What Happened to Michelle in Forest Hills?

Mazoltuv Borukhova with her daughter, Michelle Malakova, circa 2007

The Queens Family Courthouse on Jamaica Avenue—built eight years ago to replace a rundown former library that the Family Court had occupied for three decades—reflects the change that has taken place in public architecture during the past fifty years. Public buildings are no longer designed to be impressive but to be pleasant. Entering the courthouse’s five-story atrium and stepping onto its escalator, a visitor may have the momentary illusion of being carried to the lingerie floor of a department store rather than to a courtroom where her children will be taken away from her. The corridors outside the courtrooms where people sit and wait for hearings to begin have a similar atmosphere of euphemism. With their elegant floor-to-ceiling windows and handsome wood benches arranged in facing pairs, they evoke well-endowed university libraries and conference centers. They seem entirely unconnected to the little hell of family court.

During the three years I attended hearings at the Queens Family Courthouse on the continuing case of Michelle Malakova—whose mother, Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician, had been convicted in 2009 of the murder in 2007 of her husband, Daniel Malakov, an orthodontist, by hiring a gunman to kill him at the entrance of a playground in Forest Hills, and was serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison in Bedford Hills—I came to know the corridor outside Judge Linda Tally’s third-floor courtroom very well. (Michelle, who was four years old when her father was killed, is now nine.)

As members of families have “their” chairs in the living room and at the dinner table, so the Malakov and Borukhov families—Bukharian Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan who had settled in Forest Hills after the breakup of the Soviet Union—had their habitual places in the courthouse corridor, and these were as distant from each other as possible. Khaika Malakov, the father of Daniel, and his sons Joseph and Gavriel always sat at the near end of the corridor, while Borukhova’s mother, Istat, and her sisters Sofya and Natella sat at the far end. “My” place was in the center section where other members of the press would sit, among them the tabloid reporters with whom I had become friendly at the murder trial (or “Dentist Slay Trial” as one of their headline writers called it) in the winter of 2009. However, after a few months, the reporters stopped coming; the story of the “tragic hit kid” or “murder orphan” was evidently no longer newsworthy, and I became the only journalist covering the hearings.

Michelle’s story, in fact, was never newsworthy. She was always a recessive and passive character, the object of other characters’ fantasies and desires, her image vague and undelineated like that of the offstage changeling boy in A Midsummer’s Night Dream over whom Titania and Oberon wrangle. A Daily News story that appeared the day after the verdict, under the headline “Slain Dentist’s Kid Happy Now”—with the subhead “‘She doesn’t know anything,’ uncle sez of girl whose mom had dad shot dead”—was a characteristic exercise in journalistic resourcefulness in the face of insufficient knowledge. The News staff writer, Nicole Bode, who had covered the criminal trial, bravely began: “She was just 4 years old when she watched an assassin gun down her father in a cruel murder for hire that will send her mother to prison for at least the next two decades.” She goes on:

But now, at age 6, Michelle Malakov seems like any other happy and innocent child.
Each weekday morning, Michelle cheerfully boards a bus to Hebrew school in Queens, where she eagerly soaks up the alphabet. Each afternoon, she returns home to show off her new knowledge to her uncle, Gavriel Malakov, his wife and son, who have been her foster family since last spring. Her toys are comfortably scattered around the couple’s modest Forest Hills home, intermingling with those of her cousin, with whom she gets along well.
And her free time is filled with Jewish holiday parties at her relatives’ houses, trips to museums and other outings. “She’s a happy girl, she really is. Very sweet kid,” Gavriel Malakov said. “Just like other kids.”

After summarizing the history of the murder, about which “Malakov’s family has been careful to never speak” to Michelle, Bode goes on to quote the child’s law guardian, David Schnall, who “praised Malakov and his wife as ‘exceptional people’ and said they would make wonderful parents. ‘If anybody is to adopt, it is them and that’s who I am going to support wholeheartedly.’”

