SALEM, Ore.—Dmitriy Kozlov waited until nightfall to place a 911 call to Oregon authorities, alerting them to a terrible case of child abuse in an immigrant community that existed, almost invisibly, in this city’s midst.
The alleged victim was 14-year-old Dmitriy himself. From a pay phone on July 20, 2009, he reported that his parents regularly beat him and several of his six siblings. Their parents, he said, struck them with wires, branches and belts for wearing makeup and getting a fake tattoo.
Police quickly arrested Oleksandr and Lyudmila Kozlov and placed the children, who ranged in age from newborn to 15 years, into foster care. The couple was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison and later stripped of most parental rights. The Kozlovs denied wrongdoing.
News of the case spread through this state capital, sparking outrage. Yet one subset of the community sprang to the Kozlovs’ defense, holding demonstrations, filling the gallery at court hearings and flooding state officials with letters.
Many of these supporters, Russian-born Christians like the Kozlovs themselves, believed the parents were disciplining their children according to Biblical law. In their view, the government was out to “destroy the family because of their faith,” says Tatyana I. Bondarchuk, a counselor who helped brief authorities about the group.
Here in one of America’s most progressive states, authorities are grappling with a vexing problem: how to accommodate an immigrant community that is large but reclusive, heavy users of public assistance but openly anti-government.
Oregon is now home to about 150,000 evangelical Christians from the former Soviet Union. They were able to emigrate to the U.S. under the same law designed to help Soviet Jews escape religious persecution. The group, which hails largely from the Ukraine, subscribes to a literal interpretation of the Bible, including corporal punishment.
Compared to newcomers from Vietnam, Bhutan and elsewhere, the Slavic Christians have assimilated “less than other groups,” says Jeff MacDonald senior manager of IRCO, a nonprofit organization in Oregon that offers social services to immigrants. Slavic Christians tend to operate within a belief system, illustrated by the Kozlov case, that can clash with mainstream norms and laws.
Integrating recent immigrants who buck mainstream culture is a problem in pockets around the nation. In Massachusetts and New York, some parents from African nations have forced daughters to undergo female circumcision—a painful cutting of the genitalia that has been banned in the U.S. New York Congressman Joseph Crowley sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to send girls back home for the mutilating ritual.
In the wake of the Kozlov case, Oregon’s Department of Human Services has begun to host forums with different immigrant groups and the agencies in charge of resettling them. The aim, says international affairs manager Gloria Anderson, is to identify “acculturation challenges”—such as how to fill out a job application or understanding the basics of American law.
At a recent gathering, social workers sat alongside leaders of the Somali and Burundian communities. They discussed standards for disciplining children, spousal treatment and general conduct in the home. “We are getting more frequent and earlier calls” for intervention in various matters, including domestic abuse, says Ms. Anderson.
Oregon’s Slavic Christians at first drew little notice—and therefore little assistance in adapting. Upon their arrival in the late nineties, “Americans didn’t have the support systems in place,” says Vadim Riskin, a counselor who works with Russian-speaking students in the Portland area. They knew how to work with Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking immigrants, but “suddenly we had thousands of people who are Caucasian and look like everyone else who didn’t speak English and didn’t ask for help.”
That is where things stood when crisis erupted in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov, evangelical Baptists who came to the U.S. in 2003 from the Ukraine.
“Their kids were trying to do what they saw other kids do, and they were getting in massive trouble with their parents for that,” says Hannah Tipton, a court-appointed special advocate for the Kozlov children.
At the time of his arrest, Oleksandr Kozlov, 42, was jobless and collecting unemployment benefits. He had worked in a factory that made the leather straps he allegedly used in several beatings. His 40-year-old wife, Lyudmila, stayed at home taking care of the children. Life revolved around the small Russian-speaking Evangelical Christian Baptist Church of Salem, one of several Slavic Christian congregations in the area. They had virtually no contact with Americans, according to social workers and other community members.
Dmitriy Kozlov was in bed one morning in July 2009 when his mother spotted a temporary tattoo on his right arm, he testified in court. He said she grabbed an iron and began lashing his arm with the electrical cord, leaving multiple bruises.
A few days later, Mrs. Kozlov noticed that her oldest child, Tatyana, 15, and her second daughter, Yekaterina, 13, had trimmed their hair without permission while she had been in the hospital giving birth to her seventh child. Mrs. Kozlov whipped the teenagers, leaving extensive bruises on their arms, backs and legs, Tatyana testified in court.
“Tired of our parents hitting us,” as she said in court, the three oldest Kozlov children hatched a plan. One July evening, when their father was out and their mother was asleep, they snuck out of the house, found a pay phone and made that 911 call.
The next day, police and social workers took into protective custody the other four Kozlov children, including baby Lilya, then eight days old. Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov were arrested and held on charges of criminal mistreatment. The case was a top story in the local news.
An attorney for Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov said the couple declined to comment. State social-service officials involved with the case said the children weren’t available for comment.
News of the arrests spread quickly in the Slavic Christian community. On Russian-language websites and blogs, the removal of the children from their parents was depicted as the U.S. destroying a family and a violation of human rights. A fund was established to raise money for the Kozlovs’ bail.
Hundreds of Russian-speaking Baptists, including some from California and Washington, descended on Salem, where they remained for several weeks. They marched on the state Capitol, demanding a meeting with Gov. Ted Kulongoski. His staff told them he couldn’t intervene.
