One day Ricardo was holding his 7-month-old daughter Sophie, and the next she was in Mexico, abducted by her mother.
The Thousand Oaks resident wouldn’t see Sophie again for five months. It would be more than a year before she was safely back in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Ricardo would hear reports of her being hospitalized, fear she had been abandoned, fly to Mexico twice to try to find her, discover her living in a Mexican child-services building with a black eye and, finally, with the help of a Ventura County task force, bring her back to live with him in Thousand Oaks.
“I was crying almost every single day because I didn’t know where my baby was,” said Ricardo, who, like the other abduction victims in this story, requested that his and his child’s last name be withheld to protect their identities. “I was desperate for any kind of help and, thank God, they helped me. I was in great need.”
International child abduction, particularly to Mexico, is on the rise in Ventura County and nationwide, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Pam Grossman, who runs the county’s Child Abduction and Recovery Unit. Parents, especially if they aren’t U.S. citizens, often believe there are no resources to help them locate their children. And undocumented immigrants fear that if they ask for assistance from law enforcement, they will simply be deported.
But there is help for these heartsick, desperate parents whose children are taken from them illegally — oftentimes by the other parent — and the Ventura County Child Abduction and Recovery Unit is on the front lines.
“Parental abduction is flat-out child abuse,” Grossman said. “The child’s not property. When someone abducts their child, especially for a longer period of time, the emotional harm that’s created for the child is lifelong.”
Children who are abducted are more likely to become juvenile delinquents, due to dysfunctional family dynamics as well as to the scars from being abducted, she said. Abduction affects different children differently, depending on their temperaments, ages, length of abductions and how the abductor treated them. Sometimes abductors tell their victims that their other parent is dead or “doesn’t want them any more,” which can be deeply confusing for the children when they are eventually reunited, Grossman said.
Noncustodial parents abduct children for a myriad of reasons, but they typically center around money and power, she said. Abductors sometimes believe they will receive more government benefits if they have the child full time. Other times, they take the child to try to hurt the other parent or control a situation, such as a custody dispute.
International child abduction has been increasing steadily over the last decade, as air travel becomes easier and more immigrants have children in the U.S., said Grossman, who worked in the unit 15 years ago before spending 12 years working as a district attorney in the county’s juvenile delinquent department.
“When I did this assignment 15 years ago, people could go into hiding quite quickly; but, now, with the Internet and GPS tracking and all of the computer things we can do, it’s very difficult for anyone to go hide anywhere,” she said. “We use whatever’s available — cell phone tracking, e-mail, Facebook.”
Over the past six months, the Child Abduction and Recovery Unit has handled cases involving Africa, Australia, Bahrain, Costa Rica, India, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Vietnam and Yemen.
In 2011, the unit handled more than 65 cases of parental child abduction involving 95 children. The office also helped to resolve more than 200 other cases, such as visitation disputes, involving about 225 kids.
The federal State Department recorded 1,022 international child abduction cases involving 1,492 children in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available.
International abduction rates are likely to at least double those reported, because of the high number of undocumented residents who fail to report cases, according to a January study by the International Child Abduction Research and Enlightenment Foundation.
But undocumented parents need not worry about being deported.
“It is the clear policy of the United States’ implementing agency for the Hague Convention to assist parents victimized by child abduction, regardless of their residency status,” said Patricia Lee, a director of the I CARE Foundation and a member of the State Department’s Hague Convention Attorney Network. “It is shocking and heartbreaking to know that any parent would feel they could not avail themselves of what may be the only help available to them to reunite with their children across international borders, out of fear of personal retaliation.”
The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is a treaty that allows countries to work together to return internationally abducted children to their home countries. The U.S. signed the convention in 1988. Seventy-five other countries are also signatories, according to a California Attorney General Child Abduction Reference Manual.
Grossman said her office never asks parents about their residency status or requests their immigration papers. Her services are also generally free of charge to parents. Occasionally, if there is a large expense such as a plane ticket to pick up a child, the unit may ask the offending parent to pay the bill or ask the parents to split the cost.
The overwhelming number of abductions are committed by parents or other family members, Grossman said.
An estimated 203,900 cases of family abductions occur annually in the U.S., according to the federal Justice Department’s National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Meanwhile, an estimated 58,200 non-family abductions occur annually in the U.S., but only 115 are stereotypical kidnappings, defined as “a non-family abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom, abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or murdered.”
