Explore park developer's custody dispute garners international notice
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Some say Larry Vander Maten's fight for custody of three orphans could have far-reaching effects.
By Mike Gangloff and Cody Lowe
September 12, 2009 / Roanoke.com
Explore Park developer Larry Vander Maten said Friday that he is still fighting for custody of three Ukrainian girls whose removal from his Florida home by sheriff's deputies this week attracted notice among groups involved in international adoption.
And the effects of Vander Maten's struggle, in international circles and locally, are yet to be reckoned, observers said.
"This is just an unbelievably rare situation. We were concerned for the children. It's abhorrent," said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a long-running Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group whose membership includes adoption and service groups.
DiFilipo said it was too soon to say what complications would arise from Vander Maten's attempt to prevent 13-year-old Katja, 11-year-old Dasha and 9-year-old Tanya from returning to Ukraine with other members of their summer exchange program. But he was sure it would affect programs that rely on good will among foreign bureaucracies and orphanages to smooth the way for U.S. couples to adopt.
"This has far-reaching implications. Not just for this group. Not just in the Ukraine," DiFilipo said.
Earlier this week, Vincent Rosini, president of Frontier Horizon, the organization that brought Katja, Dasha and Tanya to the United States, said the conflict already had soured his relations with Ukrainian officials.
Vander Maten called that a positive development.
"For Vince Rosini to sit there and say this is going to destroy my whole program, my response is I hope it does," Vander Maten said. "Because I think his program is totally wrong."
Telephone calls to Rosini on Thursday and Friday were not returned.
A man at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington said he would have to check on Frontier Horizon's status with his nation's adoption authority. He did not call back before deadline.
Vander Maten is a nursing home developer who operates an overseas relief foundation and in 2005 proposed what has been estimated as a $200 million makeover for Explore Park. He met the Ukrainian sisters while on a mission trip to their country. Vander Maten said their parents were dead and their guardian, who suffered from health problems, asked him if he could do something for them. Vander Maten said he agreed to either adopt them or become their guardian in the United States.
To bring them from Europe, Vander Maten turned to Frontier Horizon, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based group whose programs include coordinating twice-a-year trips for 90 orphans seeking adoption in the United States and Canada.
Over the past decade or so, such trips have become a respected means of facilitating the placement of older children who otherwise are unlikely to be seen by prospective adoptive parents, DiFilipo said. Organizations such as Frontier Horizon vet the would-be parents and children, match them, and arrange visits that can range from a few weeks to several months. Costs vary, but are supposed to be stated up front, as are warnings that adoptions may or may not result. Children should receive counseling or similar support against disappointment, DiFilipo said.
Elizabeth Bartholet, who directs the child advocacy program at Harvard Law School, said the programs have become an increasingly popular way for potential parents and children to get to know one another. "I think in a general matter, they're a great idea," she said.
In an ideal world, Bartholet added, adoption could proceed without further travel.
That was not the case with Frontier Horizon. As clearly stated on its Web site, the organization is not an adoption agency. The Ukrainian government has its own procedures that may or may not credit ties formed with prospective parents.
Vander Maten insisted his arrangement was different. The visas that let the girls come in early June to his 10,000-square-foot home near Orlando, Fla., were good until Dec. 2, he said. He hoped to make arrangements to extend their stay. They spent the summer enjoying ballet and gymnastics -- and soccer. "They could whip any team of boys," he said.
Three weeks ago, they had started at a private school and quickly made friends, he said.
Then Frontier Horizon said it was time for the girls to go back to Ukraine. Vander Maten held off the scheduled Aug. 31 departure, saying one girl was sick. Then he filed for guardianship.
But on Thursday, a federal judge in Florida said Frontier Horizon could take the children. Sheriff's deputies came to Vander Maten's home. The girls were fine, a deputy said later.
Vander Maten disagreed. "There's been a travesty of justice here," he said Friday.
He accused Frontier Horizon and similar groups of "trafficking in children," saying payments by hopeful parents fostered bribes and corruption overseas. His fear, he said, is that when the girls reach Ukraine, there would be demands for more money -- and even if he paid, he might not see the girls again.
Vander Maten said he believes the girls are still in the United States, and that he hopes to reverse the judge's decision.
Among the Roanoke-area officials who oversee Explore Park, reactions to Vander Maten's custody battle was muted. Leaders of the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority board said they are reserving judgment.
K.C. Bratton, vice chairman of the board that oversees the park property, said, "regardless of how any of us feel, we have a contractual relationship."
Vander Maten has until June 2010 to begin construction of Blue Ridge America, controversial plans for which include hundreds of luxury hotel rooms, cabins, shops and the world's longest zip line -- "a national park on steroids," Vander Maten has said.