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Bringing to mind tubercular Victorian despair, the word “orphan” has fallen prey in recent years to its own ham-handed sentimentality. But when the Global Peace Initiative (GPI) alerted the media to the woeful story of Shyamala Peddibotla, it seemed the only word that fit.

In a July 19 press release, the Christian charity announced that the 11-year-old Indian girl was “fighting for her life” at Children’s Hospital after being diagnosed with diabetes and stricken with a dangerous fever five days prior. It was a heartbreaking blow to an initially joyous visit: Shyamala was a dance student on a GPI-sponsored “international goodwill and peacemaking trip” to the United States and only days before had been performing for the governor of Arkansas and the owner of the Cincinnati Reds.

“The trip has been suspended,” the charity announced, “as her eight friends, all from the same orphanage in India…remain in a nearby hotel anxiously awaiting her recovery.” If this weren’t trouble enough, the State Department was refusing to authorize a visa allowing the girl’s caretaker, an attendant at a Hyderabad orphanage called Charity City, to enter the country.

But Shyamala wasn’t wholly without allies. On the same day that GPI put out its press release, boxing legend Evander Holyfield—who happens to be a principal booster of the charity—showed up at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom to demand the caretaker be issued a visa. Flanked by eight preteen orphans, the heavyweight drew the notice of the Washington Times.

In a July 20 story titled “Holyfield Pleads Case of Sick Indian Orphan,” Times reporter Sharon Behn pronounced the girls’ trip “a fairy tale visit to the United States that ended up in a bureaucratic nightmare,” and let GPI’s representatives contribute a little color. Without her caretaker, Holyfield declared, the girl’s situation was “kind of bleak,” and charity coordinator Doug Dodson reminded the Times of Shyamala’s orphan status. “She was rescued off the streets,” Dodson said. “The only mother this little girl has is the caregiver, Lakshmi Chodisetty.”

Well, maybe not the only one. According to court testimony from Children’s Hospital and investigators with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, the girl isn’t an orphan. “She does have a mother,” says agency spokesperson Mindy Good, an assertion later conceded in an affidavit filed by GPI itself. Good concedes that Shyamala doesn’t live with her mother; instead, Good says, she is “going to a boarding school.”

Though the State Department relented and authorized a visa for Shyamala’s caretaker within days of the Holyfield protest, the woman didn’t appear at Children’s Hospital for well over a month, creating concern at the hospital that GPI did not plan on retrieving the girl. Though healthy, Shyamala would need help with her insulin injections for years, and the hospital would not release the girl until it could train her permanent caretaker to administer the drug.

While waiting for a caretaker to arrive, hospital staff had time to line up a translator and ask Shyamala about her background. The answers didn’t sit well with either the hospital or Child and Family Services, and both groups began to question whether Shyamala should be returned to GPI’s custody at all: According to Good, the only GPI representative the hospital regularly dealt with, a volunteer named Norma Juarez, “was not eager to be responsible for a sick child.”

On Aug. 22, citing questions about Shyamala’s custodianship, Child and Family Services initiated court proceedings to investigate the child’s welfare; three days later, Kenneth Rosenau, an attorney representing Children’s Hospital, filed suit against GPI seeking to wrest guardianship of Shyamala from the charity.

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Just because GPI was passing Shyamala off as an orphan didn’t mean the charity was mistreating her, however, and Child and Family Services conceded that it couldn’t make a neglect charge stick. “It’s not like she’s technically been abandoned,” social worker Rebekah Phillippart told a D.C. Superior Court judge. according to the transcript of an Aug. 26 hearing. But before the agency dropped the case, Phillippart said, it passed its concerns regarding Shyamala’s custody on to federal authorities, who have made at least initial inquiries into the matter. “[P]ersonally and professionally…I wish the FBI would pick it up quicker,” Phillippart said in court.