Michelle herself never appears in the story. A strictly truthful headline would have read “Slain Dentist’s Brother Sez Kid Is Happy Now.” But strict truthfulness is not the job of the tabloid journalist. Tabloid stories are written in the clean, taut style of legends and fairy tales and modernist fictions. They deal in the mythic and archetypal; they adhere to the basic plots. The news they bring us is that there is nothing new under the sun. The tabloid account of the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova was the classic narrative of crime detected and punishment meted out to the criminal. The “Slain Dentist’s Kid Happy Now” story was a satisfying coda: the guilty mother was put away for good and the innocent child had found a safe haven with “exceptional people.” That the story was built on air and driven by the self-serving motives of the uncle and the legal guardian is another story, in another genre.

Judge Linda Tally first encountered—perhaps it would be fairer to say was catapulted into—the case of Michelle Malakova on October 29, 2007, when a hearing was hastily convened in her courtroom to determine whether the four-year-old child, who had witnessed the murder of her father the day before, should remain a ward of the state or be released into her mother’s care. On the day of the murder, Michelle had been forcibly removed from her maternal grandmother’s arms at the Forest Hills police precinct and taken into the custody of the Child Protective Services (CPS), an arm of the Administration for Child Services (ACS). The attorney for the ACS, Eric Perlmutter, had filed a petition charging “imminent risk” of abuse and neglect and stated that “ACS needs time to investigate whether or not the mother is a fit resource for the child.” Tally, a handsome, unsmiling woman in her fifties with an air of perpetual impatience and irritation, said to Perlmutter:

Where is the imminent risk? Yesterday the father was killed. He was murdered. It was on the news. Everyone heard, I’m sure, that story…. The mother, as far as the court knows, is the only other living relative of this child. Why doesn’t she have primacy of parental rights over everyone else?

When a second ACS lawyer, Lauren Mallar, explained that a month earlier custody had been taken away from Borukhova and given to the child’s father by a judge named Sidney Strauss, Tally remained unconvinced:

Even if the Court decided that the child would be better off with the father rather than the mother, unless the mother poses some risk to the child…she would have the primacy of parental rights over anyone.

But over the course of the hearing Tally’s view radically changed. Her tone hardened into the one that prevailed over the next four years of hearings in her courtroom. Her dislike of Borukhova seemed as manifest as the cool professionalism of her bench decorum. After six days of testimony from seven witnesses, Tally ruled that Borukhova was not a fit parent and that Michelle must remain in remand. “This Court is extremely mindful that the State’s interference with a parent’s right to custody of his or her biological child should never be taken lightly,” Tally wrote. “However, the Court finds in this particular case that State intervention in family life is necessary to prevent imminent risk of further emotional harm to this child.”

Until the fall of 2007, Michelle Malakova’s family life was much like that of other children whose parents hate each other and have separated. She lived with her mother and grandmother and saw her father only for supervised visits at social agencies. Borukhova had accused Malakov of hitting her and sexually molesting the child as an infant (she said that Malakov put his face into the baby’s genitals) and had received a protective order. The visits with the father were mandated by the state that had intervened on the mother’s behalf, and became increasingly central to the divorce proceedings that followed, of which Judge Strauss was the arbiter. The visits did not go well. Reports from the social workers all said the same thing: Michelle would shrink from Malakov and cling to Borukhova throughout the visit. All efforts to coax the child to “bond” with the father failed.

The social workers felt sorry for the spurned father—he seemed like such a nice, gentle person—and became increasingly critical of Borukhova for what they believed to be her deliberate sabotage of the father–daughter relationship. Borukhova denied this. She said she was trying to cooperate but that the child was so profoundly fearful of the father that nothing could—or should—be done to change the situation. The social workers thought otherwise. Their reports to Judge Strauss grew increasingly impatient and harsh. They felt that something could and should be done for the beleaguered Malakov and recommended that Borukhova absent herself from the room during the visits.

