Until 2010, I never would have believed it was possible to perpetrate drastic fraud upon a court of “law” and suffer no consequences. I also never would have believed that family courts could be used to pull off kidnappings without repercussions. After it happened to us, I thought for sure we were the only ones. I have since discovered that the trickery and blatant law-breaking my ex used in his scheme has, in fact, been used in other parental child abductions as well. In retrospect, we were some of the luckier folks. Often — depending on who they’re up against, what their financial situation is, or how corrupt the judge is — there is little or no recourse for victims of court-assisted kidnappings. Some parents never see their kids again, and others end up with absurdly restricted visitation rights.
We had been separated for almost three years when, without warning, my ex decided to sue for full custody of our five-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, he also decided not to tell me about it. Furthermore, he decided I should not be privy to it in any way, shape, or form. He knew that his chances of prevailing in court were 100% if I didn’t even show up. Boom.! Victory by default.
Here is how he did it:
1. He hired a lawyer in a state where neither of us live. He lied to the lawyer by telling her he lived there. He provided her with a false address for me — to ensure that I would never receive documents or letters from her or the court.
2. He filed for custody in that state.
3. He came to my state under the guise of a visit.
4. During the “visit” he stayed at a Super 8 motel in our county (not one of the nicer Super 8’s), befriended the motel clerk, and persuaded her to let him use the motel address as my home address. He instructed her to hold all mail that would eventually start arriving in my name. He had previously provided his attorney with that address by telling her it was my home address. The attorney did not even realize it was a motel.
5. Two days after his arrival, he flew an illegal immigrant acquaintance from Seattle to here (a long journey). The acquaintance spoke poor English and may not have understood that he was being used for something illegal.
6. He took his acquaintance to a fly-by-night, 24-hour notary business and had him sign the service of process form claiming he, the acquaintance, had served me the court papers. (My state has lax notary laws, which helped make it impossible for me to track down the guy.)
7. A couple days later, my ex flew home.and I remained clueless about the pending action.
8. Three months later, he went to the hearing in the state where he had filed the custody action. Of course, I was not there, and, of course, he was awarded full custody by default. I was granted occasional supervised visits and ordered to pay child support (By the way, I had never sought child support from him). The basis for the ruling was described as an inability of the parties to make child rearing decisions. There was no negative mention of me or my parenting, nor an explanation for why the commissioner thought it was in my child’s best interest to have such ridiculous visitation restrictions with me. When granting default judgments, family courts will pretty much give the petitioner whatever they want.
9. Fraudulently-obtained custody order in hand, he immediately flew to my state, pretending to be here for another visit. He stayed at the same icky Super 8.
10. During an overnight visit, he checked out of the motel at 4am. He boarded, with our daughter, a four hour flight to Seattle.
11. That afternoon, before leaving work, I phoned to tell him I’d be there in an hour. His reply was: “Don’t freak out! We’re in Seattle. I had to come back right away for a work project, but I’ll bring her back in four days.” I did freak out. I should probably mention that he was unemployed and had been for at least two years. In addition, he was living in Section 8 housing and fraudulently receiving benefits by claiming our daughter lived with him. I did not know about the illegal benefits at that time. Somehow, he was able to fund all of his travels and legal (illegal) undertakings in addition to future costs.
So, that’s how he did it. He used the family court to perpetrate a secret “legal” kidnapping, and he had our daughter with him across the country.
I was panic-stricken. I knew he planned to remove her from the U.S., so I needed to somehow find help immediately. That same day, as well as the next, I called everyone I could think of for help. The police in my county, the police in his county, NCMEC, etc. I also repeatedly called my ex and begged for answers. He quickly got fed up and blurted out, “I have full custody! There is nothing you can do! She’s MINE!” He refused to provide any details. He wouldn’t say how or when or where he had obtained custody. Hours of searching online, finally earned a hit. The decree was in a third state. It was another shocking blow.
Getting my daughter back home was a three-week, rapid-fire assault. The twists and turns that occurred every step of the way were like something from a dramatic novel. I’ll just give the summarized version here, saving details for the book and, possibly, future posts. However, if you are battling a similar situation, I’ll be happy to share what I learned.
It went like this:
1. I retained an attorney in the state where the ruling had been made. The custody order was set aside and was no longer valid.
2. I retained an attorney in my home state and got an emergency custody order from my local family court.
3. I flew across the country to his state, but discovered my out-of-state order was not “valid enough” there to get help from the police.
4. With the help of yet another attorney, we had a hearing in my ex’s city, and I received the necessary local orders to have my daughter returned to me.
Getting her back was the biggest relief I’ve ever felt in my life. It had been a very close call, as he had been hard at work, the entire time, arranging her permanent trip out of the U.S. My daughter hadn’t been put in school while he had her — all the while she missed out on three weeks of school here at home. She was returned to me in old, dirty clothes, hadn’t had her hair washed during the entire three weeks, and only received one bath. The used-looking shoes she had on were unfamiliar to me and were too small. She was emotionally traumatized from having no contact with me and from being told she would never see me again. She had also been forbidden to mention me or cry about missing me, and was told I had been put in prison for life. She had many nightmares while there, but was chastised for that too. She was informed that she would soon be living overseas with her grandparents and was forced to quickly try learning a new language. My ex had sold most of his furniture and possessions. He didn’t look for a job. He had no intention of keeping her in the country. Though unemployed and no longer taking classes, he spent his days running errands to arrange for their departure. He tried leaving her at a daycare, but had to quickly stop because she kept telling everyone to call 911. She spent almost every day alone with a friend of his — a strange, angry Muslim radical who lived in a dirty, pay-by-the-week (or by the hour) motel and prayed all day long. It was a terrifying, confusing time for her.
Most people might assume this type of fraudulent behavior results in some sort of punishment, but there were no negative consequences for my ex’s perjury and outright deception on the court. A prosecutor would have had to pursue it, and prosecutors have no incentive to get involved in such family court travesties. Until a crooked ruling results in death, they turn a blind eye. Most people might also assume that any future custody proceedings between my ex and me resulted in easily-obtained, sensible decisions based — at least partially — on my ex’s twisted history and disregard for the courts (this wasn’t his first bold case of court fraud). Most people, however, probably assume wrong. My ex relentlessly continued his war against us, eventually hiring an unethical attorney who knew how to use his negative history as a dirty court tactic, and I learned far more than I’d hoped about corruption and cruelty in the family court arena as I fought to prevent an international abduction.