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Latvian Girl Custody Case: Appeal Claims Pro-American Bias

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A complex legal battle over who gets to raise a six-year-old girl with a seven-figure inheritance is headed for the Colorado Court of Appeals amid allegations that a Denver Probate Court judge exhibited "discrimination, bigotry and prejudice" in removing the girl from the custody of the only mother she's known for most of her life.

The case was the subject of a recent Westword cover story that referred to the girl as L.G. in order to protect her privacy. Born in the United States but raised primarily in Latvia, L.G. has dual citizenship — like her father, a wealthy Latvian businessman who emigrated to Colorado after World War II, then returned to his native land after the fall of the Soviet Union. Early last year, L.G. and her father were visiting Denver when he died of a heart attack, leaving L.G. as the primary beneficiary of an estate valued at more than seven million dollars. 

The father's wills in both Colorado and Latvia designated the girl's nanny, Edite Dusalijeva, as her guardian. Dusalijeva had lived with the girl (who called her "Mommy") and her father since shortly after L.G's mother's death; according to Dusalijeva, the girl's father had given her an engagement ring. But Dusalijeva's plan to raise the girl in Latvia ran into objections from L.G.'s adult half-sister, whom the girl had met only twice before her father's death. Although the half-sister didn't intend to raise the girl herself, she proposed as guardians a young couple in Highlands Ranch with ties to the local Latvian community.

Court documents indicate that the half-sister was somewhat estranged from L.G.'s father, and that the Highlands Ranch couple only met L.G. after the father's death. But last summer, Denver Probate Court Judge Elizabeth Leith ruled that it was in the best interest of the child for L.G. to remain in the United States and be raised by the couple. (After representatives of various parties in the case were contacted by Westword for comment, Leith also issued a gag order in the case — then lifted the order after Dusalijeva's attorney, Stan Epshtein, complained that the order was so broad as to prohibit any public comment by his client about Leith's decision.)

A notice of appeal filed by Epshtein takes issue with several aspects of Leith's ruling. It contends that the Denver judge didn't have jurisdiction to rule in the matter and improperly let considerations about Dusalijeva's age (she's in her early sixties) and intent to raise L.G. in Latvia enter into her decision. In Leith's estimation, Epshtein argues, "Ms. Dusalijeva appeared grandmotherly, stern and foreign, whereas the [Highlands Ranch couple] appeared young, energetic and American."

The filing also takes issue with Leith relying on non-expert opinions from witnesses that the school system in Colorado is superior to that in Latvia, declining to hear testimony from a psychiatrist retained by Dusalijeva about the emotional harm that could be inflicted by separating the girl from the only caregiver she had known for most of her life, and assuming that L.G.'s life in Latvia — where her father owns a large house in the seaside resort of Jurmala — couldn't compare to a future in the suburbs: "Without any experts, the Denver Probate Court decided a five-year-old girl is better off living in Highlands Ranch, with strangers, than to live in [a] palatial beach house with the woman she calls 'Mommy.'"

Any decision from the appeals court in the case is likely to take several months — during which time L.G. will be forging a new life in Highlands Ranch. Possibly uprooting her again is a dilemma for Dusalijeva, who told me in January that she is trying to pursue what the girl's father had intended for his daughter. "He definitely did not want this," she said. "But if I knew she was going to be happy there, then I would be okay with her staying there.”

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