The curious case of Tristan Dowse

Joe and Lala Dowse were an affluent, attractive couple who had everything except for a child of their own. So they adopted a little Indonesian boy. When things didn’t work out, they placed the toddler in an orphanage in his home country. An international political and legal battle then ensued over this small, confused child. Donal Lynch recounts the sorry saga

By Ciara Dwyer

Sunday February 08 2009
The email to Joe Dowse’s family and friends seemed like the ecstatic end point of a long and tortuous journey for a young Irish family. It described in heart-warming terms the new arrival. “(We) are delighted to announce the adoption of Tristan into the Dowse family. Tristan was born on June 26, 2001, and is a healthy little boy who has now taken up full-time residence effective yesterday. We are thrilled and would like to thank everyone who helped and supported us throughout the whole process.”
Attached to the email was a professionally-taken portrait of the Dowse family — Joe, his wife, Lala, their daughter, Tata and the new baby brother, who had been given “Joseph” as a middle name. It was as though they wanted to let everyone know that despite the colour of his skin and his exotic provenance, he was still his father’s son. Brown-eyed and impossibly cute, the little Indonesian boy was the centre of attention and he completed a very modern Irish family; an Eastern European mother and sister, an Irish father, a new home in Wicklow. Unfortunately, this family portrait would soon be shattered, with splinters of it scattered across Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. And somehow, little Tristan Joseph Dowse would never set foot in Wicklow.
It’s possible that the seeds of Tristan’s later troubles were sown even before the child was born. When he left Ireland on the journey that would lead him to his adoptive son, Joe Dowse could scarcely have imagined the media furore and diplomatic tensions that would ensue. As an ambitious young accountant with KPMG, he had been asked to relocate to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. For a westerner, particularly one who had grown up in lush, green Wicklow, Baku surely had grimly industrial overtones; a place to be endured for the sake of career advancement. To his surprise, the city revealed itself to have a dramatic East-meets-West charm and an old-world beauty, which had been preserved under decades of Communist rule. The Caspian Sea was nearby and billionaires, including the Rockefellers, had left Baku with a smattering of elegant French villas.
The standard of living in Azerbaijan still lags decades behind Ireland, however, and as one of the most senior accountants in Baku, Dowse enjoyed a certain status. He mixed with business leaders, ambassadors and members of the Azerbaijani government. In Celtic Tiger-era Ireland, he might have been just another accountant (and indeed, former colleagues in KPMG confess to barely remembering him) but in this heavily polluted and relatively impoverished outpost he counted as an eligible bachelor. At one of the many dinners he attended he was noticed by a glamorous Azerbaijani doctor named Lala. They hit it off and began going out. Lala had a daughter, Tata, from a previous relationship but this wasn’t a problem for Joe. He loved kids and was apparently never hung up on them being his own flesh and blood. Their relationship progressed and they moved in together. They were soon married and Joe won a promotion to KPMG’s offices in Indonesia. The family would move there and begin the next chapter. Everything looked rosy.
And yet, one problem continued to niggle at Joe and Lala: they could not have a child together. Over the years, they continued to try for a baby but seemed unable to conceive and as time passed, the problem seemed more and more insurmountable. According to sources close to the Dowses, Joe had wanted a boy, feeling it would complete the family. He reportedly persuaded a reluctant Lala and in Indonesia, where they had moved with Joe’s job, it was thought that the couple would have less red tape to negotiate than elsewhere.
In fact, Tristan was procured through the somewhat less than legal channel of an Indonesian baby broker named Rosdiana, who would later allege that Joe Dowse had specifically asked that the child bond as little as possible with his birth mother. She would also claim that Dowse had ordered the mother to go on a special diet for the health of the child and that she not be allowed to breastfeed Tristan when he was born.
In the end, the adoption, including Tristan’s mother’s medical expenses, was understood to have cost Dowse roughly the equivalent of €500.
There was a moment of euphoria once the new family of four had arrived back in their opulent Jakarta home. The extended family back in Ireland received photos of the new arrival, and Joe and Lala professed themselves delighted. Their journey was over, or so it seemed.
