home study supplied by Dino Pavlis. "They do not believe in verbal abuse or . . . corporal punishment."

The report said the Pavlises had "completed the required pre-adoption training." But this training consisted of reading two books and writing essays about them, Dino Pavlis said.

The Baptist Children's Home & Family Services has repeatedly declined to comment on the case, referring calls to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The agency's study went to the DCFS in Springfield, where officials certified that the Pavlises' home conformed to standards such as whether there is enough room, said spokeswoman Jill Manuel. They also checked to make sure the couple didn't have criminal records.

The couple contacted Dove Adoptions, where they found the photographs, but the agency's rates were beyond the couple's means. They searched adoption discussion groups and found an independent adoption facilitator in Krasnodar named Vladimir Zherdev. The total cost would be $11,000.

"When you don't have an agency, it's less expensive," Dino Pavlis said, "but you've got to find out things by yourself."

During the process, the Pavlises visited Russia twice, as the country mandates in foreign adoptions. They met with the kids in Yeysk in July, then again when they returned in October to take them in. When the couple flew to Moscow, each of them carried $5,500 in cash.

But working with a local facilitator gave the couple less protection in an unfamiliar country where they didn't know the bureaucracy and spoke no Russian other than phrases Irma Pavlis had begun memorizing.

An American agency is no guarantee that parents will come away satisfied. Many parents who have been accused of killing their children found them through agencies. Still, a good agency will provide advance education on potential health problems, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, and it will walk parents through the process and make sure they get the children's medical records.

According to Dino Pavlis, the couple didn't receive full medical records from the facilitator they worked with. He translated very little, and an orphanage director mentioned only the girl's colds, he said.

"It's such a rush," he said. "You have such a small amount of time. We found out when we got to Moscow we did not have the medical records translated, or any viable medical records. . . . We didn't want to press too much because we wanted to take these children to help them. We didn't want to be, `Oh, I want a perfect child, and I won't take them if there's one thing wrong with them.' ''

Unbeknownst to the couple, they were dealing with an orphanage for special-needs children, Dino Pavlis said. The day they took the children back to their hotel in Yeysk, they undressed the youngsters for a shower and discovered that Alex's toes were connected. He also had a deformed penis and little finger, according to a hospital report.

Russian officials give a different account. The couple visited the orphanage, saw Alexei and his sister, and then during a court hearing were given extensive information about Alexei's condition, said Dina Semeshina, the judge in Krasnodar who handled the Geiko adoption. And during the court hearing, the Pavlises confirmed they were aware of Alexei's medical troubles.

Russian officials refused to specify what the Pavlises had been told during the hearing about the boy's medical condition. They would only say that the couple had been informed of his condition.

It is not uncommon for adoptive parents to be confused about the medical condition of children, say pediatricians who specialize in care for international adoptees. Russian orphanages almost always provide medical records of one sort or another, several doctors said. But records often list only a diagnosis, rather than detailed notes on each doctor visit. And terminology is often so different that doctors here have trouble making sense of it.

"When somebody says we didn't receive all the information, usually it's not because the information's being hidden," said Ira J. Chasnoff, a Chicago doctor specializing in adoptive pediatrics. "It's because it didn't exist. If they're talking about mental health problems or fetal alcohol syndrome or rickets or any of those kinds of things, those kinds of things are never diagnosed over there."

One way to avoid such problems is to consult a specialist in America, who can view video images that prospective parents e-mail from Russia and look for neurological and other health problems. But like many adoptive parents, the Pavlises didn't consult a physician here.

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Artur Lukyanov, a driver the Pavlises hired in Moscow, noticed problems with the children. Reached by phone in Moscow, Lukyanov said the children seemed to misbehave deliberately to upset their new parents. At a Moscow McDonald's, the girl crumbled her Big Mac into bits and threw it on the table, even though she was hungry. More troubling, their Russian made little sense.

"Irma Pavlis and Dino Pavlis asked me, `Can you tell me what they're talking about?' But for me, it was very hard to understand what they were saying," he said. "By 5 or 6 years old, children should express themselves in more articulate phrases. . . . Even the pronunciation was incomprehensible."

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Most worrisome of all was that Alex began acting out physically. In the restroom of the Moscow Circus, which was visiting southern Russia, he flung himself headlong at the floor, Dino Pavlis stated in an e-mail.

Such behavior continued when the Pavlises returned to Chicago, Dino Pavlis said. They flew on a plane with many other parents adopting Russian orphans, but nearly all were babies. (Experts say that the longer a child is raised in an orphanage, the more severe the behavior problems often are.) Arriving late at night, the Pavlises caught a taxi to Schaumburg. Alex was brooding in the cab and fidgeting with a knob on the door. He was upset. His new parents didn't know why and couldn't ask.