Grossman said she has never worked on a stranger abduction case.
Ricardo, who is a U.S. citizen, knew Sophie’s mother took her — because he tried to fight her brothers as she drove away with the baby in her car, piled high with moving boxes. But he had no idea where she was in Mexico, where her parents lived, or even if she was in that country for sure. She would call occasionally, asking for money, and each time she said the child was in a different state in Mexico, said Ricardo, who had been trying to work out a custody arrangement with her when she fled. She would call and say Sophie was in intensive care or in the hospital and needed medical treatment. Could he please send money?
As his constant worrying spiraled into depression, Ricardo tried to find someone to help him get his daughter back. The police said they couldn’t do anything because his custody order hadn’t yet been signed by a judge. Ricardo’s lawyer just kept taking his money without doing anything to help, he said. Finally, he went to the Ventura County Hall of Justice and was referred to Grossman’s unit.
“Once Ms. Pam Grossman started working with me, I started getting hope again,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘Don’t lose hope. Sooner or later you’re going to get your baby back.’ ”
In addition to Grossman, the Child Abduction and Recovery Unit consists of District Attorney Investigator Russ Robinson, Investigative Assistants, OraliaAcuna and Diane VanScoy, and Processing Assistant Norma Gutierrez. The unit also works closely with the Ventura County Legal Facilitator’s office and Children’s Protective Services of Ventura County.
From left, Ventura County’s Child Abduction and Recovery Unit: Senior Deputy District Attorney Pam Grossman, Legal Processing Assistant Norma Gutierrez, Investigative Assistant Diane VanScoy, and Supervising District Attorney Investigator Russell Robinson.
Ruth is another local who has had her child rescued from an abduction in recent months. Her 4-year-old son, Moses, was taken by his father for a month last December, and she feared they had gone to his father’s native Africa.
“I had a very bad Christmas because I didn’t know what had happened to him — I didn’t know if he was out of the country,” she said. “(The father) would call and say, ‘We are in the mountains and you will never see us again.’ ”
Moses’ father also threatened to kill himself and the child, Ruth said.
Eventually, Ruth located the boy in Oxnard, but she continued to have problems early this year with the father taking Moses for extended periods of time without her consent. That’s when she discovered Grossman’s unit.
“That’s where I got help,” she said. “They started working on it on Feb. 14; and then on Feb. 16, they called me and told me to come and pick up my baby from the Oxnard police station.”
Marcy, a Ventura resident, knows what it’s like to feel like a pawn in an abduction scheme. She and her two older brothers were abducted by their father when they were 3, 5 and 7.
“I remember just really staying close to my oldest brother, and he made sure I was OK,” she said. “I probably was scared and not sure what was going on. We just stayed on our best behavior because our dad was a strong alcoholic, and you just never knew when he would flip out.”
A family friend happened to locate the children in Hawaii after three months, and they were safely returned to their mother. For the first three months back at home, Marcy didn’t speak a word, she was so traumatized, she said.
Now 34, Marcy is living a well-adjusted life, but still feels haunted sometimes by the abduction.
“I think it was just the beginning point of looking over your shoulder and being cautious about who was around you,” she said.
Ricardo’s daughter, Sophie, also seemed scared when she returned to Thousand Oaks to live with him last December, he said, but, slowly, her gregarious personality began to reemerge.
“Once we got back, I started taking her over to the Thousand Oaks Mall where there’s a little playground,” said Ricardo, a student at Moorpark College. “She was afraid to be around people; but, little by little she started gaining that trust. If you looked at her now, you couldn’t believe she was afraid of being around people. She’s a really outgoing baby now, really talkative.”
A few weeks after Sophie came home, a Ventura County judge granted Ricardo full custody of his daughter.
“At that moment, I felt happier than any time in my life,” he said. “I wanted to scream, I felt so happy. I was crying again, I just remember tears coming down my cheeks.”
In the event of a child abduction, parents should contact their local law enforcement agency and have a report taken immediately so that the child can be entered into the National Crime Information Center system, and a “be on the lookout” bulletin or an Amber Alert can be issued. Law enforcement officers can then refer parents to the local child abduction office for assistance.
If a case involves someone blocking access to a Ventura County child and violating visitation or custody agreements, parents can go directly to Grossman’s office for assistance. To reach the office, call 662-1755.