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I am now my mom's kid says Tristan

Sunday Tribune, 18th April 2010

It was a case that shook the nation: two-month old Indonesian baby Tristan was adopted by an Irish accountant and his Azerbaijani wife. Two years later, they gave him back to an orphanage. Now, reunited with his birth mother, Tristan is a happy eight-year-old, write News Investigations Correspondent John Downes and Sarah Sayekti in Indonesia

'I like it here, my mother is here... I am my mom's kid". The playful and inquisitive boy who greets the Sunday Tribune at his home in the port city of Tegal, Indonesia, is virtually unrecognisable from the two-year-old who used to cry uncontrollably in the orphanage to which he was sent by Joe and Lala Dowse in May 2003.

Now almost nine years old, the boy formerly known as Tristan Dowse still identifies himself by the first name which his adoptive parents gave him as a two-month-old child. But there is little doubt as to where his loyalties lie.

In the years since he was reunited with his birth mother Suryani, they have rebuilt a relationship that was fractured as a result of his illegal adoption by the Irish accountant and his Azerbaijani wife.

Speaking in the local Javanese language, Tristan says he liked living with the Dowse family "because I got to eat bread with butter and cheese every day". He describes Joe Dowse as "nice", but cannot say the same of his wife.

Suryani adds that Tristan used to tell her how the Dowses often took him to church, and to vacation in Bali on a plane. He had a closer relationship with Joe than with Lala, she says. His memories of his time in the orphanage are far less pleasant, however.

Tristan does not speak about the "bad experiences" of the past, his mother confides, "unless you ask him."

"The people there are not nice, they are sharp and mean. They hit my head with a jar or glass bottle when we made noise," he says.

Suryani has never had any direct contact with Joe or Lala Dowse. But through one of their friends in Jakarta, who lives in their old house there, she sends greetings to them from time to time.

Sometimes, she hears back from this friend that Joe sends his greetings back, asking how Tristan is doing. She doesn't hear from Lala, though.

The house that Joe and Lala Dowse bought, on foot of an Irish High Court order that they should support Tristan financially until he turns 18, stands out from the rest of the village of Debong Wetan. It has white ceramic floors and storage areas, unlike most of the houses in the town. The first floor also has a terrace, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom, as well as a bedroom which Tristan shares with his mother. On the second floor is another bedroom, and a terrace for hanging out some washing.

Suryani bought the house in July 2007, with the money she received from the Dowse family for Tristan. Everything was arranged by a local notary, and the certificate for the land is under Tristan's name.

The overall cost of buying and furnishing their home was around €10,500.

Before they moved to their new home, Tristan, his mother and his two older brothers Wahyu (16) and Agung (13) shared a house with her parents about three kilometres away.

Suryani's mother still lives there with her other son and his family. The ability to buy their own home, which is a direct result of Judge John McMenamin's landmark 2006 High Court ruling, has meant a huge improvement in their lives.

Every month, without fail, she receives half the monthly money to which Tristan is entitled – €175 – into her local bank account directly from Ireland.

She says this is enough to pay their daily expenses, with the remainder of the €350 a month paid by the Dowses invested by the court on Tristan's behalf. He will also receive a further lump sum of €25,000 from his former adoptive parents when he turns 18.

Tristan's school is free, but Suryani still has to pay for school books and other considerations such as food and clothing. As a single parent whose ex-husband does not contribute financially to the family, she struggles to make ends meet.

Suryani spends her days taking care of the kids and making pillow cases and bed sheets with her home sewing machine, earning the equivalent of less than one euro a day for the 20 pieces she manages to make in that time.

Tristan is now in third grade of elementary school, and goes there from 7am until 11.30am each day. After school he attends a Koran reading play group until 2.30pm every day, something which he says he enjoys. He says his favourite subject at school is maths.

Suryani brings Tristan to school herself, and picks him up on her red motorbike afterwards. His friends and family now call him Erwin, because his Indonesian name is Erwin Reynaldi. But on official papers, his name is still Tristan Joseph, reflecting what is written on his birth certificate and school reports.

