2013-01-20

GUEST POST....International Shared Custody Gone Wrong



My guest poster today is Alissa Zagaris. Her story is different from most. Alissa had court ordered visitation established, and both parents had been following the scheduled visitation for 2 years prior to Leo's abduction.

In July 2000, Alissa and Nikos married after learning they were expecting a child. Alissa was an Indiana native, and Nikos was a Greek immigrant living in the states on a student visa. Nikos had overstayed his student visa and the Greek Military was demanding him home, but since he had officially married Alissa (an American born citizen) he ignored their demands, believing that it wasn't a problem. In January 2001, Alissa and Nikos welcomed Leonidas (Leo) Zagaris into the world. Nikos became jealous of Leo and started becoming aggressive toward Alissa and Leo. He wanted to have 2 other children, believing that it would solve his military troubles in Greece, since having 3 children will make you exempt from military duty. Nikos spent his life living as if her were single, providing money needed for bills and household items while having affairs with other women, his temper scared Alissa so she avoided confrontation as much as possible. In September 2007, Alissa filed an order of protection against Nikos. At the same time he was arrested by Immigration & Customs for his illegal status. When Nikos requested Alissa sponsor him, she refused and requested a divorce. January 3rd 2008, Nikos assaulted Alissa and was arrested again on domestic battery and felony strangulation charges. February 12, 2008, Nikos went to the Greek Consulate to explain the situation. They give him a boarding pass to flee the country to Greece. In 2009 when the divorce was finalized, Nikos was given 10 weeks of visitation each year.

I will have Alissa finish the explanations from here.

My story differs from most Left Behind Parents. (That's what we are called and labeled by our governments... "the Left Behinders" ). I am one of the stupid ones that agreed to international child visitation in my divorce. I am the "100% paperwork Mom" that put every single safeguard reccommended by our State Department into place before I ever allowed, my then 10 year old son, Leo to board a plane and visit his father in Greece.

I felt so safe and secure in my decision. I remember thinking this kind of thing happens everyday. Lots of parents do this and have no problem. Plus I had the bonus of my ex husband being registered and banned from reentry into the US by ICE/DHS (check out my page for more details on that). I really believed that criminal prosecution would be the first option with my ex husband, not the last.
I read the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and thought I was informed and knew what I was getting myself into. I knew based on the articles of the treaty everything was overwhelmingly in my favor. Leo is a permanent resident of the USA, he was born and raised in Indiana. Leo has never lived anywhere but here in Hamilton County. Which is also the ONLY court with jurisdiction over matters concerning Leo. Hamilton County Courts and the prosecutor's office have made that very clear (Feb 2012). My American son was stolen during visitation and I have spent the past 18 months in an international battle to get that recognition from Greece.

18 months fighting a battle that should have never been.

6 months just to get my Hague application filed and the translated documents approved by Greece's Central Authority. I began the process in September 2011 but didn't get a hearing until April of 2012.

 After the hearing it wasn't until September 28, 2012 when they finally ruled and ordered Leo be returned to the US. But is he home yet? NO. Why? Because the Hague gives the taking parent an opportunity to appeal the courts decision and will not enforce the order until that appeal has been denied. OK. FINE.

Well, we did that too.

December 13th 2012 I went to Greece to attend that hearing, expecting to leave with my son. I was with the Consular General of our Embassy in Athens and other staff. The Justice Dept and NCMEC were so confident that I would be returning with Leo that they approved funds for the rescue mission. I went over with partial funding from the Deptartment of Justice Victims of Crime Office. The Embassy, State Dept, NCMEC all believed I would be returning with Leo that day. We ALL thought this was the end of my American child's abduction. BUT NO!

The morning of the hearing the courts were striking again. Greece and Cyprus are not paying their government employees because of their economic crisis and the people are protesting and striking daily. We were lucky to even have our hearing that day. The courts are so different there than in the States. People just pack themselves in around the bench and scream to be heard. There is no rhyme or reason to anything.

I was not even allowed to speak or address the court. I had a translator with me yet still I was refused any right to even make a statement on my behalf. During our hearing the courts were evacuated for an hour due to a bomb threat. When we returned, we found out the judge would not rule on our case that day. He was making us wait until he reviewed the case.
 
Without his denial of the taking parents appeal, the Ministry of Justice could not enforce the return of Leo to my care. I was forced to leave Greece without my son.

On Friday January 4,2013 Peter Macon from the State Department's office of children's issues called me. Peter informed me that the judge had denied Nick's appeal and reordered Leo be return to the US.
YES! Finally we can get some enforcement! No more waiting, no more Hague restrictions on criminal charges. Finally the FBI can place Nick on the Red Notice with INTERPOL and we can treat this criminal as what he has been all along, a kidnapper, an international thug that thought he could use the civil system to bully his way back into the US.

BUT NO! NO! Not yet, we need to wait until the taking parents get served with the order first and Nick may get another chance to appeal. He has 30 days in which to file for his final appeal, this time with Greece's supreme court.

Well this time I say NO! No more waiting on this 80's treaty and a broken unmonitored civil process. After 18 months of this nightmare... I promise you there is NOTHING civil about this process.