They did not recommend that custody be changed from mother to father. Judge Strauss’s decision that this be done shocked all parties, including Malakov, who had not asked for custody or wanted it. It was a decision widely felt to be wrong. In his opening statement at the criminal trial, the lead prosecutor, Brad Leventhal, identified the decision and its implementation as the direct cause of Malakov’s death: “If Daniel’s fate had not been sealed when Judge Strauss issued that ruling on October 3 of 2007, it was most certainly sealed on the evening of October 22 of 2007” when the transfer of custody took place.

In other words, he implied, a woman whose child is taken away from her for no good reason may be expected to do something violent to get the child back. Although there was nothing to link Borukhova to the crime on the day it occurred, a kind of primal necessity pointed to her guilt. Daniel’s family instantly “knew” Borukhova was responsible for his death. (At the hospital where the dying man was taken, his sister-in-law Natalie Malakov screamed at Borukhova, “Stupid girl, what did you do? You’ll never see Michelle again!”) The police “knew” it, too, and their confidence that evidence of Borukhova’s guilt would emerge was triumphantly borne out. A cell phone company’s record of ninety cell phone calls between Borukhova and a man named Mikhail Mallayev led to the arrest of Mallayev, whose fingerprints matched those on a silencer found at the crime scene, and, presently, to the arrest of Borukhova herself.

Richard Lee/The New York Times/Redux
Police detectives taking Mazoltuv Borukhova to her arraignment in Queens, February 2008

Borukhova has consistently maintained her innocence. Her defense lawyer, Stephen Scaring, told me he believed her. When I wrote about the criminal trial three years ago, I frankly stated my sympathy toward her and my antipathy toward the judge who presided over the proceedings and had skewed them to favor the prosecution.* It was clear to many people who followed the trial that it was not a fair one. But it was equally clear that Borukhova was all but certainly guilty because of the ninety telephone calls. They could not be gotten around. Borukhova said the subject of the calls was the heart condition of Mallayev’s wife, who was under her care. But the explanation was absurdly lame. As the Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, remarked, “I don’t call my doctor ninety times when I have a health problem.”

Natalie’s prediction that Borukhova would never see Michelle again did not come true but was prescient in the sense that Borukhova never saw Michelle again without a social worker being present in the room. And Michelle herself began an existence from which social workers were never absent. As a result, much about this existence, between the time she was seized at the precinct and the present, can be known. State-employed social workers are required to put down in writing what they observe as they do their beneficent work and submit these writings, called “progress notes,” to their supervisors, who then distribute copies to fellow agency employees, judges, attorneys, and family members involved in the case. The notes are marked “confidential information, authorized personnel only,” but—in view of the number of copies in circulation—they fall with ridiculous ease into the hands of the unauthorized.

The writings of the social workers assigned to Michelle’s case form a dossier many thousands of words long. The earliest entries, made on the afternoon and evening of the murder by a CPS supervisor named Garrett Ingram, as he received bulletins from police officers and social workers at the 112th Precinct, have a dark overwrought character. An atmosphere of the uncanny hovers over the building where Borukhova is being interrogated, her mother and sisters and the victim’s brothers have gathered, and Michelle is being held in a secret room. We learn that Borukhova—who is “red in the face with puffy eyes as it appeared she may have been crying for a long period of time”—is a “subject of suspicion” and since “there is concerns she might flee with the child it was agreed for [CPS] not to consider giving the child to the mother”; that Joseph Malakov, “stricken with grief at this time as he was mourning the loss of his brother Daniel,” has “a solemn look on his face and while speaking with CPS appears to have a far away look in his eyes, as if he was looking past the CPS or through him”; that Gavriel Malakov “fears for his life due to the events that transpired early this afternoon”; that Michelle “appeared to be of Caucasian descent with fair skin and dark hair” and has “a quiet demeanor and kept to herself as she watched television in the precinct.”

