A mother and child reunion

Eight years after the state took away their children, an Albanian Muslim couple take their first, bitter steps toward rebuilding their broken hearts and family

In the early-morning darkness, Kathy Krasniqi, a stout woman in a pretty print dress, waits on the front porch of her Richardson home. Her feet swollen like sausages from working double shifts at a hospital cafeteria, she gingerly makes her way to the car.

With her hobbled gait, puffy eyes, and sallow skin, Kathy looks much older than her 44 years. That she has slept just six hours the previous week adds to her haggard appearance, but more than her work has exhausted her. All week, she has been filled with an uneasy anticipation that keeps her awake nights.

This Saturday in late May, Kathy Krasniqi is supposed to meet with the son and daughter the state of Texas took from her eight years ago. Her son, Tim, was 9, and her daughter, Lima, was 5 then. She has fought and ached and hoped for this moment almost every second since. It is now within her grasp, but it is almost too much to fathom.

The plan is to meet Reed Prospere, her lawyer, at his Preston Center office at 6 a.m. and then drive to Austin--a neutral destination halfway between Dallas and the town where the children live with their adoptive family.

But as soon as Kathy enters Prospere's office, she knows something is wrong. A man whom she has never seen before is there, and she knows--from a decade of dashed hopes--the day will not end as she had planned.

Kathy looks from the stranger's face to Prospere's, trying to size up the situation. Before Prospere can utter a word, she says, "We're not going to Austin, are we Mr. Reed?"

"No, Kathy, there has been a change of plans," Prospere says evenly.
For a few seconds no one says anything, and the room is thick with tension.
"I think my heart has stopped," Kathy finally says, as she collapses onto a leather sofa across from Prospere's desk. "This was to be the happiest day of my life."

The stranger walks over to Kathy, extends a fleshy hand, and introduces himself. He slowly and carefully explains that he is a close friend of Tim and Lima. The man, who does not want to be identified publicly, was their first foster father, with whom the children lived for a year in the early 1990s. The children's adoptive parents are friends of his, and he has stayed in contact with Tim and Lima over the years.

Kathy takes a few minutes to focus on what the man is saying, as the words penetrate the fog of disappointment that enshrouds her.

He tells Kathy that Tim is not ready to see her; he is afraid of something he can't quite explain. "He's been through so much...uncertainty and turmoil," the man says, grasping for the right words. "But there's never been any doubt that Tim loves you. In fact, the last thing he said to me before he left our house was to tell you he was all right."

Kathy begins to cry. "I love those children more than myself. I will always be their mom."

The man nods his head in understanding. As they continue to talk, Kathy's face starts to soften, the bitterness and pain seeming to evaporate. She realizes that this man standing before her is the first tangible link she has had to her children since she lost them, and that he might be the one person who can help her find a way back to them.

"In eight years, I never meet anyone who spent even 24 hours with my children," she says in her thick Eastern European accent. "I thank you a million times for what you did for my children."

The man tells Kathy that he is urging Tim to meet with her, that he thinks it is a good idea. Unfortunately, he adds, she will have to be patient--painful advice she is tired of hearing. Using a green cloth-covered Bible as support, the man writes down his phone number on a shred of paper and hands it to Kathy. He encourages her to call anytime and asks if there is anything that he can do for her.

"Please, please, don't forget about us," Kathy pleads.
Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, Kathy leaves the office and returns home to wait, once again. The day she has been living for will come sooner than she knows.

Above all, Kathy and Sam Krasniqi want their children to know they have never stopped fighting for them. They spent six long, expensive years battling for them through the courts. When they lost the legal fight--and in the process their once-thriving pizza business--they turned to the court of public opinion for help.

The Krasniqis, Albanian immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, first told their story on the pages of the Dallas Observer ("Tell Mama Why You Cry" November 17, 1994) and later to a national audience on the ABC-TV newsmagazine 20/20 and Donahue.

Thousands of letters and more than $50,000 poured into the Krasniqis' home from around the world, from viewers outraged that a father who was acquitted of sexually molesting his daughter and a mother who had not been charged with anything--except believing in her husband's innocence--could lose custody of their children. And they were equally upset that the state placed these Muslim children with foster parents who converted them to Christianity.

