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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reuniting Loved Ones for the Holidays

If you have seen the recent headlines, you are well aware that missing children have been very much in the news.  Everything from a California AMBER Alert leading to a nationwide manhunt, to babies that just disappear out of thin air, only to have the families prosecuted by Nancy Grace. But a lot of time, the reality is that many cases do not receive that level of media attention, nor coverage.

At Child Quest International (CQI) we work with the even lesser know everyday victims of child abduction and exploitation.  We’re here for the children who don’t flash on your TV and often fall between the cracks in “the system.”

Family abduction happens when a family member, usually a parent, kidnaps and conceals a child for any length of time. Many parents do not know what to do or who to turn to when their child goes missing, especially when the child is being concealed by a spiteful ex-spouse. While some may see parental abduction as a harmless custody issue, the reality is a much darker offense for both children and parents.

In the case of Mrs. Hernandez, one of the many victims CQI assist in their time of need, the issues and legalities pertaining to her children’s case seemed insurmountable. Not only were her children missing, she was lost, herself, in the search for them in a foreign land.

When Mrs. Hernandez came to our office at the referral of the local YWCA in February of 2012, we immediately identified with her lose and sympathized with her fears, and then we got to work. After all, she had not seen or talked to her three missing children since July 2007. And to further complicate the case, the entire family’s US immigration status was in question, to say the least.

Regardless of the circumstances, the children’s physical and emotional well being is always our focus. When a child is abducted by a parent or family member, the trauma can leave scars that never heal, leaving the child to suffer from lifelong psychological damage.  And believe it or not: 78 percent of all child abductions occur when a parent or family member kidnaps their own children, a far more common and serious crime than our society recognizes.  

But like most cases of this nature, it started with a bitter custody battle as played out in many divorces. In April 2007, the Mexican courts granted 50/50 joint legal and physical custody of the children. This obviously seemed best for the children. But not in the eyes of Mrs. Hernandez’s ex-husband, he wanted complete control and was willing to force her hand to get what he wanted. Through fraud, force and betrayal he achieved his goal: to cut-off contact between Mrs. Hernandez and her children by not allowing them to neither speak nor see each other at all cost.

Later that month, with the help of his shady lawyer brother, Mr. Hernandez had a new custody decree drawn up giving himself sole legal and physical custody of the three children. With this, he threatened that Mrs. Hernandez would never she her children again if she did not sign the new custody agreement. Additionally, in a verbal agreement, he assured her that he would grant her visitation on a regular basis. Unofficial in court, Mr. Hernandez was successful in forcing Mrs. Hernandez into signing the documents.

Out of fear for her children and herself, Mrs. Hernandez simply did what any mother would do in an effort to preserve her time and relationship with their children. Unfortunately, two months later, Mr. Hernandez would pull the ultimate betrayal and renege on his promise of visitation through premeditated acts of unlawful child concealment. July 12, 2007 would be the last time Mrs. Hernandez would see her three children until October 24, 2013.

With the assistance of CQI victim advocate and abduction safety specialist, Anthony Gonzalez, CQI began working with the US Department of State, California Missing Children’s Clearinghouse and the local Mexican Consulate to develop a strategic plan: find the children, file a child concealment complaint (in US jurisdiction of children residing) and petition for full custody while applying for temporary emergency custody (based on child concealment charges, based on the original Mexican divorce decree).

The plan was not to tear the children away from their father, but to ensure Mr. Hernandez would lawfully engage in a fair trial in a safe environment for both Mrs. Hernandez and her children’s wellbeing. Unfortunately, we had to play hardball to do so.

In January 2013, through the use of private investigators and social network ninjas, CQI located the children in Los Angeles County (CA). Once located, we had to secure the proper legal paperwork and steps in place to insure against Mr. Hernandez further concealing the children before we could physically act on this knowledge. It’s not like TV where we just get to go kick in the door (although we wish).

In October of this year, working with the Neighborhood Legal Services of LA (NLSLA) and LA County Family Courts, we were able to set-up an unsuccessful mediation between the two parties.

Unfortunately, due to the legal technicalities of this case, the Hernandez’s are still battling out a custody and child support settlement. But in the silver lining that we often survive by, we are happy to share that court appointed visitation has been established. Even better, Mrs. Hernandez will be spending the holidays with her three children, a blessing she hasn’t enjoyed since 2006.  

Written by Anthony Gonzalez for Child Quest International

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