The CPS social workers were at a loss to know what to do with the captive child. The maternal relatives—Borukhova’s mother and sisters—were considered flight risks like Borukhova while the paternal relatives were afraid of being killed by the same hand that killed Daniel. A pair of distant paternal relatives named Tamara and Roman Eliasahvili finally agreed to risk letting Michelle stay with them. The progress notes give us a glimpse of the little girl at the Eliasahvilis’ house:

CPS explained to Michelle that she would be staying with family members other than her mother. Michelle was unresponsive to CPS but appeared to understand…. Child sat in a chair with her legs pulled into her body and arms wrapped around her legs and face in her chest.

The next day, the Eliasahvilis, now also fearful, asked that Michelle be removed from their house and sent to her paternal grandparents, Khaika Malakov and Malka Mushivea. This was done. On November 1, a social worker named Rashedah L. Goodwine came to the Malakov/Mushivea house for a visit of inspection, and reported that the grandmother “indicated that while she loved and adored her granddaughter Michelle, they were apprehensive as child’s presence in their home posed a threat to the family.” Goodwine went on:

Ms. Mushivea then began to remark on her presumptions regarding how her son was murdered. [Goodwine] cautioned the paternal grandmother from making disparaging remarks with the child Michelle present and suggested that Michelle be taken into another area of the residence. Ms. Mushivea replied that it was “okay” as Michelle “only spoke Russian.”[This proved to be untrue.]

The grandmother, who also “stated that she can’t bear to look at Michelle because she looks so much like her mother,” urged that Michelle be placed with a relative named Ludmilla Ford, and that this be done right away. The next morning Michelle was taken to an agency called the Child Advocacy Center for a supervised visit with her mother, whom she had not seen since the day of the murder. Martha Martinez, the supervising social worker, described the encounter thus:

Mother walks in, looks at child, says hello to child, then starts walking toward child. Mother picks child up, and hugs her tightly—child did not say anything, she just hugged mother. Mother at one point was crying—tears flowed from her eyes. Child continued to hug and hold on to her mother.

Toward the end of the visit Martinez saw Borukhova scrutinizing “a small almost invisible mark” on Michelle’s left cheek:

The mark was “tiny” and almost invisible—color was pale yellow. Mother asked child what happened to her face? Child said something in her language, worker asked the interpreter to translate what child had just said. The translator tells worker the child said “Danny’s mom” hit her…. Mother gets on her phone and contacts her attorney.

The system went into action. Accompanied by Martinez and the interpreter, Michelle was taken to a therapist named Elise M. Wager for a “trauma assessment.” After an hour with Michelle, Wager told Martinez that “child is traumatized.” Martinez’s notes continue:

Child tells Ms. Wager she is not happy where she’s at. Child said she does not want to go back there. Child says she wants to be with her mommy. Child talked about liking horses…. She drew pictures of horses. Child then takes her toy horses, that the mother brought in for her, combs their hair, then starts burying them. Mrs. Wager states burying the horses is child’s non-verbal way of grieving…. Mrs. Wager recommends child is placed with a Russian American family.

The recommendation was immediately acted upon: Michelle never returned to the paternal grandparents and was sent to live with a family named Broder. The placement was made by OHEL, an Orthodox Jewish foster care agency that ACS turns to when it seeks “non-kinship” foster parents for Orthodox Jewish children.

Upon her move to the Broders, Michelle’s dark story suddenly, unexpectedly lightened. The traumatized child found herself in a home where she felt welcome and secure. The foster mother was a sort of fairy godmother: an exceptionally warm, kind, intelligent, and intuitive person. She had four children of her own—age eleven, nine, and a pair of five-year-old twins—and a special aptitude for the art of mothering. During the five months that Michelle lived with the Broders—from early November 2007 to mid-April 2008—she thrived. In March, Elise Wager visited the Broder house and reported that “Michelle has made a wonderful adjustment to her new home, and is much more animated, confident, and verbal than when this consultant assessed her in November.” She characterized the foster mother as “extremely supportive and empathic toward Michelle, who calls her Mommy almost from the beginning of her stay.” Around this time Martha Martinez visited Michelle’s school and spoke to two staff members:

They described Michelle as outgoing, pleasant and a very happy child. Michelle has good interactions with the other children and loves to sing and also loves ponies…. The Early Childhood Director commented that if she did not know about the trauma Michelle experienced, she would not be able to detect a problem based on Michelle’s behavior since she started to attend the school.

