Domestic violence victims fleeing their abusers are increasingly being charged with kidnapping, and losing parental rights—even when escape is the only way to survive.
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In December 2016, after an extensive legal battle, American citizen Michelle Monasky was ordered by the U.S. courts to return her 21-month-old daughter to a foreign country and into the hands of her Italian abuser. Four years later, she’s still fighting in both Italian and American courts to regain custody of her child.
In a parallel timeline, Roy Eugene Rumsey was awarded visitation rights in 2016 to spend time with his 2-year-old daughter Kyra Franchetti, despite Kyra’s mother, Jacqueline Franchetti, repeatedly warning the judge about Roy’s propensity for rage and violence. The judge told Franchetti to “grow up,” and granted Rumsey’s request. During their visit, Roy murdered Kyra, then killed himself.
In July 2019, Nassau County family court Judge Joseph Lorintz defiantly ignored Justyna Zubko-Valva’s repeated warnings that her ex-husband, NYPD officer Michael Valva, was abusive and that her three young children, two of whom were autistic, were in danger in his home. School officials also reported the children were being abused and neglected and expressed significant concerns about Mr. Valva. Lorintz refused to take any action and allowed the children to stay with their father. On January 17, 2020, Michael Valva murdered their 8-year-old autistic son Thomas, whom he severely beat and reportedly forced to sleep in a freezing cold garage.
These cases are not anomalous. An alarming number of domestic violence–child abuse and “child abduction” cases involve mothers trying to protect their children and warn the courts about the abuse—and they are blatantly ignored. And when these mothers flee their abusers, who, statistically speaking, could very likely kill them, they are often disbelieved and the children are not protected by the courts.
Every 16 hours a woman in the U.S. is murdered by a current or former partner, but oftentimes when mothers leave with their children, sometimes in life-threatening situations, they are not only ordered to return the child and abusers are given unsupervised contact with the children—they can also be arrested and prosecuted for kidnapping.
Originally from Ohio, Monasky moved to Italy in 2013 to be with her then-husband Domenico Taglieri, who became physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive toward her. Taglieri would repeatedly smack Monasky across the face. He punched her. He sexually assaulted her. Court documents state that during one attack, Taglieri climbed onto Monasky, ordering her to “spread your legs or I will spread them for you.” Taglieri admitted to abusing Monasky during direct testimony, stating that he hits her “because I deserve a beautiful woman, and I do it for her own good.”
The day Monasky went into labor with their daughter, Taglieri reportedly refused to drive her to the hospital—calling her names and telling her that she “deserved to suffer.” After the baby was born, Taglieri screamed at his infant daughter in the hospital and threatened to “shove [formula] up her ass.” In another incident, Taglieri refused to allow Monasky to change her daughter’s soiled diaper, became irate, opened a kitchen drawer and appeared to be looking for a knife.
Monasky feared for their lives and went to the police for help and then stayed in a domestic violence shelter with her baby until the arrival of her daughter’s U.S. passport—for which Taglieri had signed consent—and when it arrived, immediately left Italy. Court documents report that Monasky had informed Taglieri multiple times of her intent to leave; on other occasions, Taglieri had also told her to go back to the U.S. Taglieri then accused Monasky of kidnapping the child and filed a petition under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction to have the child returned.
The Hague Convention is a treaty created to deter international child abductions—there are 101 participating countries. It asserts that a child “wrongfully taken” from their habitual country should be returned to that country, but in domestic violence cases, like Monasky’s, the Hague Convention can be manipulated by batterers to force children to be returned to the abuser’s home country.
Although the U.S. courts found Monasky’s claims of abuse “credible” (Taglieri was also found liable for assault and battery in a separate case and ordered to pay $100,000 in damages), they still ruled that Monasky had to return her daughter, claiming she was a “habitual resident” of Italy—even though Monasky was her primary caregiver and her daughter had only lived in Italy for eight weeks before they came to the U.S. Taglieri also filed to terminate Monasky’s parental rights in Italy. Monasky (and her attorney) were never notified of that proceeding and the Italian courts revoked Monasky’s parental rights.
But after several years of litigation, in a landmark move, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Monasky’s case on December 11, 2019. A ruling is expected in June. Monasky’s case is particularly significant because it’s the first time the Supreme Court has heard a Hague Convention case about the habitual residence of a newborn—and the SCOTUS ruling could have an impact on other domestic violence victims who flee with their infants. However, there are numerous cases where the courts also failed to protect older children, even when they have openly stated to court officials that they are afraid and don’t want to go back.
