It is every parent’s worst nightmare. Amidst the turmoil and tension of a divorce comes the real possibility that the non-custodial parent kidnaps the child to his or her country of origin. For bi-cultural couples in which one partner is a Greek national, that country of choice becomes Greece.
Such was the case of a personal friend. His father, a Greek national from Rhodes, married a Puerto Rican woman in New York City. After several years and three children later, the father started having qualms that his children were not being raised “Greek enough.” So using the alibi of taking the kids on a summer-long holiday to Greece, he easily transported them back to his native island. When August came and went, their mother, still in the States, became concerned. In a brief phone exchange, the father made his intention clear—they were on permanent vacation. They would never come back to the States. The mother lacking the legal and financial recourse to get them back submitted. Only after the children came of age did they seek out and become reunited with their mother who since had remarried and started a new family.
This scenario is becoming typical for in an increasingly globalized world where international travel is a matter of a few passports and air tickets. With marriages becoming more intercultural, regrettably so are divorces. Here are four recent cases that bring the issue to light.
CASE 1: Adonis Petrousas
Five-year-old Andonis was supposed to start kindergarten in a quiet suburb of California, but did not return from his “vacation” with mother. The boy’s parents, Petros Petrousas and Despina Asvesta, have been in a protracted custody battle since 2005 which has involved Santa Cruz Superior Court and various courts in Athens. Andoni has been bounced from Greece to the U.S. and back again many times.
For the past seven years court hearings have been happening from both sides of the Atlantic with both countries’ courts stating that the residence of Andoni is in their respective nations.
In November 2005 Asvesta took Andoni to Greece which Petroutsas states was her attempt to kidnap the boy with no intention to come back. Petroutsas came to Greece and allegedly tried to do the same thing by trying to take him to the US, she claims.
According to an article in The San Jose Sentinel,” In April 2010, a federal judge in San Jose awarded full custody of the boy to Petroutsas, but the judge allowed Asvesta to take Andoni on one final, six-week stint in Greece.
Petroutsas’ attorney argued that if the boy went to Greece, he would not return and Petroutsas would have little, if any, recourse.
That is exactly what happened, and now Petroutsas blames Judge Jeremy Fogel for the decision.”
For its part, the US court has issued a decree for the immediate arrest of Asvesta should she return to the US.
For her part, Asvesta states she sought legal relief in Greece, and claimed that Petroutsas had abducted Andoni from Greece before 2010. TheSupreme Court in Greek court agreed with Asvesta, but Petroutsas has denied the abduction and called it a “kangaroo court.”
Additionally, there have been allegations that the boy’s father has been involved in illegal activity including arms trafficking.
The problem with international child abductions is that Greece is a reluctant enforcer of the Hague Conventions for Child Protection. Once the child is on foreign soil, it becomes a yo-yo battle between courts which do not honor each other’s jurisdiction. Even if one parent does gain legal custody, the second problem is enforcement and execution of the orders. The Greek authorities do not cooperate in serving or executing these types of orders. Even the US State Department as seen in Petroutsas case does not want to become involved.
Clips for more details into the case:
CASE 2: Leo Zagaris
Another heart-breaking case involves Leo Zagaris. In her teary-eyed confession the boy’s mother, Alissa Zagaris, a nutritionist and restraunteur from Noblesville, Indiana, describes the plight of so many left-behind parents. The fifth round of the long-distance visitation agreement as prescribed by an Indiana court decreed that Leo could fly to Marathon, Greece to spend time with his father Nikolaos Zagaris. This time, however, it would be 19 months before his mother could see him again, as his father broke the custody deal by illegally keeping the child in Greece. This has led Alissa into a protracted bureaucratic battle that involves, the US, Greece, the FBI, Interpol, the State Department, the Hague Convention, courts on two continents and two Facebook campaigns to get Leo back.
The claim Alissa is trying to make about cases like Leo’s is that they are not just custody battles; they are international criminal cases and should be treated as such. Leo’s father not only broke a civil custody order, he is responsible for an international abduction. Even the authorities ultimately concluded that it was kidnapping. Alissa is adamant about changing the laws in these types of cases. She contends that parents who take children from their country of origin should not be tried in civil courts but as international criminals.
As she states in an email to www.greekamericangirl.com, “Rarely are these cases about the child. They are one ex punishing the other parent. They are always criminal acts but it is impossible to get parental kidnapping charges filed. Keeping these cases in civil courts just furthers the abuse of us and our kids. There is nothing civil about it and there is no urgency to protect them or return them home.”
