Dad has kids home safe after legal fight with their mom who took them to Mexico
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com June 6, 2014 11:48PM
David Bernat holds his children, Joseph and Angela, after having them returned to him after their mother took them to Mexico. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 9, 2014 6:03AM
Christmas wasn’t celebrated until shortly after Easter this year at David Bernat’s Palos Heights home, where the decorated tree stood hovering over his children’s unwrapped presents since the winter holiday.
Santa Claus didn’t make it to San Pedro, in Coahuila, Mexico, where his children — Joseph and Angela — had been taken in July by their mother, from whom Bernat is divorced. So the first thing they wanted to do when their father brought them back home on April 29 was open those presents.
“It was late when we got home, but I let them open their stockings,” Bernat said. Then, like on a Christmas morning, his kids awoke early the next day, eager to see what Santa had delivered.
Joseph, 9, was thrilled about the Legos Minecraft set and a stack of books “this high,” he said, gesturing above his waist. He also talked excitedly about hunting and fishing with his dad with the new gear he belatedly received for his August birthday, while soon-to-be 6-year-old Angela danced around in her new pink gym shoes.
Having his two kids back in his arms was Bernat’s best Christmas gift ever.
The past nine months without them was “horrific,” Bernat said.
“My son could not understand why I couldn’t just come to Mexico and get him,” said Bernat, now exhilarated and exhausted by his nine-month quest. “He told me to take money out of his piggy bank, pack a cooler and hop on a bus, like they did.”
His children don’t realize they had been taken by their mother despite their father having residential custody, and never knew the legal complexities of their situation. It took awhile for their father to figure it out, too.
Bernat said he soon realized this ordeal was “not for the faint of heart.”
He spent hours on the Internet searching for the best solutions, the best attorneys. He heard “horror stories” from other parents who waited four, five, six years to get their children back, or who were arrested while visiting their children in other country. He became aware of companies that prey on these grieving parents.
He took a leave of absence from his job and devoted his life to getting Joseph and Angela safely back home.
“My life revolves around my kids,” he said.
When Bernat and his wife divorced in April 2013, he was awarded residential custody of Joseph and Angela.
“We thought it was best to have good relationships with both parents. We split weekends, holidays and summer vacation,” he said. “When I filed for divorce, she threatened to take them to Mexico. That was always a concern.”
He said he contacted “every government agency” about that threat but was told they could do nothing unless his ex-wife actually took them to Mexico.
That’s exactly what she did during a visit on July 26, heading south of the border without passports to her father’s house in San Pedro, Bernat said.
Mexico is where many abducted children are taken, according to U.S. State Department statistics. In 2013 there were 1,004 children taken out of the United States and 326 went to Mexico.
“She took the kids in violation of a court order. The law is very clear. She could not even take them to another state without court permission,” said Bernat’s attorney, David Schaffer.
The following Monday, Bernat filed an emergency petition in court for the immediate return of his children and began researching what to do next.
“I thought this would be cut and dried because I had legal custody,” he said, as he sat in his attorney’s office six months ago, broken-hearted but focused.
His background in business management kicked into high gear.
“Internally I am screaming. At times, I am in my room crying but I know I have to remain focused. Otherwise, what good am I?” he said then.
It was important to resolve this quickly, because the longer the kids were gone, “the more their minds can be poisoned and the more they will be alienated from their father,” his attorney said. “If you do this wrong, kids’ lives are at stake.”
Bernat refused to do a “snatch and grab” and was determined to have his kids returned legally.
It took him months to find Schaffer, who specializes in international abductions and helped him file the documents needed to obtain a “letter rogatory,” a formal request to obtain judicial assistance in another country.
Parents typically get referred to the State Department, which follows the Hague Abduction Convention, an international treaty between the United States and 73 member countries to provide a legal framework for parents to seek the return of their children to the country of their habitual residence — the “best tool” for resolving such cases, according to a State Department official.
The United States and Mexico both recognize the Hague Convention, but according to the department’s website, there have been “enforcement concerns” with Mexico.