They held vigils outside Marion County’s courthouse, where the case would be heard. Their signs read, “Don’t Destroy Our Families” and, “Stop Unlawful Action Against Kozlovs.”
The Kozlovs were released from jail on Aug. 5, 2009 after surrendering their passports and posting bail. Pending trial, they were eventually given custody of their infant daughter, subject to government oversight. But they weren’t allowed physical contact with their other six children, who were in foster care with an American family in Salem.
The allegations opened up a difficult conversation between the Slavic Christians and the mainstream. Kozlov supporters said corporal punishment was a parental duty condoned by the Bible; some even questioned the veracity of the Kozlov children’s accounts.
Michael Arnautov, a neighbor of the Kozlov family and a community leader, recalls asking reporters: “Who will explain us the [American] law? Until what point can we discipline our kids?”
Amid the uproar, there were tentative steps towards mutual understanding. In response to Mr. Arnautov’s request for guidance, the county sheriff’s department contacted his church and offered to hold an informational session. They agreed on a Wednesday, when church services are normally held.
On August 19, 2009, roughly 750 Slavic Christians packed the First Slavic Baptist church for a forum on U.S. law and parental rights. For three hours, members put questions to the district attorney, state child-welfare officials and law-enforcement officers with the help of a Russian-language interpreter.
Among the questions from the floor: “How can I keep my child from smoking if I can’t beat him or her?” “What are parents supposed to do when a child, particularly a teenager, is disobedient?”
“The difference between discipline and abuse is lasting injury,” Jason Walling, an official with the Department of Human Services, told the audience.
Oregon authorities, too, wanted to learn about this newly vocal community. Later in August, at a meeting of the social-services agency, officials heard from Ms. Bondarchuk, the Portland caseworker who is a Pentecostal refugee from Russia. She spoke about the perilous life in the Soviet Union of those who secretly practiced their religion.
“In some families, parents and children were separated because parents taught the Bible,” Ms. Bondarchuk recalls explaining. “Children were placed in foster care to forget about God, the Bible and how to pray….” The Slavic Christians saw the Kozlov case not through the prism of any crime, she says, but “through the eyes of persecution they suffered in the past.”
Hoping the Kozlov family could be reunited, Oregon officials in September appointed a Russian psychologist in Portland to evaluate them and offer counseling. The attempts proved futile.
“They didn’t want to talk about being better parents. They would say, ‘Bible says it’s O.K. to spank children,'” says Olga Parker, the psychologist.
Mrs. Parker, who interviewed six of the Kozlov children, later testified in court that none of them wanted to return home. One child said she wished that a fairy would whisk her away, according to Mrs. Parker.
The Kozlovs had legal representation at their parental-rights hearing. But as the criminal trial approached, Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov declined court-appointed attorneys, citing lack of confidence in counsel. “I would like to represent myself,” Mrs. Kozlova told Judge Thomas Hart, according to transcripts. “God is our lawyer and we believe in him.”
The trial opened Dec. 1, 2009. Six out of the seven Kozlov children testified, with direct translation provided to their parents by Russian interpreters. Hundreds of community members crowded the Marion Circuit County courtroom.
Tatyana, the eldest, testified that all the children in her family had been beaten, except the baby. The 14-year-old Dmitriy testified that he was once “whipped” so badly with a leather strap by his father that he had to skip school to allow the injuries to heal.
During one hearing, Mrs. Kozlov interrupted to dispute her children’s allegations. Over the judge’s protests, she warned the children that God would punish them for what they said, according to court transcripts.
In their closing arguments, the Kozlovs again cited the Bible as justification for their actions. “The law of God is in disciplining children. It’s not any less than the law of the United States,” Mr. Kozlov said.
On Dec. 4, the jury found Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov each guilty of nine counts of criminal mistreatment. Five days later, the judge sentenced them each to seven years and three months. All seven children were placed in foster care with relatives in Virginia.
The case continued to reverberate through the greater Salem community last year. Some school teachers, according to community members, asked Russian-speaking students whether their parents beat them—inquiries that weren’t condoned by the school district.
Slavic Christian churches received letters from locals condemning their support for the Kozlovs—even though they were gradually backing away from their previous stance.
Marion County district attorney Walter Beglau invited Mr. Arnautov, administrator of the First Slavic Baptist Church, to attend a public safety council meeting. “They needed to learn about our law; we needed to acknowledge their community and not make assumptions about them,” says Mr. Beglau.
At the meeting, on March 9, Mr. Arnautov represented a softened community stance. He told law-enforcement officials and council members that most didn’t agree with harsh corporal punishment to discipline children. Only a small, vocal minority still supported what Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov did, he said. “We just want to raise our kids the right way and grow up well in this country,” he summed up.
On Sept. 23, Mr. and Mrs. Kozlov shuffled into a courtroom in Salem, shackled and in prison garb for a hearing on the state’s motion to terminate their parental rights.
Both acknowledged with a grin members of their community who filled two rows in the gallery behind them. It was a tiny crowd compared to the turnout for the criminal trial.
The judge terminated the Kozlov couple’s parental rights to the three youngest children, freeing them for adoption by relatives. The four older children will remain in foster care with the same family.
Mr. Arnautov, the voice of the Slavic Christians, says he believes “justice was delivered,” adding that most of the community had changed their opinion about the case. “It was a good, good lesson.”
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