The single-mindedness with which courts separate fathers from children was on display again in Birmingham, Alabama back in the middle of October. That’s when federal judge Inge Johnson took Jeff Chafin’s four-year-old daughter Eris and handed her to her alcoholic, violent mother, with the explicit understanding that she would take her to Scotland immediately, depriving Jeff of contact. Here’s one website on the case.
And she did just that. Chafin had all of 20 minutes with his daughter there at the courthouse before his wife Lynne pulled her from him and hopped a flight out of the country.
What was a federal judge doing adjudicating parental rights? Well, the proceeding was one under our old friend the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, so it was heard by a federal judge.
And, as we’ve seen in cases out of the U.K., even countries that act promptly on their obligations under the Convention, often manage to ignore its clear import.
The most recent example I’ve written about was one in which a British judge utterly distorted the concept of a child’s residence in order to deprive a father of access to his children. In that case, the mother, father and children lived in Australia, although she was British by birth. When she got homesick, the family moved to England to stay in a house a relative had left her in her will. The parents agreed that the move was only to be for a year, and at the end of that time, the father moved back to Australia with the mother’s express representations that she and the children would soon follow. She had no intention of following, but that didn’t prevent her from sending him letters, cards and gifts whose sole purpose was to convince him they were still a couple and she’d be coming home soon. The British court found that she had purposely deceived him, but allowed her to keep the children for good in the U.K. Why? Because, according to the court, England had become the children’s “settled residence.” That was true despite the fact that the kids had spent far more of their lives in Australia than in the U.K.
Well, something similar happened in Jeff Chafin’s case, but in fact much worse. In the British case, the mother was a liar; in Chafin’s, she’s a drunk and an abuser.
Jeff serves in the U.S. Army. He and Lynne, who’s a Scot, were married in Germany while he was stationed there. Jeff spent 14 months on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, during which time, the Army moved Lynne and their new daughter to Scotland. At the end of his tour, they spent 90 days in Germany before moving to the United States. Jeff was stationed at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, so they settled in Huntsville, bought a house and moved in.
But all was not right with their marriage. Lynne was a drunk, and when she got drunk, which was often, she got mad. Several times, Jeff had to call the police to have her arrested. Another two times she managed the feat all by herself. Once she got drunk and assaulted a cab driver. Another time, Jeff had to grab his little girl, Eris, and run from the house wearing only shorts and flip-flops. He went to the police, but convinced them not to arrest Lynne. The final straw was when he awoke at 1 AM to find Lynne standing over him with a knife announcing that he was not going to leave the room alive. He managed to extricate himself from that situation, run to his daughter’s room and barricade the door. There, protecting his daughter, he called the police. Meanwhile, Lynne, still armed, stabbed the door. The police arrived and arrested Lynne, who was by then well known to them. On the way to the police station she was so violent that they had to put her in shackles and hobbles.
By then, Lynne had been in the United States over a year on a 90-day visa. The police and immigration authorities had had enough of her drunkenness and violence, so she was deported back to Scotland. Jeff and Eris stayed behind in Alabama.
Up to this point, the story’s been a pretty run-of-the-mill one – a rocky marriage that was falling apart. The only thing out of the ordinary is that the police arrested her for her domestic violence instead of him.
But once Lynne got to Scotland, things became interesting. Two days after she arrived there, she filed a petition under the Hague Convention in Alabama claiming that Jeff had wrongfully “retained” Eris in the United States. (Retaining a child in a country not of the child’s residence is illegal under the convention as is abducting a child to a foreign country.)
And so, much like in the British case, the question arose what country constituted Eris’s country of residence. Amazingly, Federal Judge Inge Johnson ruled that Eris lived in Scotland.
You see, it was Lynne’s claim that she and Eris had come to the U.S. temporarily, that she’d never intended to stay. That’s what she said in her Hague petition and that’s what she said on the witness stand. When Jeff’s attorney got a chance to cross-examine her, his first question was “do you have any evidence to support what you’re saying?” Her answer was “no.”
Amazingly, Lynne claimed that it had been their agreement all along, but every single thing she’d said or done contradicted the claim. For example, she’d applied for a Green Card; she and Jeff had bought a house; she’d looked for a job and talked about starting a business. Not only that, but the U.S. Army had moved her, Eris and all their belongings to Alabama where her husband was stationed. The Army doesn’t do that for people who intend to move back after a short visit. Indeed, if she hadn’t been deported, there is nothing – nothing – to indicate that she wouldn’t still be here in the U.S.
More importantly, the question of a child’s residence is about the child, not about the mother. At the time Judge Johnson ruled, Eris had spent 33 months of her life outside of Scotland (almost all of it in the U.S.) and about 18 months there.
Further, how did the judge figure that Jeff had unlawfully “retained” Eris in the United States? Stated another way, how does Lynne’s deportation magically become “retention” by Jeff? The judge didn’t explain that one, and I can’t figure it out.
Here’s what Article Three of the Convention says about wrongful retention:
The removal or the retention of a child is to be considered wrongful where -
a) it is in breach of rights of custody attributed to a person
So, in order to rule as she did, Judge Johnson must have concluded that in some way, Lynne’s illegal and violent behavior that resulted in her deportation constituted a “breach of (parental) rights,” by Jeff. You figure it out; I can’t.
But I assure you, it gets worse.
Like most laws relating to children, the Hague Convention enshrines the interests of the child as its most important goal. It lets you know that in its very first sentence.
The States signatory to the present Convention,
Firmly convinced that the interests of children are of paramount importance in matters relating to their custody…
Whatever the residence of the child, his/her best interests carry the day. Irrespective of everything else, a child’s interests are “of paramount importance.” So how did Judge Johnson manage to conclude that turning a four-year-old girl over to a mother with a history of alcohol abuse and domestic violence was in that child’s best interests? How did she do that when the child’s father is a man of impeccable record and a kind and loving father?
She disposed of the DV issue by asking Jeff how many times Eris had witnessed her mother strike her father. Jeff answered that the girl had seen that happen twice, and that seemed to close the matter for the Judge. (As a sidelight, it’s now part of Australian custody law that a child’s witnessing DV between the parents constitutes child abuse by the perpetrator of the DV. Apparently Judge Johnson doesn’t agree.)
When confronted with the fact, proven time and again by police records, that Lynne is an inveterate drunk, the learned judge waved it aside saying “desperate times call for desperate measures.” That is, Lynne was unhappy, so her alcohol abuse was, if not ideal behavior, certainly nothing to prevent the judge from taking Jeff’s daughter from him.
Here’s a fact: every day media outlets across the country report on children taken from parents by child welfare agencies for far less abusive behavior than Lynne Chafin engaged in routinely. But for a federal judge in Alabama, alcoholism and spousal abuse are no big deal.
Eris is now alone with her mother; Jeff is no longer there to protect her and he can’t go where she is. He’s in the Army and stationed in Alabama.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: laws can only do so much. They’re no protection against judges bound and determined to flout their plain terms, their plain intent and common sense. When a judge decides that a child’s best interests require that she be placed with a proven violent alcoholic, there’s nothing words on a piece of paper can do about it.
Jeff will try to get custody of Eris from a court in Scotland. He’ll appeal Judge Johnson’s clearly wrong, apparently biased ruling.
We wish him luck.