Custody Dispute Over Thai Boy, 4, Is Riddled With Cultural Tensions


Sumalee Khaisri says the last time she held her 4-year-old grandson, Got, in her arms was June 3.

"Got said, 'I love Grandmother, I love Grandfather,' " recalled the 56-year-old mushroom farmer from Thailand, who has spent most of the past year in Los Angeles trying to win custody of the boy. "I told Got, 'If we are lucky, we will take you back home to Thailand with us.' "

Because of a prickly dispute, in which the American court system is trying to determine the boy's immigration status, Sumalee and her husband, Boonlue, say they have not seen Got for 12 weeks. He lives with another couple--a husband and wife in their 30s who have expressed a desire to adopt him.

The couple, Evan Smyth, an engineer, and Janet Herold, a lawyer, of Silver Lake, have told a psychologist that the grandparents' visits upset the child. The grandparents say the court-appointed guardian who placed Got with Smyth and Herold will no longer let them see the child or talk to him on the phone.

Sixteen months after Got wound up in Los Angeles as a pawn in an international human-trafficking scheme, he has turned into an outgoing preschooler who speaks mostly English, attends a Head Start school and loves having his own room.

Got's odyssey has drawn so much attention that in July, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft gave the boy temporary residency status, a move that staved off efforts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport him and represented another defeat in the grandparents' struggle to take him back to Thailand.

The grandmother, who doesn't speak English and is unfamiliar with American ways, says she and her husband are beside themselves.

How is it possible, she asks through an interpreter, that judges in America give strangers such power? "We have more justice in Thailand than in America."

Those who have sided with letting Got stay in the U.S., including Ashcroft, are quick to point to the grandmother's biggest weakness: In 1983, she pleaded guilty to dealing heroin and served 12 years in a Thai prison.

"That's so unfair," Sumalee Khaisri said angrily. According to a letter from the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles, Khaisri was released from prison for good behavior after serving half of a 25-year sentence and received a royal pardon. Khaisri contends that she was actually a paid informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Got, whose given name is Phanupong Khaisri, arrived in Los Angeles with a couple posing as his parents who used him as a decoy in an attempt to smuggle the woman into the country. His father, mentally ill since childhood, killed himself not long after Got was born, his family said. Got's mother, a drug addict who has remarried, works at a Bangkok bar, according to court records.

The couple who brought Got here after "renting" him from his mother were deported. Got was allowed to remain temporarily because he was in poor health. Two employees of the Thai Community Development Center were appointed as his guardians by the federal judge overseeing the immigration case. One of the employees, Chutima Vucharatavintara, took the child into her home. Vucharatavintara, herself a mother of two, eventually felt overburdened and authorized the Silver Lake couple to act as caretakers, though she still sees Got every day, according to court records.

Herold had learned about the plight of Got through her law practice, which includes human rights and labor law cases.

Except for three months when the Khaisris returned to Thailand to take care of family business, they have been living with different Thai families in the Los Angeles area. They say their enterprises are suffering because they've had to hire caretakers to look after their teak, fruit and mushroom farms and their real estate.

Phoenix attorney Dorothea P. Kraeger is handling their case pro bono. But the Khaisris appear baffled by the intricacies of American jurisprudence and the time the case is taking.

Guardian Vucharatavintara isn't persuaded that the grandparents can provide the quality of care the boy, who is HIV-positive, needs.

"We are talking about Got's life," said Vucharatavintara, who runs parenting programs at the Thai center. "If Got was healthy like Elian [Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who went back to Cuba to live with his father against the pleas of American family members], it would be a different story."

Vucharatavintara gives no credence to assurances by Thai diplomatic officials that Got will receive equivalent medical care in his homeland. She suspects that an embarrassed Thai government wants to wrap up the case as quickly as possible.

Neither she nor the grandmother--women who share a common language and heritage--can talk about the other without crying.

Psychological Report Hurts Grandparents

The dispute is rich with cultural tensions. The grandparents cannot fathom having to live by the rules of social workers, psychologists and lawyers. They are offended by news media reports favorably describing Got's life with his caretakers. They were pained in June when U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, who presides over Got's case, said in court, "I'd be giving this kid a death sentence if I sent him back" to Thailand.

They were hurt when Got's custodians filed a psychological report with the court after the grandparents' June 3 visit, saying Got was "sad," "upset" and "confused." The psychologist, who did not interview the grandparents, said in a June 19 declaration to the court that Got had told Smyth and Herold after his visits that the grandmother "constantly tries" to hold him like a baby and "make him take naps like an infant, whether he wants or not."

Vucharatavintara cited the psychological report in explaining why the visits had been interrupted.

The Rev. Somchai Piromgraipakd, pastor of the Thai Seventh-day Adventist Church in Redlands, who frequently comes to Los Angeles to help transport the grandparents, said the report was an example of misunderstanding. Americans stress a child's independence in child rearing, but Asians in general and Thais in particular have an opposite tendency when children are young, including feeding them on their lap, he said.

Smyth, a senior software engineer with Sony Pictures Imageworks with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Herold, a Harvard Law School graduate in private practice, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a July 20 declaration to the federal court, Smyth said, "My wife and I are committed to ensuring that he will receive the best care possible."

Wrote Herold, "If Phanupong is granted a visa to stay in this country, we would be thrilled to be given the opportunity to petition to adopt Phanupong and formally bring him into our family."

Grandmother Khaisri, who has met the couple, says she and her husband appreciate their kindness. Still, she maintains, it was wrong for Got's court-appointed guardians to turn him over to Smyth and Herold without consulting the grandparents.

Siroj Sorajjakool, an associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University who has lived on three continents, said the adversarial context of the American legal system has made the grandparents look like uneducated people from a village who could not care for a boy with HIV.

An ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister of Thai ancestry, Sorajjakool visited Thailand earlier this year in part to study the family's background. He said Got's grandfather is an educated civil servant, who worked as a social worker reaching out to marginalized people during his long career with the government. "They raised three fine children. No one has really talked to them.

"Except for their youngest--Got's father--who was out of control [since he was a child], the others are all leading productive lives," said Sorajjakool, who said he also visited Got's mother and maternal grandparents.

To explain her drug conviction, Sumalee Khaisri says she was a low-level village informant for the DEA in Chiang Rai in the northern region of Thailand, where she lived.

Grandmother Says She Was DEA Informant

She said she was arrested with a group of suspected drug dealers because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As she tells it, she went into the southern region of the country, failing to report first to her superior that she was leaving the area.

She said she pleaded guilty rather than testifying that she was an informant because she did not want to endanger her life and the lives of her family by publicly exposing herself. She said she also risked getting a life sentence if she did not plead guilty.

Nineteen years later, the grandmother said, she doesn't remember the names of her superiors and has no way to track them down to prove that she was an informant.

"The U.S. should thank me for what I did," for keeping large quantities of heroin from coming into this country, instead of taking her grandson away from her, she said. "I was an informant--not a drug dealer. I hated drug dealers. That's why I became an informant for the DEA."

In his July 23 action that helped keep Got in the U.S., Ashcroft directed the INS, which had earlier denied Got asylum, to decide his visa application under the Human Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted by Congress last year to help people caught up in human trafficking. Federal officials are in the process of drafting guidelines to implement the new law.

Likening the events of the last year to a nightmare, Sumalee Khaisri pleaded that she be allowed to take her grandson to Thailand.

"Got should be with his family," she said. "Who can love him more than his own grandmother?"

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