Though their cause was championed by everyone from local and national Muslim organizations to a high-profile New York politician, who contacted Gov. George W. Bush on their behalf, the Krasniqis could not get their children back. Like a real-life twist on the scary children's tale Hansel and Gretel, the Krasniqis held on to the only hope left--that someday their children would find their way home.

In place of breadcrumbs, the path would have to be forged by the children's distant memories of the life they once knew; the persistence of a crusty, determined lawyer; and the support of the people Tim and Lima now call family.

Once upon a time, Sam and Kathy Krasniqi seemed to embody the American dream. They fled the economic oppression and ethnic tensions of their homeland with little but determination. After years of hard work, they built a successful business. They owned a Mercedes and a four-bedroom house with a pool, and their children attended one of the best elementary schools in Richardson.

But like many immigrants, they held fast to Old World customs. Their parents arranged the Krasniqis' marriage. They spoke only Albanian at home with their children, addressed each other by their given names Sadri (Sam) and Sabhete (Kathy), and mainly socialized with family members and other Yugoslavs.

The disparate worlds in which the Krasniqis lived set the stage for what one anthropologist called a "tragic cultural misunderstanding" that ultimately destroyed their family.

Born in a small village in Kosovo, the autonomous Albanian region of Yugoslavia that is the site of the region's most recent ethnic bloodshed, Sam immigrated to the United States in 1971. A former Yugoslavian police officer, Sam spent more than a decade in Chicago working two menial jobs to save enough money to start a family.

When he turned 40 and felt financially secure enough to marry, Sam returned home to meet the bride his family had chosen for him. Fifteen years Sam's junior, Kathy was still living at home, where she cared for her father, a widower for almost 20 years. After a brief courtship, they married and moved to Chicago, where their son, Urtim, was born. A few years later, they moved to Dallas, where Sam opened his first pizza parlor. In 1984, Lima was born. As their family grew, so did their prosperity; by the late 1980s, the Krasniqis owned five Brothers Pizza franchises. Kathy and Sam worked together at the store on Montfort Road, across from Valley View Mall. On Saturdays, Kathy took the children to work with her.

On a hot mid-August day in 1989, the family's lives changed forever.
On this Saturday morning, 9-year-old Tim pleaded with his father to attend a karate tournament in which the boy was competing at a Plano high school gymnasium. Although Saturday was his busiest workday, Sam agreed to go. Tim's vivacious sister Lima, who was almost 5, insisted that her father take her too.

An hour and a half into the tournament, Plano police officers arrested Sam on charges of indecency with a child. Several witnesses sitting behind Sam and Lima, who were seated on the front row of the bleachers, saw Sam slip his hand inside Lima's underpants and squeeze and rub her genitals.

From the outset, the case against Sam Krasniqi seemed too strange to be true. Why would a man sexually molest his daughter in front of 500 spectators? Sam and Kathy Krasniqi insisted the whole episode had been a misunderstanding. Sam insisted that his actions were not sexual. He had only touched his daughter in a playful, affectionate way that was common and accepted in his country, he told authorities. Kathy told child welfare workers what Sam had done was all right where they came from, and her own father had touched her the same way when she was little.

Neither the police nor the social workers bought the Krasniqis' story. A social worker removed the children from their home and placed them in a foster home--a frightening experience for the children, who had never even been left with a baby-sitter. Tim and Lima would later tell a caseworker how the foster mother had scared them when they came downstairs to ask for a glass of water and she yelled at them, while brandishing a knife, to get back to bed.

At a court hearing 10 days after Sam's arrest, a Department of Human Services supervisor decided that the children should go back home, because the foster placement had been so traumatic for them. The court temporarily barred Sam from having any contact with his children. He moved into an apartment. The court also ordered the family into counseling.

For the next four months, the Krasniqis abided by the court orders. Dr. Paul Prescott, a leading child-abuse expert at Children's Medical Center, examined Tim and Lima and found no physical evidence of abuse. But the invasive exam upset Tim terribly. The family also underwent a psychological evaluation. The psychologist recommended that Kathy, whose English was limited, and the children would benefit most from family and individual counseling. Her suggestion was not heeded.