In fact, these brief moments of happiness were the only ones the new Dowse family would ever enjoy together. Within months of Tristan’s arrival, Lala and Joe found themselves unable to bond with the little boy. Because the later hearings on the matter were heard in private, we’ll never know for sure exactly what happened, but Gus Cullen, Dowse’s solicitor at the time, told The Sunday Independent, “If you were to tell me that the problem had been to do with the wife, I might not necessarily contradict you.”
Around 18 months later, Lala became pregnant and Joe was due to move back to Azerbaijan with his job. Joe called back to the Emmanuel Orphanage in Bogor, a place he was familiar with since he had done some work on their accounts as part of a corporate social responsibility programme. He had some bad news for the director. He and Lala were dropping off baby Tristan. Things “hadn’t worked out”. Joe Dowse may not have been aware that the orphanage was unlicensed, and this fact would later lead to its closure.
According to the orphanage director Emanuel Laumonier, Dowse seemed very downbeat as he handed Tristan over. “Joe really feels he bungled up,” said Laumonier. “I think he feels he had a good relationship with the child and it was the mother who didn’t bond with Tristan.”
Dowse left behind in the unlicensed orphanage a boy who in his short life had already had his world turned upside down once. Tristan spoke only English and cried inconsolably, disturbing the sleep of the many other children with whom he would now have to share a room. “What amazes me,” says Ann McElhinney, a journalist and film-maker who made an acclaimed documentary on Tristan, “was that Joe and Lala just brazenly stayed in Indonesia after all of this had happened. They continued with their lives for seven months, went to their parties. It’s a fairly tight knit expat community in Baku. People must have wondered, ‘What happened to the child?'”
Eventually, Joe and Lala Dowse would move back to Azerbaijan and their old life. For them, Tristan had been a blip and now, hopefully, a bad memory. They slipped easily back into their old routines and Dowse reclaimed his place as a pillar of society in Baku. At one point he featured on the American embassy’s website, which recommended him as an accountant for expats.
There was just one inconvenient detail still dragging at their ankles from across the subcontinent. Tristan’s adoption had been recognised by the Irish Adoption Board and as such, was legal in Ireland. Although they had never taken him to Ireland, this made him an Irish citizen and gave him rights of inheritance and maintenance. Dowse’s tactic then was to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs, which he hoped could have the adoption annulled. This, he was told, was outside the remit of Foreign Affairs. Further hope came in the declaration by the Indonesian authorities that they considered the adoption illegal since it was, in their estimation, outside the remit of the Irish courts. They also said that they could not grant Tristan a birth certificate, since they did not recognise dual citizenship and foreigners were not entitled to Indonesian birth certs. The Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Dermot Ahern, gave assurances that Tristan was being well cared for and the boy was visited by Hugh Swift, the former ambassador to Indonesia, but officials on both sides were unable to come to an agreement. Tristan was trapped in legal and bureaucratic limbo. Dowse wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs suggesting several compromises, including that the child be cared for by his extended family in Ireland or be relocated to Azerbaijan. The Registrar of the Adoption Board, Kiernan Gildea, bristled at this notion. “I don’t think this is for the purposes of reintegrating Tristan into the family. He could be put into care in Azerbaijan. How in God’s name could an Irishman bring an Indonesian child to Azerbaijan and put him in care?”
“It was a very unusual case,” said Hugh Swift. “In all my years, I can never recall being confronted with anything similar. I made several visits to see Tristan and his mother. As I recall, under Indonesian law, someone generally could not have dual citizenship, but an exception could be made for a child and that is what has happened in Tristan’s case.”
Predictably, the matter had provoked outrage in the media at home. The headlines read: “Irishman dumps baby in orphanage” and there was much debate about the legality and ethics of Irish couples paying money to remove children from Third World countries. It seemed inexplicably brazen that Joe and Lala imagined they could simply “give back” a baby, as though he were a rather expensive pair of shoes, and it beggared belief that they thought they could enlist the Department of Foreign Affairs in their unethical scheme. By adopting him under Irish law, Tristan had become an Irish citizen and yet, however much Bertie Ahern and other officials spoke of his rights being vindicated, it hardly seemed that he was receiving the same treatment that a child born in Ireland could have expected. And beyond the oppressive media interest, nor did it seem that his adoptive parents were attracting any real sanction.