Julie Neumann, originally from Michigan, was living with her now ex-husband in Mexico. After being violently attacked by him in 2014, she took her three children and came back to the U.S. to escape the abuse. Her ex-husband filed a Hague Convention petition and Neumann was ordered to return her children to Mexico—even after the children reportedly witnessed their father hold a knife to their mother’s neck and shove her forcibly across the room, which resulted in her sustaining three broken ribs. Court documents indicate that the children reported that their father was “angry, abusive and frequently drunk” and that they felt unsafe around him.
When the courts overlook domestic violence—treating it as an irrelevant factor in assessing a caregiver’s stability and assume there is no longer a risk to a child when the parents have separated—they are only putting children in more danger. Batterers who abuse their partners often mistreat their children as well—an estimated 30 to 60 percent of domestic abusers are also violent towards their children. And, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, between June 2009 and January 2010, there were 75 children murdered by an abusive father involved in a custody proceeding.
“If a parent has abused their partner,” says Sarah Gundle, a New York City-based psychotherapist who treats trauma survivors, “the risk increases significantly to the child—even if the child did not witness the abuse. Abusers’ behavior in domestic violence cases is highly predictable, and if they can no longer control the mother, their anger and rage is very often displaced on the children.”
In the 2010 study, Multiple Perspectives on Battered Mothers and their Children Fleeing to the United States for Safety, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers and professors of social work Jeffrey Edleson and Taryn Lindhorst examined over 300 Hague cases between 1993 and 2008, as well as 47 U.S. Hague Convention court decisions. They found that a significant amount of “abducting” parents in Hague cases were mothers fleeing violence. Their children were also being physically abused or exposed to repeated violence against their mothers and that the majority of the mothers in the study were ordered to return their children back to the country where the batterer lived.
Article 13 in the Hague Convention outlines an exception to returning a child if the return poses a grave risk. But the courts often fail to fully consider how domestic abuse impacts children—and can place children in dangerous situations.
“The courts have made it nearly impossible to meet the grave risk standard in many domestic violence cases. In Monasky’s case the district court found that Taglieri’s abuse of Monasky did not pose a grave risk to the child, despite Taglieri abusing Monasky while she was pregnant,” says Joan Meier, co-counsel for Monasky, from the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project and professor of clinical law at George Washington University. “The court also ignored Taglieri’s verbal abuse towards his newborn daughter.”
Cases like Monasky’s demonstrate how the Hague is being misinterpreted. The grave risk exception was created to prevent a child from being sent back if the return would “expose the child to physical or psychological harm” but when the courts set such a hard-to-meet standard for this exception and ignore the impact of domestic violence, they place children at an elevated risk for abuse and trauma.
In the report, International Child Abduction and the Escape from Domestic Violence, Merle Weiner, an expert on the Hague Convention and professor at University of Oregon School of Law, reported that “common sense might dictate that a victim who removes her child from a country in order to escape domestic violence has not engaged in a wrongful removal.”
Domestic violence survivor Nan-Hui Jo was tried twice and convicted in the second trial for child abduction in 2015. She fled to South Korea in 2009 with her 1-year-old daughter after reportedly being abused by her ex-husband, Jesse Charlton. Charlton accused her of kidnapping and reported Nan-Hui Jo to authorities. Nan-Hui Jo was unaware that Charlton had made these allegations and she was arrested in Hawaii, when she traveled there to look for schools for her daughter. She is currently appealing her conviction.
Hague Convention cases are not the only instances where family violence is frequently minimized and overlooked—family court has a long history of dismissing domestic violence and child abuse. While child abuse is not always perpetrated by fathers, of course, but often when mothers report abuse, their accounts are disproportionately disregarded and children are subsequently put in danger. According to a recent study written by Meier and funded by the National Institute of Justice, when mothers reported child abuse and domestic violence to the courts, they lost custody 28 percent of the time. Fathers who claimed abuse, lost custody just 12 percent of the time. The American Judges Association also reports that batterers get custody or joint custody in 70 percent of abuse cases—and 58,000 children a year have unsupervised contact with an abusive parent.
“An abuser can rape or beat their partner and it often has no implications for him as a father—he’s still considered fit to have custody of a young child,” says Meier.
“I did my best to calm her, as any mother would,” says Monasky, recounting that day in December 2016 when the police ordered her to surrender her daughter to Taglieri. “But she was still terrified to be separated from me. We were both terrified.” To date, Monasky continues to be denied her parental rights in Italy.
If the courts continue to discount the risk to children in domestic violence cases, abuse victims will continue to find themselves being forced to choose between the safety of their families and the dangerous legal consequences of being labeled an “abductor.” Victims and their children have the right to escape violence—they shouldn’t be forced to endure abuse by both the batterer and the courts that fail to protect them.
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