Sam attended a sexual offenders group, but he made little progress. He refused to admit that what he did was sexual in nature. "If I touched her like they said, for sex, I would kill myself," Sam told the Observer.

Kathy attended a group with other mothers and consistently maintained that Sam was innocent. Tim and Lima attended a group for victims of incest. The children barely said a word during these sessions. Tim complained to the caseworker that he didn't like talking about other people's problems and that his life wasn't as bad as the other children's. He said the other children didn't like their fathers and were mad at them. He told a psychologist that he didn't like how the other children viewed their fathers.

Tim and Lima told their caseworker that they missed their father desperately. She let them call him after the group meetings and noted how much this improved their spirits. DHS finally allowed Sam and the children to visit at the Krasniqi home under the supervision of the caseworker.

In the afternoon of January 3, 1990, the day of the first visitation, the DHS caseworker arrived at the Krasniqi home to find it burned to the ground. Kathy walked around in a daze, while Sam clutched the children and wept. The caseworker accompanied the family to Sam's pizza restaurant on Montfort Road so they could get something to eat and Kathy and the children could figure out where they would spend the night.

Kathy and the children decided to sleep at Sam's apartment, and he would sleep at the restaurant until Kathy could rent an apartment of her own. Though legally Sam was not allowed to have unsupervised contact with his children, the caseworker had to leave and gave Kathy permission to stay with the children at the restaurant a little while longer. She also allowed them to return the next day to eat there, but she admonished Kathy not to allow Sam to be alone with the children.

Over the next several weeks, the caseworker was busy, according to her notes, and did not have as much contact with Kathy or the children. During this time, the caseworker learned that the investigators determined the Krasniqi house fire was caused by arson. They suspected Sam and possibly Kathy of setting it. (A year later, a jury found Sam innocent of setting fire to his house.)

Seven weeks after the house fire, a woman in Kathy's counseling group took her children to Brothers Pizza late on a Saturday afternoon. She was shocked to find Kathy and the children there along with Sam. She reported to a DHS supervisor that Sam had engaged in "flagrant shows of physical affection with Lima." He had repeatedly hugged and kissed her and was alone with her for at least a few minutes in the pizza-making room. The woman's 6-year-old daughter claimed she saw Sam touch Lima's bottom.

On Monday, the DHS caseworker drove to Brentfield Elementary School to ask Tim and Lima if what DHS had been told was true. A tearful Tim told the caseworker that their mother said it was all right for them to see their father as long as she was there. Lima admitted she had seen her father. "He didn't hurt me," she cried.

The caseworker and her supervisor decided they could not trust Kathy to protect the children. As Kathy waited in her car for the children to get out of school--as she did each day--the welfare worker and the children drove away. She ordered the children not to look Kathy's way.

When Kathy asked the caseworker why she took the children away, she told Kathy it was because she was not protecting them as she had said she was. "I thought it was all right for them to see their father at the restaurant," Kathy said.

The children spent the next 30 days in an assessment center in Fort Worth. Once again, a doctor examined them for evidence of sexual abuse. Tim was so anxious, he became ill during the exam, which found no evidence of abuse. An Arlington doctor claimed she found evidence of vaginal scarring in Lima. (A few weeks later, yet a third doctor--from Children's Medical Center--would give Lima another gynecological exam. This doctor did not find any scarring or other evidence of abuse. But only the second doctor testified at the trial that ended in the Krasniqis losing their children.)

In an unusual move, Sam and Kathy's parental termination trial was scheduled a month and a half later--well before Sam's criminal trial on sexual molestation charges. Because of the emergency removal of the children, the Krasniqis pushed for a speedy resolution in hope they could be reunited with their children. Had Sam been found innocent in a criminal trial first, it could have had a mitigating effect in the civil trial.

Financially strapped, Sam and Kathy made another crucial error in hiring the same attorney to represent them both. Had Kathy had her own lawyer, he might have been able to make a stronger case for preserving her parental rights. The lawyer also was not well versed in family law, which was so obvious even the caseworker mentioned it in her notes.

During the three-day trial, Sam once again maintained that his gestures in the gym the previous August were meant in a playful, affectionate, but not sexual way.

On the stand, Sam did admit that he realized Americans might view the way he touched his daughter as inappropriate.

