Questions raised in death of toddler; Other cases of abuse involving adopted Russian children:

Date: 2002-12-23

Former child advocate wonders if some warning signs were ignored.
Author: Michael Puente, Post-Tribune staff writer

While Natalie Fabian Evans is set to celebrate Christmas with her husband and possibly their adopted 3-year-old son, some wonder if more could have been done by authorities to prevent the death of her other adopted son, 16-month-old Luke.

Prosecutors allege Luke was murdered at the hands of Natalie Evans. Doctors say Luke died of physical abuse and shaken baby syndrome.

Even so, Evans was allowed to post bail in the case just days after being charged with the capital crime -- something almost unheard of in Lake County.

Evans' defense attorneys strongly contend Luke had prior serious health problems when he arrived in Northwest Indiana as a 10-month-old from Russia in May 2001.

The adoption of an ill Russian child isn't unusual.

From 1990 to 2001, some 100,000 foreign children, a vast majority from Russia and China, have been adopted by Americans and most develop healthy lives with their new families.

An untold number of the adopted Russian children, however, have had profound health problems when they arrived in the United States, which reportedly may have led some parents to abuse or neglect their adopted child.

For example, in February 1996, 2-year-old David Alexander Polreis died in a Colorado hospital covered in bruises.

The child's adopted mother claimed the child's extensive behavior problems led her to beat the child in a fit of rage.

A jury ultimately convicted the adopted mother in the child's death and sentenced her to 18 years in prison.

It is too early to tell if that is what happened in the Evans case.

But at least one woman wonders if more could have been done to prevent Luke's death, whether it was by illness or abuse.

Crown Point resident Patti Wolter, the former director of the now-defunct Lake County Children's Advocacy Center, said she provided the name and telephone number of this concerned woman, who had perceived alleged problems at the Evans household prior to Luke's death, to Lake County Deputy Prosecutor Kate O'Halloran.

O'Halloran is the deputy prosecutor on the Natalie Evans case.

The woman, whose name is being withheld, is supposedly a close friend of Natalie Evans, according to Wolter.

The woman claims to have contacted Small World Charity of New York City, which the Evanses went through to adopt the boys, about two weeks prior to Luke's death about "problems" in the Evans home at 17256 Roosevelt Place in Cedar Creek Township, regarding the way Luke was cared for by Natalie Evans.

The woman claims Svetlana "Lana" Semashko, head of Small World Charity, told her to "support Natalie" with Luke, Wolter said.

It is not known if an attempt was made by Small World Charity to contact child welfare authorities or police in Lake County about the alleged problems in the home.

The woman, according to Wolter, was shocked to hear of Luke's death and was beside herself in sadness and guilt, but the woman still isn't convinced Evans would intentionally hurt Luke.

Moreover, Wolter said the woman is perplexed that she has yet to be interviewed by anyone associated in the case, such as the Lake County sheriff's office, Lake County prosecutor's office and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration in Gary.

According to Wolter, Lake County sheriff detectives also have yet to interview Evans' former employer, who knew Evans well, or another woman who allegedly was a baby-sitter for Luke on numerous occasions.

Wolter is concerned that prosecutors and detectives haven't done what is needed to investigate this case completely.

"Just because I'm not getting paid to be a child advocate doesn't mean I'm not an advocate for children," Wolter said. "Small World knew there were some problems. ... The cops haven't spoken to anybody. ... They've had a year to investigate this. Why weren't statements taken by the police? We're talking about a dead baby."

Semashko did not return phone calls seeking comment.

However, a male representative in her New York City office said the Evanses are "very awesome people. The charges are ridiculous. It wasn't her fault. He was sick."

A source close to the case says he believes everyone who was close to Steve and Natalie Evans has been interviewed by authorities.

The source said he has not heard of the claim that a call had been placed to Small World Charity about alleged problems in the home prior to Luke's death.

Evans is being represented by two prominent local attorneys: T. Edward Page and Nick Thiros.

Page is a former Lake County deputy prosecutor who later spent some 16 years as a Lake Superior Court Criminal Division magistrate.

Thiros has built a reputation as being among the best and most expensive criminal defense attorneys in the state.

Thus far, Evans has pleaded innocent to all charges.

Page believes his client will be cleared of any wrongdoing once the case is brought to trial.

"We believe when all the evidence is presented, our client will be vindicated," Page said. "There was no murder, there was no crime."

Page was successful last week in getting his client released on $10,000 bail, just three days after she was charged with murder, battery and neglect of a dependent.

The case began the morning of Nov. 29, 2001 when Lake County police arrived at the Evans home.

Police spoke with Natalie Evans who stated she was unable to awaken Luke, court records state.

Evans further stated she took Luke into the bathroom where she was planning to place him in the tub to stimulate him, according to court records.

Evans claimed she may have bumped the back of Luke's head while attempting to lay him in the tub, court records state.

About 8:23 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2001, Luke was taken to St. Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point, where medical test show extensive injuries to his brain, court records state.

Luke was then flown to the University of Chicago Children's Hospital on Nov. 30. There, Steve Evans told hospital officials that he did not notice any problems when he put his son to bed about 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 28, according to court records.

But because of massive injuries, there was little doctors could do and soon declared Luke brain dead.

Dr. Jill Glick, medical director at the University of Chicago Children's Hospital, concluded the baby was a victim of child abuse and shaken baby syndrome, court records state.

An autopsy by the Cook County Medical Examiner's office performed on Dec. 2, 2001 found that Luke suffered several injuries to his brain. The office also noted the child appeared to have suffered from poor nutrition, poor hydration and poor weight gain.

Dr. Tasha Zemrus of the office concluded that Luke Evans died of shaken baby syndrome, court records state.

After Luke's death, Lake County Child Protective Services, a division of FSSA, removed the Evanses older adopted child from their home. The child is now living with a relative of Natalie Evans in Munster, according to sources.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter could not be reached for comment.

Evans faces up to 65 years in prison if convicted.

Reporter Michael Puente can be reached at 648-3079 or by e-mail at mpuente@post-trib.com.

* In October 2000, a 7-year-old Russian child died in New Jersey of cardiac arrest. Prosecutors contend the child was abused, but lawyers for the parents argued the boy's injuries were self-inflicted.

* In another case in 2000, a Colorado woman was sentenced to probation after being convicted of trying to sell her 8-year-old Russian adopted daughter on the Internet.

The mother said she was just trying to find the girl a new home because her behavior problems grew out of control.

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