After Michelle’s placement with the Broders, Borukhova requested further visits with Michelle, and the court allowed her twice-weekly supervised visits of two hours’ duration. The supervision of visits between children and the abusive parents from whom they have been rescued is a common part of the social worker’s repertoire, but the social workers who supervised the visits between Borukhova and the child who had been taken from her for emotional neglect found themselves in unfamiliar territory. The “birth mother” showed no signs of her abusiveness. She did not put a foot wrong. On the contrary, she seemed almost like a double of the wonderful Mrs. Broder.

A CPS social worker named Shelly Berger, who supervised an early visit, relayed her observations to Martha Martinez, who wrote:

Mother according to Ms. Berger “did everything right”—“it was all about Michelle.” Mother held herself back in becoming emotional…. Mother was “totally appropriate” during the meeting with the child, explained Ms. Berger. The child did not cry when mother left, because the mother “prepared” the child.

Another social worker, Eliana Cotter of OHEL, wrote of the visits with Borukhova she had supervised:

The birth mother brought food, toys, and games to the visits, and was very warm and nurturing towards Michelle. Michelle appeared to greatly enjoy the visits, and smiled and laughed frequently while playing and socializing with her mother. She often became subdued at the end of visits and stated that she wanted to go home with her mother, but she generally left willingly.

If the social workers found the situation odd, one can only wonder what was going on in the mind of the almost five-year-old child who had, as she told a teacher, “two mommies”—both of whom she loved, one of them a bit guiltily out of loyalty to her “real mommy.” However, after February 8, 2008, when Borukhova was arrested and sent to Rikers Island to await trial, Michelle’s visits with her real mommy ceased. She was allowed telephone calls—but they only seemed to aggravate her confusion and anxiety. With her calm wisdom, Mrs. Broder told Martinez that “she believes child needs to be told something about where the mother is.” The child was apparently terrified of losing Mrs. Broder as well as her mother:

The foster mother says she believes child suffers from fear of abandonment. The other day when the foster mother got out of the car to talk to her neighbor, Michelle was in the car and said to the foster mother when the foster mother got back in the car—don’t get out the car and leave me in the car.
Michelle and her father, Daniel Malakov, shortly before he was killed

When Martinez asks the foster mother, “Has child talked about what happened?” Broder tells her of a remarkable conversation:

One and a half months ago, the family members were all together, and they were talking about mommies and daddies. Michelle said, “I don’t have a father.” The foster mother said, of course you do. Then asked Michelle, how were you born if you don’t have a father? Michelle said, “he got dead, he got shot.” Michelle then proceeded to tell her story. The foster mother says, Michelle told the story without any emotion. Michelle took her markers, gave two to the foster mother and she kept two of the markers. Michelle told the foster mother that one of the markers the foster mother had in her hand was her and the other marker was her mother. The markers Michelle had in her hand, one marker was her father and the other marker is the man who walked up to the father and shot him (Michelle took the marker that represented her father and laid it flat on the table).

When Martinez interviewed the Broder children, they said:

Michelle is fun to play with. She listens and is well mannered. The 9-year-old said, “now that Michelle is in the home, there is more action going on in the house. More playing board games.” The 11-year-old said Michelle likes to role-play.

The Broder idyll does not last. In a court report of February 12, 2008, the OHEL social worker Eliana Cotter (now Michelle’s primary watcher) ominously writes, “The foster parents are attached to Michelle, but have expressed concern about providing continued placement due to safety issues and uncertainty regarding the length of the placement.” A month later the concern has become a decision to send the child away. On March 17, Cotter writes: “They have made it clear that they will only be able to continue to provide placement for Michelle until mid-April.”