"I understand now," he said.
The caseworker testified that if the children were returned to their parents, they would surely be abused again. The jury found that by clear and convincing evidence, the Krasniqis' parental rights should be severed.

Sam Krasniqi would be found innocent of indecency with his daughter four years later. Collin County Judge Nathan White made his ruling largely on the strength of the testimony from anthropologist Barbara Halpern, a Massachusetts-based expert in the peasant culture of the Balkans.

Halpern had lived with her own family in villages such as Sam's on and off for 40 years. She testified that the Krasniqis came from a "very physically demonstrative culture. Children are universally adored. Until they attain school age and venture beyond the household gates, they are the constant subjects of hugs, caresses, and overt displays of affection.

"Children are kissed full on their lips," Halpern continued. "Children are kissed on their buttocks. Genitals and buttocks have pet names. We do in our culture, too, sometimes, and children are kissed there...The children's genitals were a great source of interest and pride, especially because they represent the ongoingness of the family, the ability to procreate."

Halpern also testified that she knew of not one case of child sexual abuse in this culture. If true sexual abuse were uncovered, Halpern said, it would be considered so dishonorable that the family would kill the offender or he would kill himself.

Judge White found Sam innocent in February 1994. "I can't say what Mr. Krasniqi did was right," Judge White told the Observer. "But I didn't believe beyond a reasonable doubt he did it for sexual gratification. I'm not a multicultural type of guy, but the expert from Massachusetts convinced me that the behavior, while not an acceptable demonstration of affection in this country, was at least explainable."

The acquittal came almost a year after Sam and Kathy had lost the final appeal of the verdict that terminated their parental rights.

During the three years that the Krasniqis' appeal wound its way through the courts, Family Court Judge Hal Gaither allowed Kathy to visit her children. These visits were held every two months in a room inside the Department of Human Services former headquarters on Maple Avenue. A police officer and at least three DHS workers supervised these visits, as well as a psychologist appointed by the court.

Kathy's videotapes of the meetings capture two confused children torn between cultures, religions, and families and a mother who desperately tries to stay connected to them. Each visit ends with the children tearfully demanding to know the date of the next visit.

After the Krasniqis lost their children at trial, Tim and Lima lived for several months at the Buckner Baptist Children's home, where they were taken to Baptist revival meetings until the Krasniqis complained.

For the next year, they lived with a foster family in the Dallas area. Their foster father is a Baptist minister, who took them to church three times a week and gave them crosses to wear. During one visit with Kathy, Lima cried because she had eaten food that contained pork, which is forbidden in the Muslim faith. She was afraid her mother would be angry.

"Don't worry," Kathy reassures her. "Do you know how much Mama loves you?" Lima nods her head yes. "A lot."

In June 1991, the children were moved once again, this time to a Baptist family that lived three and a half hours from Dallas. This was their fifth foster placement in less than two years. To each visit Kathy brought her children's favorite Albanian dishes. She brought them stacks of photos of family members and friends.

"Do you look at the pictures when you miss Mommy?" Kathy asks Lima, who is curled on her lap. She nods her head yes.

As the years pass, the tape captures in chilling detail how her children begin to slip away. The children strain to remember Albanian--the only language they spoke at home. They forget names of cousins and even the Albanian first names of their parents.

Jan Delipshy, the psychologist who was assigned by the court to supervise these visits, had grave concerns that DHS was not doing what was in the children's best interest. In an affidavit she filed with the court, she wrote: "Both children evidence a strong and clear attachment to their mother, Kathy Krasniqi. They often state fears of not being allowed to ever see her again and evidence confusion about their future. Interaction in the visitation without DHS workers present changes remarkably, with both children laughing, playing games, and expressing love to their mother...

"...Continued foster placements that do not respect their different cultural upbringing and values are proving to be harmful to them," Delipshy added. "For example, both children continuously request ethnic foods for the visit and to take back to the foster family. The religious heritage of these children is Muslim, but no action has been taken to continue their learning about this religious tradition. No placement has been obtained which shares similar cultural, language, religious, and family traditions."