Bernat notified the FBI, the state’s attorney’s office, his U.S. senators and congressmen hoping to get help in the prompt return of his children, all to no avail. He even launched a Facebook page “Bring Joseph and Angela back home.”
He found many resources, but the one he came to rely on was the International Expertise Center ChildAbduction.com, (IECC) a Netherlands firm founded by Anselmo Llobera, a father whose own children were abducted, and who now is dedicated to helping other parents recover their children.
When asked to comment on the “efficiency” of the Hague process, the State Department official stated in an email that 113 children were returned to the United States in 2013 from Convention partner countries as a result of a court order in a Hague proceeding.
“We help the parent or legal guardian understand the available options for pursuing the return of their child. We also work with our embassies and with our foreign counterparts to locate the abducted child, confirm the child’s welfare, and encourage voluntary return,” the official said in the email.
The time involved in resolving a child’s case under the Hague Abduction Convention depends on the facts of each case and judicial system of the respective Hague partner country, the official said.
According to the State Department website, another 103 children were denied return through the Hague, while 402 were returned voluntarily.
Based on what Bernat learned from other parents, he rejected the Hague process as a lengthy and inefficient “nightmare,” and he put his faith in Llobera.
“I talked to a lot of people and I felt comfortable with him,” he said, adding that Llobera also provided names of past clients for references and put him in touch with international attorneys.
In September, Llobera took Bernat to Mexico to meet with judges through the Mexican Central Authority who work on Hague cases. Judges told him they often see fraudulent documents, so Bernat needed to assemble and authenticate his documents. Since he did not file a Hague application, the State Department “didn’t want to lift a finger to help me,” he said.
He gathered his paperwork — some needed to be certified, notarized or translated into Spanish — his emergency order for the return of his children, divorce and custody papers, passports, birth certificates, fingerprints, baptismal records, Social Security cards, state identification, school and medical records.
“The cost is unconscionable,” said Bernat, who estimated that it cost nearly $100,000, including his initial custody battle, his trips to Mexico, and Llobera’s and attorney fees.
“It is financially draining. But your children’s lives are at stake. I had to beg from everyone I know. I liquidated everything I could liquidate. It is so, so hard. I felt like a beggar on the street. It is degrading,” he said, adding that he was “fortunate to have good friends.”
Minus the assistance of the State Department, it took six months to verify his documents. During those six months, he was able to visit Joseph and Angela once.
Unlike some parents in similar situations, Bernat knew where his kids were and was able to call them regularly.
The conversations were “all over the board,” he said. “Sometimes, when talking to Joseph, I heard Angela crying in the background, ‘I want to come home. I want to be with you. Mommy won’t let me come home.’ They didn’t like school. They missed their school and their friends here.”
Other times, they would talk happily about what they did in school, or they wanted their father to come to a school program or recital.
Both children struggled to adapt to the foreign country.
“It’s hard to listen to your children bawling their eyes out. You can’t lose it when you are talking with them. I waited until I hung up,” Bernat said.
“The only explanation I have given my kids is that Mommy was not supposed to have taken them to Mexico. Mommy was supposed to stay here in Chicago so they could spend time with both of us because that’s what was fair to them, fair to my ex and myself,” Bernat said.
Now, he said, their mother, who remains in Mexico and doesn’t have a local attorney, would have to get a special visitation visa through the Mexican Department of Foreign Affairs and would be allowed only supervised visits.
“For people in this situation, the laws need to change to make this process easier and faster,” Bernat said.
The best advice he offers parents whose children have been taken out of the country is twofold: “Immediately go to court and have an order entered by a judge for the immediate return of your children, and call Anselmo before you do anything else.”
Bernat was awakened at 1:30 a.m. April 24 by a call from Llobera in his Netherlands office, telling Bernat he finally could pick up his children. By 8 a.m. April 25, Bernat had arrived in Mexico for the first of two hearings. His ex-wife and children had been notified and a police officer was posted at their home to ensure she would not flee again, he said.
By April 29, they had driven across the border and flew back to Palos Heights from Texas, “exhausted, excited and flat broke,” he said.
“Everyone is happy,” Bernat said, as he prepared to register them in school a few days later. “It’s almost like they never left.”