Behind the scenes, however, there were serious attempts to secure Tristan’s future. The government here had tried to have him re-adopted, first by an American couple based in Indonesia and then by a Muslim couple based in Ireland. Tristan’s situation was further complicated when the news broke that he had been removed from the orphanage he called home, it having been found to have had no valid licence. His birth mother, Suryani, with whom Joe Dowse had not wanted the child to bond, had now come forward to claim him. She had explained to Indonesian social services that she had been deceived and pressurised by Rosdiana and another nurse at the hospital where she had given birth. Under careful supervision, Tristan had been reunited with her. An official investigation in Indonesia showed that she had not been paid for the adoption.
Still, Joe and Lala had to answer for what they had done and at an Irish level the matter was decided in the High Court. Dowse travelled from Azerbaijan to the hearing, which was held in camera. Mr Justice John McMenamin ruled that Joe and Lala had breached their constitutional duties as parents and had to support Tristan until he turned 18. They had to pay Tristan a lump sum of €20,000 and a further €350 per month until Tristan turned 18. He also directed that Tristan be removed from the Register of Foreign Adoptions that is maintained by the Adoption Board. The little boy would retain his Irish citizenship and succession rights to Joe and Lala’s property.
All this should have been music to Suryani’s ears. The young mother was living in a one-room apartment in Tegal when she heard the news of the judgment in Ireland. The money would surely be a help to her as she struggled to raise a boy who had endured so much turmoil. But in impoverished Indonesia, the news that she suddenly had money made both her and Tristan a target and she worried about criminals kidnapping her son. “Everyone is calling him the million-dollar child,” she said at the time. “Every day there are TV cameras at his school and at our home. I spend all my time with him because I am so afraid. I worry about my son’s future.”
Others, too, feared for Tristan’s future. The head teacher at his new school had first encountered a withdrawn little boy who had difficulties in trusting strangers. Tristan had difficulties in adjusting to the Muslim ethos in the school (he had known only Christianity) but gradually learned about the faith of his new peers. He also opened up with time, learning to trust the teachers and tell them about his life with his mother. For her part, Suryani said Tristan never asked about his earlier life with the Dowses, but that she would slowly tell him what happened as he grew up. She is given added satisfaction from the fact that the people who robbed her of the early years with her son and caused so much turmoil have been made to pay. Rosdiana has served a prison sentence for baby trafficking and the Dowses continue to pay maintenance for Tristan.
Of Joe Dowse, however, there is no trace. A spokesman for KPMG told the Sunday Independent that they no longer have an office in Azerbaijan. Emails to Joe Dowse’s old personal address are returned undelivered and his listed phone number has been disconnected. It was believed he could have moved to Brighton in England, as there is an address listing for a Lala Dowse there.
“My last instruction from Joe was to absolutely not to allow any of the media to get in touch with him,” says Gus Cullen, Dowse’s Wicklow-based solicitor. “He will be a very hard man to track down, I can guarantee you that.” Cullen added that his impression of Dowse was that he was “an honest, upright individual, who wanted to do the right thing”. Joe Dowse’s father declined to comment, saying, “What would I know about an adoption?”
It does appear, however, that after all, there is a relatively happy ending to the story. After the early turmoil in his young life, Tristan has settled down to a more normal and stable existence. Today, he lives in relative comfort in the village of Tegal in Java and has been given the name Ahmad Khaeroni by a village elder. As directed by the courts, he still receives annual visits from the Irish diplomatic mission in Indonesia.
“When I visited him, he had a fairly normal standard of living,” Hugh Swift recalls. “You have to be careful as an outsider to judge what is normal in another country, but he seemed comfortable and to be a happy young boy.” Of course, Tristan has still never seen one of the countries of which he is a citizen, a right that will, in Hugh Swift’s words “always be open to him”. The court judgment also directed that Tristan will have succession rights to Joe and Lala’s estate, a fact that portends an interesting epilogue to the Curious Case of Tristan Dowse. “In the future, if anything should happen to them, Tristan may well have to get to know their little girl, who is, in a way, his sister,” one Indonesian journalist remarked to the Sunday Independent. “And what happens then will be truly intriguing.”
– Ciara Dwyer

Joe and Lala Dowse with daughter Tata and Tristan. The picture was taken on the day Tristan was adopted in Indonesia