Runaway kids don’t usually make headlines. But that’s exactly what 14-year-old Walter Polovchak continues to do 18 months after he ran away from his parents to avoid returning with them to their home in the Ukraine. Six unhappy months in the United States had convinced Anna and Mychajlo Polovchak that immigrating had been a mistake. For Walter, however, his new life was anything but unhappy. Indeed, when local police traced the boy to a cousin’s home in Chicago, they found him insistent that he would rather never see his parents again than abandon his new friends, new bicycle and new freedom.
Young Walter Polovchak soon became a cause célèbre, a diminutive champion of freedom against communism. In an unusual move, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted the boy political asylum. An Illinois court declared Walter a ward of the state and placed him in the foster care of a Chicago family. The Polovchaks, represented by a legal team from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), appealed the decision. But when the federal government again intervened last summer by granting permanent residency to Walter, his parents returned to the Ukraine without him. Through the ACLU attorneys, however, they continued the custody battle, and recently an Illinois appellate court ruled in their favor. The court upheld the constitutional rights of parents to raise and educate a family, even though “the parents had decided to move to a country whose principles of government are alien to those of the United States.” Washington, however, promptly counterattacked by issuing a Departure Control Order, preventing anyone from taking the youth out of the country.
Thus, critics complain, Walter continues to be a pawn in Soviet-American relations. As a New York Times editorial argued: “This case isn’t about freedom from political oppression but the
freedom of a boy to defy his parents----
the Reagan administration appears to be more interested in shallow chauvinism.” On the other side, Walter’s supporters insist that a boy his age is capable of making a reasoned choice for freedom over oppression. They add that the boy’s return to the U.S.S.R. at this point would guarantee him a future as persona non grata with Soviet authorities.
Walter himself leaves no doubt as to his feelings. Shortly after the recent court ruling against him, the boy insisted, “I don’t want to go there [the U.S.S.R.] and sit in jail all my life. I like the freedom here.” In fact, according to his attorney, Julian Kulas, Walter told his social workers he would commit suicide rather than go back to the Ukraine.
There are, however, things he doesn’t like about the United States. The youth, now in Grade 7, resents the fact that teachers often call on him to tell the class how terrible life is in the Soviet Union, just as he is embarrassed when
people stop him on the street to wish him well. Nonetheless, Walter has made friends easily, and he is also a star on a local soccer team.
Apparently, the boy does not miss his parents (legal issues prevent him from speaking directly to the press), although he does miss his younger brother, Mychas, who is back in the Ukraine. Kulas claims Walter was never really close to his parents, both of whom worked while Walter was cared for by his grandmother until the age of 11: “You’ve also got to remember that since the parents’ return, Walter has received only one letter from them. And we don’t believe that letter was even written by the mother.” Kulas suggests instead that officials in the U.S.S.R. may have written it. Certainly the Kremlin has not given up on Walter and two weeks ago issued a formal protest against U.S. interference on his behalf. As international sparring and court appeals drag on, Walter gets closer to his 16th birthday, the age at which he is legally able to decide his own future. In this case, it appears that time is on his side. -DAVID KLINE
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