'Tell Mama Why You Cry' (Part I)

Sam Krasniqi was acquitted of sexual abuse. So why won't the state let two children have their parents -or their religion?

Most of the houses in this quiet, middle-class Richardson neighborhood look alike --wide, one-story, brick homes with small, manicured front lawns.

The home of Sam and Kathy Krasniqi has one distinguishing feature: rain or shine, several pairs

of men's and women's shoes can be found lined up on the porch next to a mat that says, "Friends Are Always Welcome."

These shoes are just one symbol of the Krasniqis' faith. Muslims, they explain, never wear shoes inside a mosque or in their homes because both are holy places that must be kept scrupulously clean or their prayers will be invalidated. This is also why the Krasniqis do not allow pork to be cooked or eaten in their house.

Immigrants from an Albanian region of what was once Yugoslavia, Kathy and Sam Krasniqi sit barefoot in the back den of their darkened, four-bedroom house. Tears run down their faces as they watch grainy videotapes of their two children, the only tangible connection the couple still has to their 10-year-old daughter, Lima, and 14-year-old son, Tim.

For the past five years, Tim and Lima have lived together in a series of foster care placements around the state, after a jury in a Dallas County family court terminated the Krasniqis' parental rights--the court's equivalent of the death penalty for a family.

This harsh--and irreversible--punishment came at the end of a strange case that began in 1989 when several witnesses reported seeing Krasniqi fondle his daughter during a karate tournament in a Plano high school gymnasium in which his son was competing.

Several years after the family court ruling, Krasniqi finally had his day in criminal court. Collin County Judge Nathan White acquitted him of the charge of indecency with a child primarily on the strength of testimony from Massachusetts anthropologist Barbara Halpern--one of the country's foremost authorities on the peasant culture of the Balkans.

Halpern explained that Sam Krasniqi's actions were done not with sexual intent, but rather with playful affection--in keeping with his culture, which cherishes children and showers them with physical affection.

But it was an empty victory for the Krasniqis, whose children, by then, were lost to them forever.

"If I am danger, why am I not punished, why am I not in prison, but my children are?" a bewildered Sam Krasniqi asks as he wipes tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.

The Krasniqis believe their children are indeed prisoners--prisoners of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.

The state agency (known as the Department of Human Services when the case began) is charged with protecting children's best interests, but the Krasniqis say it unfairly took their children away. Child Protective Services placed the terrified Krasniqi children--who had never even been left with a baby-sitter before--in a series of group homes and foster families, none of whom ever gave the slightest consideration to the children's ethnic and religious heritage.

Today, Tim and Lima are being raised by a Christian family. They are being taught to accept Jesus Christ as their savior and eat pork. They are destined to forget they ever had another family, another faith, and another language.

The videotapes that Sam and Kathy Krasniqi watch show a mother's valiant attempts to stay connected to her children, to keep them tied to their family of origin, to their culture, and to their religion.

The videotapes were taken during visits Kathy was allowed to make with her children every two months in an office--guarded by a police officer--inside the Texas Department of Human Services building on Maple Avenue in Dallas.

State District Court Judge Hal Gaither made the rare decision to allow the visits after the Krasniqis' parental rights were terminated in June 1990, 10 months after the incident at the karate tournament. The visits began in late fall 1991 and continued through the spring of 1993, when the Krasniqis' appeals of the termination were exhausted.

In the videotaped visits, Kathy brings Tim and Lima the ethnic foods--petla and peta--she used to make them at home. In addition to toys and games and clothes, Kathy also brings pizza from one of the several Brother's Pizza Restaurants the Krasniqi family owned in Dallas--before their mounting legal expenses forced them sell their once-thriving business.

She brings them large stacks of pictures of family members and friends. "Do you look at the pictures, Lima, when you miss mommy?" Kathy asks. Lima nods, then curls into her lap while Kathy tells her and Tim the stories of the day they were each born.

Each visit ends with Tim and Lima looking into the camera and saying good-bye to their father, who they call "babi," Albanian for daddy. And before Kathy leaves, they beg to know the date of the next visit.

But as the years have stretched on, later tapes record how familial bonds and memories fray. In tapes taken a year and a half ago, the children strain to remember Albanian--the only language they ever spoke in their home. They forget the names of cousins and even the Albanian first names of their mother and father: Sadri and Sabhete.

The tapes also capture the sadness and confusion the children feel being caught between two cultures.

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