My son has been stolen from me and everything he has ever loved. Leo is an American born and raised little Hoosier child. He is being held in a foreign land that has told us twice that we can have him back. So where is the enforcement? Why am I still here? Why aren't I with INTERPOL right now getting my little boy? And where is my country making sure that OUR CHILD comes home? I have been patient and more than understanding as I waited for "the process" to unfold.


There is nothing quick about this Hague process. And after 30 years, the Hague treaty has just become a way for taking parents to continue having the upper hand. The Hague does not protect our kids it just leaves them in the hands of their abductors. It has in effect created this problem for we modern parents. It protects the taking parents by discouraging criminal prosecution. And there is no recourse if the other country chooses not to comply. Thank God Greece is willing to give Leo back, others aren't so lucky. BUT Without enforcement, all the court orders of return mean nothing.It just makes me what I already was...the 100% paperwork mom; just with more papers. Hardly the Hague Success story, is it?


Alissa's page can be found here:

Leo Zagaris abducted by father in Marathon, Greece

 

Child abduction happens, even when you follow the legal route. And Alissa's story is proof of that. And while her case has gone faster than many others, it's still taken 18 months and counting. 18 months of being unable to see or hold your baby. 18 months of wondering where he is, and if he's okay. 18 months of living in fear that you will never see your child again. 

And 18 months of our government doing very little, 18 months of our government PROTECTING a kidnapper and felon. 

This is NOT how our government should work.  

 Alissa has started a petition with change.org to tell the government that they need to work harder to bring our babies home. Please take a few minutes to sign it: http://www.change.org/petitions/help-us-rescue-our-american-children-held-captive-worldwide?utm_campaign=friend_inviter_modal&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition&utm_term=permissions_dialog_true&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=url_share&utm_campaign=url_share_after_sign# 

5 comments:

  1. so sorry to hear this hope he gets home safe nd sound very soon

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  2. This is ridiculous. How is it that it's taken this long for this mother to even get a hearing to get her son back?

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    1. It is ridiculous. And unfortunately it happens way too often. Alissa's case was actually heard pretty fast compared to the usual, and I'd venture to say that it is because she already had custody paperwork in place. Many parents have to wait years to have a hearing.

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  3. Alissa,

    I sincerely hope and pray that you get Leo back in the next couple of months. And that you would be one of the very few parents who have been successfully reunited with their abducted children.

    My son was abduced to India by his mother in July 2008 and he is yet to be returned back to the US. India, unlike Greece, is not a signatory to the Hague Treaty (we all know how effective that treaty is, but at the very least, it provides the LBP a legal basis to initiate proceedings in the destination country). In the absence of such a tool at my disposal in India, I left everything to go and fight the battle in Indian Courts. I had spent 20 months in India and got a favourable ruling at the State High Court (equivalent to your Supreme Court of Indiana etc.). This favourable ruling came in Sept 2010. The mother of my son went to Supreme Court of India on appeal in December 2010 and SCI is yet to grant us a full hearing. My lawyer requested an expeditious hearing in November 2011 and we were promised a hearing on 19 Jan, 2012. I went all the way to India. But the case was not listed before the Court for 19th Jan. I came back empty handed. Since Oct 2012, the website of the Court had been showing the next date of hearing as January 24th, 2013. I booked my tickets, packed my suitcases and was looking forward to boarding the flight on Jan 17th. And then on Jan 16th, the website moved the hearing to March 4th, 2013.

    I have not seen my son since July 2010. The State High Court granted me visitation while the case was pending and the mother violated those orders with impunity (instead of being able to spend 150 hours of unsupervised visitation over 4 months, she permitted me only 6 hours of highly supervised visitation). I filed a Contempt case against her and the same State High Court had closed the Contempt case without even a proverbial slap on her wrists.

    From my experience, I will strongly advise you not to rely on DoS or OCI. Please remember that you are on your own. When push comes to shove, DoS would prefer not to rock the boat of 'cordial relationship with the host Country'. They would gladly leave you and your child to your own devices.

    You say your child was 10 when he taken from the US. Mine was 3. Contrast what DoS does to help us (which is next to nothing) with what they did for those two grown up female journalists who were being held by North Korea for crossing into their Country (in 2009). DoS had negotiated the return with North Korea (a sworn enemy of the US....both India and Greece are considered strong 'allies' of the US) and massaged the ego of the ruling Despot by flying Bill Clinton to North Korea on a private plane of a Hollywood billionaire. Two grown journalists walk into hostile territory on their own volition and the DoS moves heaven and earth to negotaite their return with an enemy. Vulnerable children are hauled off to the so-called friendly nations by venomous parents and our DoS wouldn't lift a finger. I am not trying to discourage you. But I want you to understand and fully appreciate that you are on your own. Do not place any credibility on the promises made by DoS and US Consular staff, however tall those promises may be.

    Please do keep us updated on the progress of your case in Greece.

    warm regards and best of luck,
    Another LBP.

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  4. Please keep us posted on your progress as well. May all our kids come home & Thank you.

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