NEW YORK – A Family Court judge granted temporary custody to maternal relatives of a 4-year-old girl who stole the hearts of New Yorkers and Bolivians when she was found wandering the streets barefoot after her mother's alleged slaying.
Valery Belen Saavedra Lozada — pigtailed, chubby-cheeked and precocious — is "very little to understand that her mother's not coming back," her great uncle, Enrique Salas, said before the Friday hearing.
"But she knows Mama is up in heaven watching over her."
Salas spoke outside a small courtroom in the borough of Queens (search) that was the setting of both the custody hearing — filled with Valery's relatives, including two grandmothers — and an arraignment of the man accused of killing her mother, Monica Lozada-Rivadineira.
The victim's family had no discernible reaction to defendant Cesar Ascarrunz, who sat off to the side with his attorney.
At the arraignment, Ascarrunz entered a "general denial" to a charge of child neglect through his lawyer, Christopher Renfroe. He is being held without bail and faces a murder charge in a different court.
Judge Marybeth Richroth set a Feb. 17 trial to determine permanent custody. She did not name the family member granted temporary custody of Valery, but said it was on her mother's side of the family, on the recommendation of the Administration for Children's Services.
The girl's grandmothers — one from Phoenix and the other from Cochabamba, Bolivia — sat near each other at the hearing, separated only by an interpreter. They were later seen talking amicably.
The judge said a paternal relative, identified by media as Iris Carolina Saavedra of suburban Chicago, a cousin of Valery's biological father, also had filed a custody petition. The biological father, who is serving time in a Bolivian prison on drug charges, signed off on that petition, and was not making a custody claim of his own, the judge said.
Valery, who also has a 3-year-old brother in Bolivia (search), was found wandering the streets of Queens, barefoot and late at night, on Sept. 25. Police said Ascarrunz, her 26-year-old mother's live-in boyfriend, allegedly confessed to dumping the little girl on the street after strangling Lozada-Rivadineira and putting the body out with the trash.
A body presumed to be that of Lozada-Rivadineira was found Oct. 6 at a Pennsylvania (search) landfill, where New York City (search) garbage is hauled. The medical examiner's office has not yet made an official identification of the body or declared the cause of death.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, ACS Commissioner John Mattingly would not disclose the name or hometown of the family taking temporary custody of Valery. He said he didn't know if that family was petitioning for permanent custody.
"They have been a part of her family. She knows them quite well," Mattingly said. "She knows and loves them."
"Valery is well. She's a strong and resilient young lady who I think her mother would be very proud of even at this difficult time," the commissioner said.
He confirmed that there were relatives in Illinois seeking custody of Valery.
Mattingly said he encouraged all members of the family to mediate for a permanent solution and to continue to have contact with Valery.
Valery's case captured national attention after authorities took the unusual step of putting the preschooler on television in the hopes of tracking down her family. The little girl said her mother looked like a princess.