Delipshy had asked Tim and Lima's most recent caseworker--their fourth in two years--why DHS did not investigate placing the children with Kathy's brother in New York, who had expressed an interest in caring for them. "[The caseworker] stated to me that he had not and would not investigate relative placement 'because these people always stay together,'" Delipshy wrote in her affidavit.

In the fall of 1994, Tim and Lima's last foster family adopted them. By then the children, who were living on a farm in Lufkin, had converted to Christianity. In their hearts, the Krasniqis believed their children were lost to them forever. But they never gave up hope of seeing them again.

They were temporarily comforted by the media attention and, with it, the outpouring of support. But ultimately, the newspaper and television stories, the protest marches, and the candlelight vigils in Austin got them nowhere. After each groundswell of attention and support subsided, the Krasniqis were left more dejected than before.

Through the years, assorted lawyers convinced the Krasniqis they could do something for them. They spent money and got little in return. One local lawyer did some research, wrote letters to assorted politicians, and even wrote a heartfelt missive to the adopted parents, asking them to consider making contact with the Krasniqis. None of his efforts panned out. The lawyer said he was doing all this for free, then he tried to collect the $50,000 that people had donated to Sam and Kathy's effort to be reunited with their children. It was just one more experience that left the Krasniqis embittered.

Two years ago, Sam and Kathy finally met a lawyer who gave them real hope of seeing their children again. Reed Prospere is a no-nonsense, tough-talking criminal attorney and former prosecutor who came to the Krasniqis' aid in a roundabout way. In the winter of 1996, the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based legal organization that fights cases involving religious liberty, parental rights, and free-speech issues, asked Prospere to represent Sam in a bizarre criminal trial in which he was facing three charges of felony retaliation. The case stemmed from an emotional interview Sam gave to a Dallas Morning News reporter about his family saga. In the story, Sam was quoted saying that if he ever saw a certain witness again who testified that his parental rights should be severed, "I would kill her."

Prospere convinced a jury that Sam's threats were not serious, but were said out of despair, the product of years of feeling culturally misunderstood and victimized by the court system. After securing a not-guilty verdict, Prospere turned his attention to helping the Krasniqis make contact with their children. He made no promises, because he knew the prospects were grim.

Prospere was convinced that the "system made a terrible mistake" in taking the children from the Krasniqis. "Say Sam overstepped the boundaries of his own country's cultural standards and Kathy stood by and did nothing," Prospere says. "Even in this worst-case scenario, if you take 100 cases that same year where a parent's rights were terminated, the Krasniqis' case would pale in comparison."

Fueled by a sense of injustice, Prospere wanted to help Sam and Kathy. But he was familiar enough with the system to know that his clients were wasting their time and money appealing to the courts and welfare system for relief.

Prospere leveled with the Krasniqis. They had only one option left: to wait until Tim turned 18, when he is an adult and could make his own decisions.

"I stopped the bleeding," says Prospere. "I stopped the financial, emotional, and psychological bleeding."

He closed one wound, only to open another.

For the last year and a half, the Krasniqis could think of little else than May 1, 1998, the day Tim would turn 18. But deciding exactly how and when the Krasniqis would approach their son was an anguishing process. No one wanted to make a mistake and ruin the last best shot the Krasniqis had at being reunited with their children.

Prospere felt that a reunion needed to happen gradually, with Kathy meeting with the children first. Tim and Lima hadn't seen Sam for eight years, since the court took the children away. The stress had taken its toll on Sam, now 60. His mounting legal bills forced him to close his pizza parlors, and for the last few years he pumped gas at a North Dallas service station. But his boss recently let him go, saying he was too slow and distracted.

Sam seemed to understand why Prospere wanted to do it this way, but frankly the lawyer wasn't sure what was the right approach. As Prospere would later say, "They just don't teach this stuff in law school."

Prospere decided it would be best if the Krasniqis could somehow get word to their son that they were trying to reach him. He convinced the Krasniqis to raise $15,000 to hire a private investigator to find out where the children were living. For assistance, Sam and Kathy turned to Guy Molinari, a former New York congressman who had been a source of comfort and support to them in recent years.

President of the New York borough of Staten Island, home to a large enclave of Albanians, Molinari first learned about the Krasniqis' plight from his hairdresser, who is a cousin of Kathy's. She brought him a tape of the story that aired on 20/20.

