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California custody battle sparks overseas outrage

When a Serbian man in California gave his work computer to an office technician last July, it prompted a chain of events that have stripped him and his wife of their kids and sparked fury in his...

When a Serbian man in California gave his work computer to an office technician last July, it prompted a chain of events that have stripped him and his wife of their kids and sparked fury in his home country at the state's child protective services system.

Among about 5,000 personal digital photographs on the Stockton resident's hard drive, the technician noticed a few dozen pictures of the man's two naked children. He reported the pictures to the sheriff's office.

The father, a 20-year resident of the U.S., and his wife were arrested briefly in June on suspicion of child pornography-related charges and released after prosecutors viewed the photos. The San Joaquin County district attorney's office said it had no plan to file any charges unless new evidence came to light.

But the children, ages 8 and 5, who are dual Serbian-U.S. citizens, were placed into protective custody, then foster care, where they remain seven months later.

The family members are not named in this story because The Associated Press does not directly or indirectly identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

The case attracted the attention of the Serbian government and of local and federal law enforcement agencies here which so far have found no basis for criminal charges. But the state's child protection system, with the consent of a judge, deemed that the children remain at risk and has kept them from their parents.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento reviewed the photographs after being contacted by Serbia's Consul General, and sent a letter in December to the state Department of Social Services, saying it had determined the offending photos were taken by the son, not the parents.

"Both the San Joaquin district attorney's office and this office declined prosecution of the parents, concluding that the photographs were actually taken by one of the children," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner wrote in the letter obtained by the AP.

Yet San Joaquin County's Child Protective Services agency has refused the couple's requests to return their children, saying there is now evidence that the little girl was molested by the father.

CPS produced a videotaped interview with the 5-year-old girl to make a case that the father had inappropriately touched her, said an attorney for the father, Robert Powell. He said the questions were ambiguous and that the father's conduct amounted to routine contact between a parent and young child, such as drying her off with a bath towel.

Janine Molgaard, an attorney for San Joaquin County's Child Protective Services, said she could not discuss the case but said the agency has a duty to make its own decisions.

"Whenever a case is referred by law enforcement to us, it's our duty to make an independent determination if the children are at risk," Molgaard said. "If continued care by a caretaker endangers them, if we believe it does, then we file a petition to the court."

In this case, the court has sided so far with CPS, keeping the children in foster care.

The affair has triggered outrage in Serbia, with officials there saying they would try to get the children back to the parents as soon as possible — even if it takes intervention through the highest diplomatic channels.

"There are indications of major human rights violations by the Child Protective Service, which is acting on its own," Serbian justice ministry official Slobodan Homen told the AP.

Serbia is now providing funds for the father's attorney, and its Consul General in Chicago, Desko Nikitovic, is advocating on behalf of the couple. He said so far it has been an uphill battle with an agency and local judge with power to do what they want with the children.

"You feel totally powerless, like a mouse in front of an elephant," Nikitovic said.

The couple declined to be interviewed for this article, citing fear of compromising the ongoing legal process. But they have denied the allegations, saying the ordeal has torn a previously happy family apart.

They acknowledge certain of the photographs may "look and feel" inappropriate to some people, but all were taken by the couple's son while playing with the camera.

"The parents do not dispute that they (also) took photographs of their children without their clothes on," said a statement from Powell, a San Jose-based attorney who specializes in child custody cases involving CPS. "However, not a single one of those photos was of a pornographic nature in any way.

"They were commonly seen photos taken by parents of their children, such as in the bathtub and lounging on the couch."

He said the father, who attended college at Auburn University and worked in Modesto as a financial analyst, routinely dumped all of his digital photographs into his work computer, had purchased an external hard drive and had given the machine to his office technician to make the transfer, triggering the custody battle.

Powell said the children have not only been separated from their parents, but from each other and have been denied access to the family's Serbian Orthodox Christian priest, unless the priest speaks to the children in English.

The U.S. Attorney referred the clergy matter to the FBI, and a spokesman said it is "trying to determine if there's been a federal violation."

Nikitovic said the children could not attend Orthodox Christmas services with them in Sacramento on Jan. 6-7, but that the court is now considering allowing the children to attend a Greek Orthodox church in the area.

Meanwhile, the couple continue fighting for their children, and said through their attorney that the children have asked the mother during visits if they are abandoning them.

"They remain in utter disbelief, that although the only pictures that social workers felt were inappropriate are so clearly, and confirmed to be, the result of child's play," Powell said.

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Associated Press Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this story from Belgrade, Serbia.

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