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Elena Ladiguina, who, since May 1998, has only been able to spend one hour a week with her small daughter, Tuesday scooped 4-year-old Caroline into her arms and took her to their new home.

It was only a few hours after Erie County Surrogate Joseph S. Mattina signed the order returning Caroline to her mother who had been released from jail a few weeks ago after posting a $15,000 bond with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"All I want to do right now is get to know my little girl again and then I will decide what I will do with my future life," Ladiguina said.

The 27-year-old illegal immigrant's life since she was taken into custody in 1998 and ordered deported has been the stuff soap operas are made from.

Under the threat of deportation, she accepted the marriage proposal of a man, many years her senior who had read of her plight.

The couple, married in August 1998 while she was in the Holding Center, are in the process of a divorce.

A friend she had known before being discovered by the INS has reappeared, posted the $15,000 bond, paid legal fees to help get Ladiguina released and took her into his home.

Once freed, Ladiguina immediately petitioned the court for the return of her daughter who has been in foster homes and spent a few months with the new stepfather who is now out of the picture.

Mattina ordered both an investigation of the background of Ladiguina's friend and his home noting "our first concern is for Caroline."

"We discovered nothing criminal in the man's background," Gary J. Wojtan, attorney for the Erie County Social Services Department, said Tuesday, "and the home where Caroline was going to live is fine. I think everyone agreed it was time for Caroline to be with her mother permanently."

Just to be sure, Mattina ordered Social Services to monitor Caroline for the next year.

Ladiguina's saga began in 1994 when she left her native Ukraine and illegally entered the United States to join a boyfriend, a Czech gypsy, who was living in Buffalo.

The boyfriend promised her they would receive political asylum because gypsies were persecuted in Eastern Europe.

It never happened.

After she became pregnant, her boyfriend abandoned her. She later used the green card of a woman she had met to be admitted to Children's Hospital where she gave birth to a baby girl -- Caroline.

The ruse was detected by the INS Buffalo district office in May 1998.

Ladiguina, who was ordered deported to the Ukraine was placed in the Erie County Holding Center while traveling papers were being processed.

The INS won two decisions that Ladiguina be deported. The last decision is now being appealed "and who knows how long it will take before we get that decision," said immigration attorney Robert D. Kolken. "But for now, Elena is free and Caroline is back with her mother."

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