- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999

COPENHAGEN, Denmark

This time of year the focus is on children, those lucky enough to receive mountains of Christmas presents, those unfortunate enough to need the charity of strangers to find something to unwrap under the tree. An added element to the December holiday traditions this year in Denmark was the discussion whether anyone in their right mind would leave a sleeping child out of doors, outside a bar, in a city like New York. Moreover, would anyone who had gotten themselves into trouble with the police for doing such a silly thing then go ahead and do something as, well, un-Danish as sue the New York Police Department for damages to the tune of $20 million, a sum unimaginable to most people here?

Truth to tell, it is rather hard to find anyone who expressed much sympathy for the woman who did all of the above. The case, in which a verdict was reached on Dec. 15, is that of aspiring Danish actress Annette Soerensen. Miss Soerensen, a former hairdresser and bar maid, had traveled to the United States in the late 1980s, in search of fame and fortune as an actress. She seems to have come as far as a spell at an acting studio in New York where she met the father of the above mentioned little girl, Liv. Though eventually settling in Denmark, she returned in May 1997 with the 14-month-old baby to visit the father, one Exavier Wardlaw.

That was when she got into trouble with the law. By Miss Soerensen's own account, having dined at an Indian restaurant, the couple was walking back to her apartment in the East Village when she suggested that they stop for a drink. The child, sound asleep, was parked outside in the cool air by the window in her Danish baby carriage, which Miss Soerensen had brought along. This is perfectly common practice in Denmark, she told the police, who turned up following alerts from concerned pedestrians. The police detected alcohol on her breath and detected more than a passingly belligerent attitude from the child's father. And so they booked the two of them, and took the baby to social services. After four days and the intervention of the Danish consulate in New York, Miss Soerensen was allowed to have her daughter back and packed on a flight bound for Denmark.

There the case ought to have rested. But somewhere along the way, Miss Soerensen picked up an American attorney, Michael Carey and sued the NYPD. As is common in such cases, Mr. Carey and his client claimed that the suit was purely a matter of principle, every single one of the cool $20 million in damages was a matter of principle. Specifically, they alleged wrongful arrest, failure to inform Miss Soerensen that she had the right to contact her consulate as a foreigner, and unwarranted strip search. Mr. Wardlaw, who had several items on his arrest record already, sued the NYPD for $1.5 million, for police brutality.

In the judgment that came down on Dec. 15, the jury awarded Miss Soerensen a pitiful $66,400 to her great and tearful disappointment. Mr. Wardlaw received all of $1 in damages. The NYPD intends to appeal the verdict.

Danes continue to wonder what it all means. Clearly, cultural differences are at work here, but they are not as straightforward as it seemed when this crazy case first made the headlines.

Based on an informal survey, it becomes clear that leaving children outside shops and restaurants in major cities is a thing of a more innocent past. You might do it in small towns and your own front yard, and yes, frosty weather is still considered healthful for sleeping babies. But going about their shopping, young mothers bring their baby carriages, rather more bulky than the snappy American variety, with them in the stores; everywhere, in fact.

The danger of leaving a child unattended even in Denmark was underscored by the abduction on Dec. 11, of a two-year-old Turkish girl from a shopping mall in Copenhagen. The mother had done nothing more than turn her head for a second to assist the child's brother. The little girl was retrieved two days later unharmed, but the nation was still shocked. Here the gap between Danes and Americans may not be as big as Miss Soerensen's defense contended.

The quest for damages, however, and her attempt to profit from personal folly and misfortune, has received very mixed reviews. That is simply not done. As the corespondent for the newspaper Berlingske Tidende put it, "In sharp contrast to the baby carriage episode itself, she displayed considerable adaptability to the prevailing culture when she sued the city government for $20 million." Or as the conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten editorialized, "Seen through Danish eyes, the damage amount is out of all proportion." That would be the $66,400, which translates into some half million Danish kroner. Even that seems to much. Frankly, Miss Soerensen should count herself lucky that nothing worse happened to her child or herself as a consequence of such irresponsible behavior.

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