Asked which name he prefers, he answers simply: "Tristan, because that is my name."

His mother says he is a healthy and happy child, who gets along very well with his neighbours and friends. His older brother, Agung, is always there to accompany him or watch him from a distance. If he has trouble with his kite he would come directly to Agung. Sometimes they argue and Tristan will cry just like a younger brother does.

But most of the time Tristan makes Agung and his mother laugh with his funny facial expressions. During the conversation, he shows a real interest in what is being discussed, and tries to add what information he can.

"I like it here, my mother is here. And my friends are here and my school and Koran reading play group too," he says at one point, before heading outside to play in the rain.

Suryani would love Tristan to go to university in the future, maybe in Jakarta. She doesn't care what he studies, although she suggests he may be suitable to a mathematics based discipline such as engineering.

Perhaps understandably for an eight-year-old-boy, she says Tristan still has no idea about what he wants to become. It is hard for her not to worry about what Tristan will decide to do when he turns 18, and receives the remainder of the monies due to him as part of the High Court judgement.

Her concern is that his head will be turned by the money, and he will forget about her.

"I am also confused about the status of Erwin [Tristan] now, because they said that Erwin is a foreigner so that's why he is still supported by the Irish government," she says. "I am worried that Erwin will be deported when he reaches the age of 18."

But she says she is not angry with the Dowses anymore and is grateful to have her son back in her life. Instead, she reserves much of her anger for a shadowy Indonesian baby smuggler named Rosdiana, who has since been convicted for her crimes.

"I am angry at Rosdiana, the woman who 'helped' me pay my hospital bill after giving birth to Erwin. Because she promised me that she and her daughter would take care of Erwin and not sell him to other people.

"So I would be able to come see him later. If I knew that she was in the kid trade syndicate, then I would never have given Erwin away to her."

When Tristan first came back to live with his mother he was always afraid of being left behind by Suryani. But he adapted quickly to his new life, and spoke the Javanese language tinged with the local dialect within a few weeks.

His mother says he is no longer afraid of strangers. But every time he is naughty, Suryani only has to ask him if he wants to go back to the orphanage and he will stop his bad behaviour right away.

She remains fearful of the risk that he will be kidnapped due to the financial support he receives from the Dowses, which is a significant sum of money by Indonesian standards. It is a situation which was not helped when a local newspaper ran a front page story a few years ago describing him as the "millionaire kid".

Thankfully, nothing has happened to him to date and he has had no threats of kidnapping. But the fear is still there, and she always keeps a particular eye on him, explaining why she brings him to and from school herself.

If he goes out of the house, she sometimes directly follows him too, just to find out where he is.

Towards the end of our interview with Tristan, we ask if he would ever like to visit Ireland one day.

"No, I don't want to go to Ireland. Because I'm afraid I won't understand it if people are talking to me," he says matter of factly.

He falls silent when we ask him if he understands what happened with the Dowse family, answering simply: "I am my mom's kid."

He shakes his head when asked if he ever wants to meet his one-time parents Joe or Lala Dowse again. Unusually for such an outgoing and friendly young boy, he continues to remain sullen and silent when asked why not...

'The adoption did not work out'

Joe Dowse

Wicklow-born accountant Joe Dowse was working for the well-known firm KPMG in Baku, Azerbaijan when he first met his wife Lala. The pair married there on 18 June 2000.

A few months prior to their wedding, in September 1999, the couple had moved to Indonesia to further Joe's career. While there, he engaged in voluntary work with local orphanages.

Unable to conceive a child of their own, they took steps in 2000 to adopt a child in Indonesia.

Having decided to adopt Tristan, they brought him to their family home where he lived from August 2001 until May 2003.

But both Joe and Lala claimed the adoption simply did not work out, contending that Tristan did not react or bond with them.

They eventually sought and were granted permission by the Indonesian courts to hand him over to an Indonesian couple, while the couple planned to return to Azerbaijan. But he was in fact placed in the unlicensed Emmanuel orphanage in Bogor, South Jakarta in May 2003.

