Church vs. State: Salem Child Abuse Trial

By Oregon Faith Report,

Members of the Slavic community, including Ukrainian immigrants and followers of the Slavic Baptist church, have been drawn into a Salem child abuse case that has left their community confused and unsure about how their culture and religion inter-connect with state child protection laws.

The case in question involves Oleksandr Koslov and Lyudmila Kozlova who are currently in Marion County court, each facing ten counts of abuse and mistreatment of four of their seven children.  Their seven children, who range in age from new born to 15, are currently living together in state foster care while their parents remain in jail.

The case began in July when the three oldest children ran away and called 911 to report to police that their parents had been abusing them with belts, sticks and wire since the family arrived in the U.S. from the Ukraine in 2003.  Police and child welfare caseworkers went to the home and took the remaining children, including a 6-day-old breastfeeding infant.

The parents are representing themselves in the trial and recently finished cross-examining their children.  They asked each child if they understood that they were punished according to God’s law, which they claim is the highest law.  The presiding judge, Thomas Hart, intervened multiple times when he felt the parents were intimidating or putting pressure on the children by making them feel guilty or obliged to their parents’ religious beliefs, according to The Statesman Journal.

Church friends say both the family’s home and children were clean and well-cared for.  However, many were aware that the mother had been battling depression and had become angry when her daughters recently cut their hair, which goes against her religious beliefs that women are to keep their hair long.  She hit her daughters with a telephone cord that left a mark.  Both parents have also left visible marks on several of their other children.  Although they don’t necessarily condone the parents’ actions, church members say they need clarification on the difference between appropriate punishment and abuse in this culture and state.

“I’ve typically found in 14-plus years prosecuting child abuse cases here in Marion County that abuse leaving lasting marks is over the line, whether it’s a spanking on the buttocks with the hand that happened to leave bruises, or being struck with an object anywhere on the body.” Courtland Geyer, who leads the child abuse team in the Marion County District Attorney’s office, told The Oregonian.

“Physical punishment is very common in Russia or the Ukraine,” Yelena Hansen, program director for Russian Oregon Social Services told The Oregonian. “It was just part of parenting, and the state didn’t consider it a crime because it was up to parents to raise their children.” But what was accepted practice there is not accepted here, Hansen says, adding that domestic violence and child abuse are real problems within the community, particularly among the more conservative faiths. “I tell them: ‘You came here because of religious persecution. You have the freedom to pursue your beliefs. You have to follow American laws.”

The evangelical Slavic community in Salem numbers about 3,000, and there also are an estimated 100,000 Russian-speaking immigrants or refugees in the Portland metro area, according to Hansen.

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