"I was appalled at what I saw," says Molinari. "It was one of these cases where the system breaks down. There were major gaffes--most of them committed by lawyers who didn't do their job. Good God, what was the sin of the mother? There's no way in the United States you would take two children from their mother who did nothing wrong except accompany her children to an unsanctioned visit in a public place--and even that is arguable.

"The first time the kids visited Sam with the social worker, she left Kathy and the children with him, and that signaled it was OK," Molinari says. "Was [Kathy's] mistake deserving of such a horrible penalty? You might expect this to happen in some foreign country that doesn't have a court system, but not here. This is a national tragedy."

When Molinari first learned about the situation, he contacted Gov. Bush's office on the Krasniqis' behalf. But he was told that once the adoption was final, there was nothing anyone could do. In the intervening years, he talked with the Krasniqis frequently and helped bring them to Staten Island, where they appealed to the local mosque for spiritual and financial help. Molinari also helped the Krasniqis raise money to pay a private detective to find the children.

Earlier this year, the detective tracked down Tim and Lima. They were living in a small town north of Houston with their adoptive mother and several younger siblings. Their life revolved around the church where the adoptive father's brother was the pastor. They attended a small school run by the church.

The detective took pictures of the children and showed them to Sam and Kathy to make sure he had the right people. Lima, with her long dark hair and easy smile, looked the same. Tim was now more than 6 feet tall and wore glasses, but Kathy was pretty sure it was him.

One Sunday after church, the detective slipped Tim an envelope with a prepaid phone card and a letter written by Prospere telling him that his parents loved and missed him and hoped he would contact them.

Months passed without a word from Tim. Sam and Kathy were beside themselves with grief. Why hadn't Tim phoned? Was he scared? Had he been brainwashed? Kathy refused to believe Tim's silence was a message that he had rejected them. She wanted to see him with her own eyes and hear from his lips whether or not he wanted them back in his life.

"If he sees me one time, he will remember the kind of mother I was," Kathy says.

Sam and Kathy told Prospere they wanted the children's address on May 1, so they could find Tim on their own once he turned 18.

Prospere knows one thing for certain: Giving the Krasniqis the address and letting them force an encounter with their children is a bad idea. It would no doubt spook the adoptive family, who would call the police and have the Krasniqis arrested. But convincing the Krasniqis of this is no easy matter.

Prospere seeks Molinari's counsel--they've chatted several times over the years--and the New York politico agrees. What would be best, says Molinari, is a meeting between mother and son that everyone agrees to. Molinari even places another call to Gov. Bush to see if he can intervene, but nothing comes of this.

The Krasniqis keep pressing Prospere for the address, and he keeps putting them off. Molinari tries to broker the increasingly strained situation between Prospere and his desperate clients.

"This is a highly charged issue," Molinari explains. "Reed is concerned about divulging the children's whereabouts. God knows what could happen. But this is the Krasniqis' entire lives. Kathy has turned very bitter and doesn't believe anyone is on their side. But anyone with heart has to put themselves in her place. Who could possibly pass judgment on her? Who could defend what happened to her was proper and fair? There is nothing worse than losing a child. A child's death is a tragedy, but in time you come to accept it. Here, they are still alive, with a different religion, living in someone else's house. I think it is important to everybody to get some resolution. But there has to be intervention from the outside."

Kathy threatens to sit in Prospere's office until he gives her the address. Prospere has been reluctant to contact the adoptive family himself. He thinks it will be "psychologically threatening if a lawyer shows up on the scene." Finally, he gets word to the adoptive family about what is transpiring. The adoptive mother and uncle call Prospere. They have a pleasant conversation and tell the lawyer they have no problem with Tim re-establishing contact with his parents. In fact, they encourage it. But ultimately, they say, it has to be Tim's decision.

With much trepidation, Tim agrees a few days later to meet with Kathy in Austin. But he cancels at the last minute for reasons that either no one knows or no one is willing to share with Prospere.

"I know there couldn't be a more tumultuous time in Tim's life," Prospere says. "I think he and his sister finally have some stability, and they don't want to be used as a wishbone in the system. But it is impossible for an 18-year-old who is not a parent to understand what a parent like Kathy is feeling. The fact that the Krasniqis have waited as long as they have to try and find them is amazing. But I don't know how much longer I can keep a lid on."