Though Phillippart’s agency dropped its investigation, Children’s Hospital attorney Rosenau took a hard-line approach. Without better documentation of the charity’s legal custody, he told the judge, his client did not intend to turn the girl over short of a court order. “In the same way we can’t just put Grandma out on the street in a wheelchair, Children’s Hospital has the same obligations when we release our patients,” he said in court. “We have no idea of how this charity has these children.”

Nor, Rosenau suggested, had GPI been accurate in its descriptions of Shyamala’s illness. Suffering from treatable juvenile diabetes and “a minor infection,” she was ready to be discharged 72 hours after her arrival—days before GPI announced that Shyamala was “fighting for her life” and called for donations to help cover the costs of her medical care. Incidentally, Rosenau asserted, GPI had given no indication that it was planning on putting those donations toward Shyamala’s now six-week, six-figure medical bill, or settling the tab at all.

But Children’s Hospital had sued over the child’s guardianship, not the collection of her medical bills, and Rosenau, too, was unable to convince the court that Shyamala was being mistreated. She was released into the care of GPI’s Juarez to resume touring, and the hospital’s suit was dismissed on Sept. 14. Both Rosenau and Children’s Hospital declined to comment on the case.

GPI is by all accounts an odd duck in the humanitarian aid community. Devoted to caring for the Third World’s widows and orphans, it is run by Indian Christian evangelist and publicity hound K.A. Paul. Profiled in the New Yorker and the New Republic, Paul should be credited for brokering an end to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Dodson says, and talking India’s prime minister out of firing the first volley in a potentially nuclear war with Pakistan. Paul claims to have personally convinced Liberian strongman Charles Taylor to step down and avert a civil war in September 2003—a claim that would seem grand if Taylor hadn’t called Paul his “spiritual adviser” and handed him the credit in a statement to the New York Times. “We have a very unconventional approach, which is to talk to the very worst of the leaders that everybody else ignores,” says GPI’s Dodson, who describes his boss as “a mix between Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King.”

Recently, however, the charity has fallen on hard times. GPI’s fundraising peaked at just under $16 million in 2003, and “since that time, it’s been extremely difficult,” Dodson admits. Early this year, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) yanked its certification of GPI’s sister charity, Gospel for the Unreached Millions, after the organization repeatedly failed to provide documentation that its books were in order. “We never accused [Paul] of anything,” ECFA Director Paul Nelson says. “We couldn’t even get to that point.”

And just since the beginning of July, GPI has been slapped with a $9 million breach-of-contract suit and had one of its principal assets, a Boeing 747, indefinitely grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration over what FAA spokesperson Paul Turk describes as questionable maintenance. The plane now sits in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

GPI blames its recent problems—including its custody battle over an 11-year-old diabetic dance student—on circumstances no less bizarre than those it offers to explain its diplomatic feats. The Bush administration is conspiring against GPI, Dodson says, in an effort to stymie GPI’s peace missions to such administration enemies as Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. At the beginning of July, Dodson says, GPI was about to unveil “what we consider a huge breakthrough in the Middle East.” Far from welcoming the help, American policymakers sabotaged the effort: “They didn’t want us getting in the way of their war machine,” Dodson asserts.

Now, he says, “the U.S., which has unlimited money and millions of bureaucrats on its side, is trying to suffocate us.” Cronies of the administration are likely behind the Children’s Hospital suit, he believes, likening the hospital’s refusal to release the girl to “holding her hostage.” There’s no doubt, Dodson says, that the young diabetes patient is lucky to be in GPI’s care. “I’m so glad we brought her over here,” he says, “because she would have died in India.” Any questions about the merit of the case against his charity should have died, Dodson says, when “the judge threw it out with prejudice.”

And whether or not Shyamala has a living mother is immaterial, Dodson asserts. “Her mother gave her away because they didn’t have the money to take care of her,” he says. “Whether or not you’d call her an orphan or an abandoned child—that’s really not a distinction we make.”

With the conclusion of the legal proceedings against it, GPI’s goodwill girls’ tour—and Shyamala—was eager to take its traditional Indian dance exhibition back on the road. The group is currently in Houston, Dodson says, and may be returning to India sometime next week. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by DOug Boehm.