A call from the court goes out to Michelle’s relatives. The maternal relatives unhesitatingly, the paternal relatives more reservedly, offer their homes. Martha Martinez is sent out on a tour of inspection for ACS and writes a long report describing the living quarters and their inhabitants in novelistic detail. While all the maternal relatives—who had been in close, in some cases daily, contact with the child since her birth—were touchingly eager to take her in, not all of them had sufficient room to do so, and several were eliminated from the contest for this reason. Two aunts, Natella Natanova and Sofya Borukhova, remained as prospects. “It will be a pleasure to have Michelle move in with the family,” Natella, the mother of six children ranging from a fourteen-year-old to a five-month-old baby, told Martinez, who refers to herself as “the Child Protective Specialist.”

Her children were similarly enthusiastic, describing their cousin as a “nice young girl; she is funny and fun to have around,” and “a sweet young girl, always happy and likes to play a lot.” Sofya, who has one child, a girl of Michelle’s age named Mazal, may have been the best prospect of all. Martinez reported an interview with Mazal: “Do you know Michelle? Child said yes. The worker asked who Michelle is. The child said ‘my sister.’ The worker says, you mean your cousin? Child said ‘my sister.’” Suleyman Yadgarov, Sofya’s husband, told Martinez that “when he went out shopping with the wife, they would purchase clothing for their daughter and purchase the same exact clothing for Michelle. ‘They are like twins.’” He added that if Michelle came to stay, “she will be cared for and loved in my home.”

The paternal relatives, in contrast, have misgivings. Yes, they will take the child, but not gladly. The grandparents have softened toward her—Khaika said that “he wants Michelle because ‘this granddaughter is from my beloved son,’” and Malka, the grandmother, tells Martinez that “she would feel good if Michelle comes to live with her because she loves her.” But both are still shattered by grief; the year before they lost their son, they had lost their daughter Stella, who died of leukemia at the age of thirty-two. Khaika cries as he speaks to Martinez. Malka tells her that since Stella’s death she has been seeing a therapist “who prescribed clonazepam to help her sleep.”

Daniel Malakov’s brother Joseph, a thirty-eight-year-old pharmacist, who lives in a five-bedroom house with his wife Natalie and their four children, is a better candidate. Martinez tours the house and admires its “large spacious rooms” and the piano in the living room, which, she notes, all of the children play. She finds “ample food in the refrigerator,” and notes that the older children have their own rooms, while the youngest daughters share a room. But Natalie “is still kind of uncomfortable” about taking in Michelle. She tells Martinez that “there have been a lot of threats, and it is kind of scary.” After pausing to remark that “she does not understand what caused her ‘sister-in-law to snap,’” and that “Daniel, Michelle’s father, was ‘a beautiful individual,’” she continues to air her “safety concerns.” Martinez finds sixteen-year-old Ariel at his computer in “the den area” and asks him, “How would you feel if Michelle came to live with you?” Ariel replies, “It would be weird.” Martinez says, “It would be weird how?” and Ariel “shared that he does not understand the way his uncle died. The uncle was not sick, someone put a bullet in him and killed him, says Ariel. My religion says, ‘Thou shall not kill.’”

Joseph is less reluctant but says that “his interaction with Michelle had been minimal. ‘Maybe five times when Michelle was a baby and five times when Michelle was older.’” “He understands that Michelle will need ‘love and nurture.’ The same love and nurturing he provides to his own children with ‘a little more sensitivity.’” Unlike their mother and father, the younger children, Sharona and Julie, are wildly keen on having Michelle come live with them. They have met her during supervised visits with the family at the OHEL agency. Sharona, age seven, says, “Oh Michelle; she is nice, beautiful, cute, adorable, and I love her…. I love her hair and I like to make her laugh.” Her sister Julie, age six, echoes with “I love her,” “she is so cute,” “she likes to color and she colors cute,” “I like to dance with her and sing songs with her.”

When Martinez visits the second brother, Gavriel, she finds only his wife, Zlata, at home. The house (that Nicole Bode had characterized as “modest”) goes unmentioned in Martinez’s notes. Zlata, who is a twenty-five-year-old occupational therapist, tells Martinez that she “would gladly take Michelle,” even though “in the beginning, her biggest fear was ‘they killed Daniel, whom would they kill next.’” But “now that Mazoltuv has been arrested the fears have ‘subsided.’”

