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Sioux Falls couple ordered to return Ukrainian orphan

September 9, 2014, 17:40 2612 Author: Jonathan Ellis argusleader.com A circuit court judge on Thursday ordered a Sioux Falls couple to turn over a Ukrainian orphan after deciding that claims he was abused

A circuit court judge on Thursday ordered a Sioux Falls couple to turn over a Ukrainian orphan after deciding that claims he was abused while in an orphanage were the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian justice system.

The decision by Judge Patricia Riepel averted a potential messy diplomatic situation with Ukraine.

Irina Kleinsasser had been given a temporary guardianship over 7-year-old Serhii Safronenko in August at the same time the boy was supposed to return home. Kleinsasser said the boy complained of physical and emotional abuse at the orphanage where he lived.

Safronenko had come to South Dakota in June as part of a program that allows Ukrainian orphans to stay temporarily with host families in the United States. He was supposed to return home Aug. 18.

It was the third time the boy had stayed with Kleinsasser: He had spent last summer and part of last winter here as well.

Kleinsasser's lawyer, Henry Evans, argued Thursday that Kleinsasser's temporary guardianship for Safronenko should remain in place while an investigation was carried out into whether the boy's claims of abuse were legitimate.

"We are here because he's afraid of abuse," Evans said.

Following the hearing, Kleinsasser said the boy's accusations of abuse at the orphanage had been deemed credible by Child's Voice, a children's advocacy center run by Sanford Health that provides evaluations of children for abuse and neglect.

But under state law, judges are required to treat foreign countries in jurisdictional cases as if they were a U.S. state unless a country violates "fundamental principles of human rights." Riepel noted that there was no evidence that the Ukrainian justice system would not treat claims of abuse fairly and impartially.

"Tell me what the advantage is to have a hearing here when all the witnesses are in a different state?" Riepel asked.

Evans replied that the court system in South Dakota could be more objective.

Attorney Nichole Carper, who represented the agency that brings orphans to the United States, said it was "suspicious" that there were sudden claims of abuse. She noted that Kleinsasser had sent an email a few days earlier to the agency requesting records about Safronenko's dental history, and did not mention the abuse claims.

The abuse claims, Carper said, came after Kleinsasser learned that Safronenko would not be available for adoption, in part because he had a sister and grandmother in Ukraine. When Riepel asked Carper whether the Ukrainian government wanted jurisdiction in the case, Carper responded: "They feel it's a kidnapping."

But Kleinsasser, who speaks Ukrainian, disputed the contention that the boy has a sister.

"Why would he be in an orphanage if he has a family?" she said.

Two officials from the agency, Isida Bridge, traveled from Florida for Thursday's hearing. Ilona Antonova, the agency's deputy president, disputed claims that the orphanage was abusive. The program, which brought 100 Ukrainian orphans to the United States to stay with host families over the summer, runs with the blessing of the U.S. and Ukrainian governments, she said.

"This is a governmental program run by two governments and everything is approved," she said.

Riepel gave a tearful Kleinsasser two hours to return the boy.

"We brought him to the Holiday Inn," she said later Thursday night after packing two backpacks. "The police were there. He was crying hysterically."

She said Riepel made a "big mistake" sending the boy back.

"I probably will never, ever see or talk to him again," she said.

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