In front of their apartment, Dino Pavlis got out, took his son's hand, and said, "Come on, let's go. Let's go to the house."

Alex threw himself headfirst onto the ground.

"He just collapsed," Dino Pavlis recalled. "I mean, he wasn't just falling. He threw himself down. And then just started screaming bloody murder. It was late. Oh, God, it was horrible. And he wouldn't stop. I had to carry him in."

This was the beginning of a string of stressful incidents at the home, he said.

In an e-mail, Dino recounted the joy as well as the pain of adopting. Alex liked to push the cart in the grocery store and dance to music. He had the face of an angel. Shortly after they returned from Russia, Dino Pavlis was boasting about his new family on Lukyanov's Web site: "We just adopted two beautiful Russian children in November of 2003."

Still, Alex's tantrums continued. Irma Pavlis was home-schooling the children while they considered their options _ possibly a Catholic school.

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Both children showed troubling behavior: When the girl was told to stand in her room, she clawed at her face and drew blood, Dino Pavlis said. Alex began copying her.

But the girl was doing well in her home schooling, learning the alphabet and repeating English words. Alex, who was unable to learn to read, was jealous. He would react if his parents told him to stand still for some quiet time, Dino Pavlis said. Sometimes he would throw himself on the floor.

"He began to urinate and defecate on himself as an act of defiance," Dino Pavlis said. "He urinated on himself once after we complimented his sister on reciting the ABC's.''

The home-study agency was expected to follow up, but not until after Christmas. The couple thought they could resolve the problems by then, Dino Pavlis stated.

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In December, the Pavlises were preparing to go to Mexico for Christmas, said Irma Pavlis' sister, Maria Eugenia Ramirez, who was in Chicago recently to visit her sister in jail.

It would be the relatives' first chance to meet the children. The Pavlises were planning to baptize the children during the season of posada festivities reenacting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. Irma Pavlis' nephew, who is 6, was excited about meeting his cousins. He was planning to show Alex how to whack a pinata and send candies flying.

Dec. 18 _ the day Alex was hospitalized _ came just six weeks after the children arrived in America. According to accounts Irma Pavlis gave to Schaumburg police and to doctors at the Alexian Brothers Medical Center, where he was treated, she told Alex to do his ABC's in his bedroom around 11 or 11:30 a.m. She was ironing clothes while her daughter sat in the kitchen, writing letters on a piece of paper.

For the previous two days, the boy had been occasionally blanking out and staring into space, his head lolling, she would tell physicians. This morning, he suddenly began rolling his eyes and gasping for air, she said.

The boy had been having episodes in which he faked unconsciousness, said co-defense attorney Donna Rotunno. When Irma Pavlis saw it was serious, she attempted CPR. She then called her husband, who told her to dial 911.

Tom Stanton, spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said Irma Pavlis waited 30 to 45 minutes before calling her husband. The defense disputes that, saying she called as soon as she recognized the danger.

The Schaumburg Fire Department transported Alex to Alexian Brothers Medical Center, and he was later airlifted to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. He died Friday of blunt trauma to the head, the Cook County medical examiner's office stated.

Irma Pavlis called her family in Mexico to cancel the visit, telling them Alex had fallen down, Ramirez said.

But to police officers who arrived, this story did not add up. A lieutenant pulled a colleague aside and said he had noticed bruises on Alex's head and face. Medical examinations determined that most of the bruises occurred that day, police said.

(Defense attorneys insist that the bruising happened earlier and in places that indicate the boy's falling and head-banging was the cause.)

Police took Irma Pavlis in for questioning, and the apartment was classified as a crime scene. The girl was removed from the house.

In an interrogation, Irma Pavlis stated that her son had been wetting his bed, running into walls and playing aggressively, thus bruising himself. But on Dec. 20, Irma Pavlis allegedly admitted her involvement in the death, a police report states.

She said Alex had been urinating and defecating in bed and elsewhere, causing her to become frustrated, Stanton said. "The defendant began to shake him and slap him, and twisted his neck and shoved him against the closet door," he said.

Goldberg, one of the defense lawyers, argues that the police misconstrued the words of a distraught mother and that the statement was inadmissible because she was not provided with a lawyer after Dino Pavlis repeatedly requested one in his wife's presence.

The Pavlis family has been shattered. Irma Pavlis is in jail, awaiting trial. Dino Pavlis remains at their home. The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago placed Alex's sister in a foster home with a Russian-speaking parent.

She is in school and receiving counseling to help her deal with the loss of her brother.

___

(Chicago Tribune correspondent Russell Working reported from Chicago; correspondent Alex Rodriguez reported from Yeysk, Russia.)

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