Kathy is clearly brokenhearted when she arrives at Prospere's office and learns she will not be seeing Tim today. But she is appreciative that the former foster father has taken the time to come. Some yawning chasm of misperceptions and misunderstanding that has separated all sides finally has begun to be bridged.

He apologizes for not knowing more about their culture when the children came to live with him. He didn't understand why Tim announced to him that he didn't eat pork. He tells her what wonderful children they were when they were in his care. He and his wife did not have a moment's trouble with them. Of all the foster children they've taken in, the man tells her, they were the most special to him.

When Kathy talks about how much she loves Tim and Lima and what a good mother she tried to be to them, the man cries with her.

"I know you are in pain," he says. "I know you've been hurt, and I hurt for you. You will always be his mother." Then he hands her the children's most recent school photos as a gift.

After Kathy leaves, the foster father stays behind and finally explains to Prospere why Tim is apprehensive.

"The problem has nothing to do with the Krasniqis," Prospere says. "These people were operating under the assumption that the Krasniqis were violent, the kids would be kidnapped, and their lives were in danger. After the 20/20 story ran, the adoptive family was so fearful, the father closed his business and the family fled Lufkin. The kids had to leave school and their friends. Financially the family has never recovered. A year or so later, the father died of a heart attack. Tim blames Sam and Kathy for causing all these problems."

Prospere is relieved to learn that the foster father doesn't think the children were abused. "He doesn't think anything happened to the boy," Prospere says. "And the daughter had an unnatural way of showing affection that stemmed from the cultural deal."

The day after the early Saturday-morning meeting in Prospere's office, Prospere, who is doing all this for free, and the foster father fly to Houston to meet with Tim and his adoptive mother and uncle. The lawyer wants them to know their fears are misplaced, that the Krasniqis have no intention of harming or kidnapping anyone. Tim calls Kathy from the meeting and tells her he wants to meet with her, but isn't sure when.

Prospere returns from the meeting elated. "My vocabulary isn't extensive enough to describe those two folks--the mother and uncle," he says. "They are as nice as can be. They said their philosophy with all of their foster children has always been to encourage contact with their biological parents. They see it as a natural phenomenon, like birds returning to the nest. They've never discouraged the kids under any circumstances, and they couldn't be happier this was taking place.

"At first they believed that Kathy and Sam were head of some organized Muslim cartel that was devoted full-time to getting these kids back. When I separated fact from fiction, they didn't express any fears about Sam and Kathy," Prospere adds. "I believe the healing has begun."

A face-to-face meeting between Kathy and Tim is set up for Saturday, June 13, after he returns from spending a week on a relative's ranch. The plan is for Tim to spend the weekend in Dallas with the foster father, whose son is a close friend of Tim's.

Prospere tries to prepare Kathy for the encounter. He's worried that she'll push too hard, will ask too many questions, have too many expectations, and try to extract things Tim's not willing to give up.

"She's going to have to accept the fact that Tim is like a nephew or first cousin she hasn't seen in a long time. He will call and visit occasionally, and the more pleasant she makes it, the more it's going to happen," Prospere says. "Tim and Lima are not the kids that she knew when they were taken from her. She has to accept them for who and what they've become. If she doesn't, she will totally alienate them.

"They are very, very comfortable with these folks. Tim is most worried about his sister. What he is concerned about is being uprooted, if not physically, then psychologically and emotionally. It's easy for me to say. I know this isn't some prep-school roommate she hasn't seen in eight years, but I hope she can resist the temptation to smother him. If she can play it cool, it will be something he wants to get back to. In the end, they could have three sets of people who love and care about them. But Kathy has to realize she will be one of three. It will take a long time for her to attain a comfort level with these children that they have with these folks and [the foster family]. The more pressure Kathy exerts, the further she'll push them away."

Kathy seems to understand. "I'm not trying to hurt those kids. If he's happy where he is, I don't want to take him from them. I swear to God that I will be that family's best friend. I appreciate what they did for those kids. Those kids have suffered."

