She didn’t think it was child abuse.
In her native Ukraine, Olena Bezzubenkova would leave her children alone while she waited in line for hours just to buy cheese.
So when she left her 15-month-old son in a locked car in Spokane five weeks after arriving in this country, little did she realize she would be handcuffed and arrested for child mistreatment. Even worse, her son was taken from her and turned over to Child Protective Services.
“She’s a good mother,” her sister, Vera Kaprian, said Wednesday. “We have a very different culture. In Ukraine, it’s not bad for children to be away for some minutes.”
Bezzubenkova, 25, was released on personal recognizance Wednesday night, about 30 hours after she was arrested outside Deaconess Medical Center.
The child was returned to his father Tuesday afternoon.
Two months pregnant, Bezzubenkova went to the hospital Tuesday for a medical checkup along with her son and sister, Nadezhda Chekulayev.
But the interpreter who was supposed to meet them in the parking lot was late, Chekulayev said through a translator. And neither of the women could speak English.
The boy, Daniel, was asleep in the car so they decided to leave him there with the door locked and the window down about an inch.
Together, the sisters tried to find the doctor and interpreter. Police reported that the child was left alone for 42 minutes but Chekulayev said they returned to the car several times and the baby wasn’t by himself for longer than 15 minutes.
The child was sleeping in his safety seat when they last left him, she said. When Chekulayev returned to the car as her sister visited the doctor, it was surrounded by six or seven police officers who thought she was Daniel’s mother.
“Olena just arrived to the United States,” said Bezzubenkova’s older brother, Alander Krazatskiy. “It’s like culture shock. It’s very horrible for all of us.”
The incident is similar to one that took place in May, when a Danish couple left their 14-month-old daughter in a stroller outside a New York City restaurant. CPS took the child away from them and placed her in foster care.
The couple told police they were simply following common Danish practice of leaving children outside restaurants and shops.
In Spokane, local sports broadcaster Paul Sorensen recently was cited at Spokane International Airport for leaving his 2-year-old daughter alone in a car for 15 minutes. After complaining, he received an apology of sorts from the airport board.
Authorities Tuesday said Bezzubenkova’s son was “screaming and sweating profusely,” as temperatures hit the mid-80s Tuesday afternoon.
“There has to be some sort of balance here,” said Lt. Al Odenthal of the Police Department.
Culture is important, he said, but “when it comes down to it, you have to draw the line somewhere and consider the degree of risk to the child. … This child was in significant distress.”
During her court appearance, Bezzubenkova looked confused as she spoke through an interpreter. She didn’t know her address, she told the judge, and often asked for her family.
Bezzubenkova lived in Mariupol, Ukraine, a city near the Black Sea, with her husband and their four children. They left last month after years of persecution for being Baptist, Kaprian said.
There was never enough to eat, Kaprian said. Bezzubenkova’s husband, Victor, worked in a factory and earned the equivalent of less than $100 a month.
The Bezzubenkovas came to Spokane with the help of her brother and sisters, who have lived here for at least a year.
“We were all shocked,” said Krazatskiy. “(Olena) didn’t know what to do. … The authorities have to forgive her.”