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Future uncertain for children of accused Russian agents

By Dugald McConnell, CNN
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What happens to accused spies' kids?
  • All four of the arrested couples have children
  • The youngest, ages 1 and 3, are to go to Russian relatives, court filing says
  • One suspect might be able to return home on bail
  • Son of the Rosenbergs, 1950s spies, says he was rejected by relatives, schools

Washington (CNN) -- What will happen to the children of the suspects jailed this week on accusations of spying?

The four couples imprisoned this week all have children, whose ages range from 1 year old to adulthood -- children who now face separation from their parents, as well as allegations that their parents are not who they said they were.

The youngest are the children of suspects Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, who appeared in court Friday in Arlington Virginia. The two boys, ages 1 and 3, were briefly in the care of the county's Department of Human Services, said spokesman Kurt Larrick, but are now being cared for by family friends.

In a court filing Friday, prosecutors said that "Mills has instructed the friend to arrange for her Russian family members to take custody of the children and take the children to Russia." The filing added that Mills said she has no relatives in the United States, and "her parents, brother, and sister still live in Russia."

In Montclair, New Jersey, the two daughters of suspects Richard and Cynthia Murphy are both grade-schoolers. Neighbors told that the girls like to ride their blue bikes and have water fights, and both have done well in school. A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families declined to comment on whether the agency had helped place the children, and said it gets involved in cases only if asked to.

Suspects Vicky Pelaez and Juan Lazaro, of Yonkers, New York, have a teenage son. Pelaez also has an older son in his 30s, who is presumably old enough to take care of a younger half-brother if necessary. He described the situation this week as "scary" and "horrible," telling CNN on Friday, "they are both of them innocent."

Pelaez has been offered bail, meaning she might be able to return home, with electronic monitoring.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley have two sons, who attended a court hearing for their parents Thursday. It was not clear whether the sons had a guardian with them. The younger one appeared to be a teenager, while the older one is believed to be a college student, listed in the George Washington University directory.

The two did not speak to reporters on Thursday when they left the courthouse, but during the proceeding one of the suspect's attorneys asked the court to give the two parents permission to talk to each other, so they could discuss arrangements for their children.

"When I saw the two boys, I just felt bad," a neighbor of the family told CNN affiliate WCVB. "I don't even know if they knew anything about this."

Experts say it is likely the children in all four cases will be handed over to whomever the parents choose for guardianship.

"As long as there's no indication of abuse or neglect, they could be placed with friends or relatives" as designated by the parents, said Karen Shain of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. The parents, she said, "could have done something bad, but still be perfectly competent, loving parents."

But if they are in jail for an extended period, the children's guardianship arrangements could become more complicated.

"It's always in the interest, for the most part, for them to be with blood relatives," said Terri Braxton of the Child Welfare League of America. "I couldn't say for sure, but if the parents wanted them to go back to relatives in Russia, I am sure that the agencies would try to make that happen."

If the suspects are convicted, the impact on the children could be more serious if they were to remain in the United States.

Robert Rosenberg Meeropol has described the difficulties in finding a home for him after his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. They were executed in the 1950s in a case that was far more serious than this week's allegations.

"My relatives were so frightened of being associated with 'communist spies' that they refused to take me into their homes," Meeropol wrote on the website of The Rosenberg Fund for Children before this week's charges surfaced. "First I lived in a shelter. Later I lived with friends of my parents in New Jersey, but I was thrown out of school after the board of education found out who I was."

Lawyers for several of the suspects, including those from Yonkers and Cambridge, have rejected the allegations of spying. But even before any trial begins, revelations from the court proceedings could have an impact on the children, as authorities spell out accusations that call into question the identities of the parents, and even the basis of their marriages.

In a complaint on Monday, federal prosecutors said the accused were living lives that were fabricated as cover stories, as part of a program for trained operatives called "illegals."

The filing said "illegals often operate in pairs -- being placed together by Moscow Center while in Russia, so that they can live together and work together under the guise of a married couple." In addition, they "will often have children together; this further deepens an illegal's 'legend,'" or cover story.

Braxton says, "I can't imagine any of the kids ... are going to feel good about this situation."

Former FBI operative Eric O'Neill, who helped catch double-agent Robert Hanssen, said it is unusual for spies serving overseas to have children, because they could suffer from divided loyalties.

"When you're a parent, you're supposed to take care of your kids. You are supposed to put them first in your life. And a spy can't do that," he said.

The authorities allege that Lazaro, after he was taken into custody, told officials that "he would not violate his loyalty to the 'Service' even for his son."

CNN's Brian Todd and Carol Cratty contributed to this report.