The day before the scheduled meeting, Tim's adoptive mother calls to cancel once again. Another relative has gotten involved, and he doesn't think a meeting is a good idea.

An exasperated Prospere phones the uncle and foster father. They don't understand what has gone wrong. They still are very much in support of the meeting, of opening the lines of communication between the children and the Krasniqis.

Over the next few days, Prospere will do everything he can to try to get the meeting back on track. No one can explain what has derailed it. He asks both the foster father and the uncle, several times, if it is something the Krasniqis did to these children, if it is that they were abused.

"If that's it, I want to tell it to Kathy straight," says Prospere. "But that's not what they tell me, and I gave them every opportunity to do so."

Finally, the uncle resets the meeting for Monday afternoon, in a McDonald's in Palestine, another neutral--if impersonal--location between their hometown and Dallas.

Prospere only tells Kathy that she needs to be in his office by 2 p.m., because they're driving somewhere to meet Tim's uncle. He doesn't tell her about Tim, because he's afraid he might not show and doesn't want to disappoint her again. Kathy doesn't understand. She wants everyone to come to her house. She says she'll barbecue.

"That's the way to make friendship," she says.
At 4 p.m., Kathy Krasniqi walks into a McDonald's in the quaint East Texas town and sees her son for the first time in four years. A smile of disbelief and utter joy spreads across her face. She walks over to the booth where Tim is sitting and extends her hand.

He does not take it, nor does he offer her his hand. She sits down in the booth next to this strapping, handsome stranger, who shares her penetrating, olive-green eyes. But Tim's eyes are cold and angry. He stares straight ahead, never once turning his head to look at her.

"Why do you keep looking for us?" he asks, but doesn't wait for a reply. "Leave us alone. We want to get on with our lives. Because of you we had to keep moving from place to place."

"Why did you have to move because of us, Tim?" Kathy asks, bewildered. "Did we ever hurt you?"

"No," he says. "People told us we were in danger."
"I am not here to kidnap you. I am here just to see you," Kathy says.
"I don't care about myself, only my sister," Tim says. "I have my future to think about. I have to raise my sisters. Someday maybe Lima and I will come looking for you. But now, we want to get on with our lives."

As Kathy and Tim talk, two men from the uncle's church sit at a nearby booth and absently flip through a newspaper. Prospere and the uncle chat a few feet away, but they are close enough to hear that things are not going well. The uncle tells Prospere that he is shocked by how Tim is acting.

Mother and son sit side by side for 20 minutes. Kathy tries to ask some questions, but every one is met with belligerence. She tells him that she does not want to hurt him or disrupt his life, but just be in touch with him and his sister. She tries to tell him how much she's missed him, how much she loves him. But nothing she says can chip through his stony coldness.

Defeated, she stands up and heads toward the door of the restaurant. She stops to thank the uncle. He tells her to give the boy time, and she starts to cry.

"What they did to that man in Jasper is better than this," she says. "This I cannot believe or understand. This I did not deserve."

Kathy is quiet during much of the car ride home. She occasionally breaks into sobs, "What do I have to go on living for?" she says. But through her pain, she thanks Prospere and tells him he's going to go to heaven for everything he's done for her and Sam.

She is uncertain what to tell her husband, who recently underwent emergency back surgery, about the day's events. She's afraid he'll have a heart attack when he hears. "If he was with me today, he would have thrown himself under a car," she says.

When Kathy returns home, she decides to tell Sam the truth. He is crushed.
"I can't say nothing," Sam says in a whisper. "These kids been scared like that, I don't believe it. I never did nothing wrong in my life. I never hurt nobody in my life. Why do my children think this? Why do they believe I am danger?"

That evening the foster father and his wife call the Krasniqis. They tell them that when their children lived in their home they expressed deep love for both Sam and Kathy.

"Tim in his heart and mind knows the truth," they tell the Krasniqis, "but he's afraid to follow the truth."

Kathy says she wished they had gotten involved a long time ago. The couple apologizes and says they were afraid the Krasniqis did not want to hear from them. They promise to visit with Sam and Kathy when they return from a two-week trip out of the country. They say they want to help.

"Tim and Lima are beautiful children," they tell Kathy. "Don't ever give up.

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