Gavriel, who is a physical therapist, arrives. He tells Martinez that he was at his parents’ house five doors down the block:

Gavriel stated the media was at the paternal grandparent’s home because of what happened yesterday. The Child Protective Specialist asked what happened. Gavriel said he could not go into details about what happened, however he could tell that yesterday while he was walking down 108th Street, he ran into Natella [Borukhova’s sister] who threatened him. Natella, according to Gavriel, was arrested.

The details that Gavriel could not go into were in the next day’s newspapers. In his story for the Times of March 5, 2008, Al Baker wrote:

Officials said that at 9:50 a.m. on Monday, Ms. Natanova approached Gavriel Malakov, a brother of the murdered man, Dr. Daniel Malakov, at 108th Street and 65th Avenue in Queens and said, “You should know if you talk you will be the next to go.” Gavriel Malakov, who is a possible witness in the criminal case, immediately reported the threats to authorities.

At Natanova’s jury trial on July 23, Natanova’s lawyer Melvyn Roth said accusingly to Gavriel: “Isn’t that the reason you had Natella Natanova arrested on March 3rd, because you were going to tell Miss Martinez that she had been arrested and she had threatened you, so that you got custody of Michelle, isn’t that the reason why you made up this fabrication?” Roth had just handed Gavriel Martinez’s progress notes of March 4.

Q: Does this refresh your recollection as to what you told Miss Martinez?
A: I never said anything of this kind.
Q: You deny what you just read?
A: Yes, sir.

Who to believe? The literal-minded Martinez, placidly making her selections from actuality’s crowded shelves, or an anxious Gavriel at bay during a cross-examination? The jury acquitted Natanova after two days of deliberation; when they were deadlocked they asked for the parts of Roth’s cross-examination concerning the Martinez visit. Whatever the truth of the matter, the arrest did in fact eliminate Natella from the contest for Michelle’s custody. In a summarizing paragraph at the end of her report, Martinez writes:

The maternal aunts Natella Natanova and Sofya Borukhova’s families seem to have had the most extensive contact with Michelle and their living quarters would satisfy the criteria for foster care certification. However, there is great concern for these resources as both of these maternal aunts are involved in the criminal aspect of the murder case.

Gavriel and Joseph were the remaining candidates. On March 25, Cotter wrote in her progress notes that “the family is unsure whether Michelle should be transferred to Joseph’s or Gabriel’s family. CP [the case planner, Cotter herself] stressed that the decision must be made soon in order to prepare Michelle for the transfer.” On April 1, “CP discussed [with Zlata and Natalie Malakov] which home could best provide [Michelle] with the support she needs.” But the home to which Michelle is sent has no welcoming girls of her age, a seriously disabled three-year-old boy, a young pregnant wife, and a tense, troubled man whom she later accused of mistreating her. The progress notes offer no explanation; they merely state that on April 2, “CP consulted with Supervisor and Director, and determined that Gavriel and Zlata Malakov will become kinship foster parents for Michelle.”

It is almost immediately evident that Michelle is miserable in this household. She cries uncontrollably every day. She has tantrums that sometimes last as long as half an hour. She is sick all the time. She does not get along with the disabled boy. She deteriorates at school. (Months later Zlata tells Cotter that “when Michelle first came to their home she verbalized that she hated FP [foster parents] and didn’t want to be with them.”) But Cotter and her supervisors at OHEL and ACS are apparently unmoved by the child’s misery. Their mandate is to “maintain the stability of her foster care placement.” When maternal relatives express their concern about Michelle to Cotter, they are warned that “the agency will not tolerate any attempts to interfere with or sabotage Michelle’s new placement.” The relatives obey, and Gavriel and Zlata remain Michelle’s foster parents for the next three years.

—This is the first of three articles.


The Case of Michelle February 7, 2013