In April 2004, Joe Dowse wrote to the Irish adoption board seeking to have Tristan's name removed from the register of foreign adoptions. In March 2005 the couple also applied to the Indonesian authorities to formally revoke the adoption order of 2003.

In the only interview Joe Dowse gave at the time, he said the pair "came to a painful realisation that the adoption wasn't working out, an extremely difficult and painful realisation to make."

Lala Dowse

"(We) are delighted to announce the adoption of Tristan into the Dowse family. Tristan was born on 26 June 2001 and is a healthy little boy who has now taken up full time residence effective yesterday. We are thrilled and would like to thank everyone who helped and supported us throughout the whole process."

So wrote Azerbaijani born doctor, Lala Dowse and her husband Joe in an email reportedly sent to his family and friends not long after they adopted Tristan.

Less than two years later, they gave up the toddler and effectively abandoned him in an orphanage. He was a few weeks short of his second birthday at the time.

In their application to the Irish High court, the Dowses claimed that he became disturbed in the presence of Lala. They said they had sought the assistance of a psychologist, who advised them that the long-term adoption of Tristan was not in his best interests.

Coincidentally, Lala had also become pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl on 29 May 2002. She already had a daughter, Tata.

In an April 2004 letter to the Irish adoption board, solicitors instructed by Lala and Joe Dowse stated that her pregnancy and the subsequent birth had " interfered" with the adoption and the bonding with Tristan.

Tristan Dowse

The boy, given the name Tristan by Joe and Lala Dowse, was born on 26 June 2001 and adopted by them in August 2001, when he was two months old

At the time, the married couple were living in Indonesia and had tried unsuccessfully to conceive a child of their own for some time.

After they decided they no longer wanted him, Tristan was placed into an orphanage in Bogor in May 2003.

He spoke only English, was one of only two children under five there, and reportedly cried uncontrollably.

Although he settled into the private orphanage and formed friendships with older children, in May 2005, the Indonesian authorities decided to move Tristan to a larger state-run orphanage for Muslim children which segregated the children according to age.

But the High Court here was told that by July 2005 "Tristan was described as being hurt, confused and somewhat bewildered".

Things began to look up for the boy, after an RTÉ documentary found his birth mother, Suryani and they were reunited later that year. Suryani explained that she had been pressurised and deceived into giving up her son by a baby broker named Rosdiana and a nurse at the maternity unit where she gave birth.

Investigations by the Indonesian authorities found she was not paid for the adoption.

Eventually, after a lengthy reunion process, Suryani was allowed to take her son home to the port city of Tegal, about 350km from Jakarta. Tristan is now known as Erwin Reynaldi.

Rosdiana was subsequently convicted of her crimes and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Her daughter Reta, who took part in the illegal adoption of Tristan and up to 80 other babies, also received an eight-year sentence.

What the High Court said

Tristan's case caused major public concern in Ireland and around the world when details of his situation emerged.

In July 2005, the attorney general commenced proceedings on behalf of Tristan, as an Irish citizen. As part of these proceedings, he sought a declaration that the Dowses had failed in their duty of care for and support of Tristan, and seeking orders that they should do so.

But Joe and his wife took a counter action that August seeking to have his name removed from the register of foreign adoptions.

The hearing of both applications together took place in camera, as they involved a child.

However, Judge John McMenamin ruled that much of the judgment should be made public.

In his High Court ruling delivered in January 2006, McMenamin acceded to the Dowse's application.

But he made clear that since Tristan had been reunited with his natural mother, compelling the Dowses to take care of him outside Indonesia was not an option.

As a result, he ordered that the boy receive a €20,000 lump sum, a monthly payment of €350 until he is 18 – half of which will be invested for him by the High Court – and then a further lump sum of €25,000 when he reaches maturity.

Under the ruling, Tristan's mother, Suryani is his guardian while he retains his Irish citizenship and he is a ward of the High Court.

He also retains succession rights to any estate of Mr and Mrs Dowse.

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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