Nevertheless, prodding authorities in Athens, Washington and Indianapolis to take up her case has been a long, frustrating journey for Zagaris.
In December, in a Greek court, Zagaris finally got the chance to tell her side of the story — and she was reunited with her son for a brief, supervised visit. The Dec. 13, 2012, visit lasted for about 45 tense minutes as Nickolaos and his mother watched.
Zagaris has raised international attention to these kinds of cases by publicizing her plight via social media. She even coined the term “left behind moms” or “left behind parents.” She is an active member of the Bring Sean Home Foundation, founded in 2009 as a support group and resource hub, for more than 4,700 American children who were abducted outside the United States between 2008 and 2010 by a parent or guardian. Getting them back is rarely quick and never easy. According to the Bring Sean Home Foundation, children abducted abroad are often traumatized, losing contact with a parent and finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, forced to live in a country where they may not know the language or the culture. Leo, does not speak Greek, Zagaris said. And despite assurances that he would be enrolled in an English-speaking school, she suspects that has never happened.
Experts also say abducted children are often told lies about the other parent or guardian and the country from which they came.
Here are the remaining details of the case as published in a recent USA Today article:
After Zagaris found that out in the fall of 2011 when it became clear to her that her ex-husband had no intention of sending Leo home, she contacted the U.S. State Department, office of Consular Affairs, and reported what had happened. They urged her to file an application with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction — a necessary step in any case that spans international borders.
The Hague Convention, designed to make the process work more smoothly, is contingent on both countries agreeing to its terms — which provide a framework for communicating the facts of a case and agreeing to abide by the laws of both countries.
In other words they need to get along, which can be a sticky situation depending on the state of world affairs.
Alissa said Nickolaos, a Greek citizen, was looking for a way to stay in America. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa and studied at the University of Indianapolis. But that visa had expired.
Not long after their wedding in July 2000, Leo was born. Zagaris said things changed once the pressures of parental responsibility set in.
“Nick changed,” she said. “Before that it was just me and him. The day Leo was born, everything changed.”
As the baby grew, Zagaris said, Nick grew physically abusive toward her.
In 2008, Nick was arrested and charged in Hamilton County with domestic battery and felony strangulation. Before he would stand trial on those charges, he fled to Greece.
Zagaris filed and was granted a divorce (without her husband present) in Hamilton County. The court granted custody of Leo to his mom.
Despite the charges pending against him, the court allowed for a clause in the divorce decree that not only gave Nick visitation rights, but guaranteed visits to Greece.
In exchange, Nick Zagaris would maintain child support payments and put $5,000 into an account controlled by his attorney as a sort of “insurance clause” that he would have to give to his ex-wife should he ever fail to return Leo in a timely fashion.
According to the State Department, Zagaris was lucky her ex-husband had not taken their son to a non-compliant nation such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, France or Poland — countries on the State Department’s “enforcement concerns” list when it comes to child issues.
Greece, however, is known as a country that works well with other countries.
She had other facts in her favor. Nick was not only a fugitive from a felony charge in Hamilton County, he was violating a court-ordered divorce agreement that specifically gave her custody.
The Greek courts set a hearing date for April 6, 2012.
During the delay, Zagaris also filed charges against Nick in Hamilton County, based on the violation of the custodial agreement. Hamilton County issued a warrant for his arrest.
She wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pleading for the White House to do something to help.
Not much happened.
“I used to be a very clear, organized thinker,” Zagaris said. “But I’ve lost my mind.
“There is a very high suicide rate with our kind. It’s very hard. We have to fight through every obstacle, every hurdle just to get our cases taken seriously.
“It’s like our children are wrapped up in this diplomatic nightmare.”
With two legal victories in Greek courts, Zagaris was counting the days when she could bring her son back.
But on Jan. 9 of this year, the State Department sent Zagaris an email saying that the Greek Central Authority told U.S. officials that because of “recent judicial strikes” in Greece a final and formal decision could take up to two years to be published.
After that, her ex-husband would have 30 days to file yet another appeal, with the Greek supreme court, the email said. Another appeal would mean another long delay.
However, the State Department told her that it was working with Greek officials who seem to be willing to move forward with returning Leo to Indiana despite any future appeal … “and will be in touch as soon as the situation is clarified.”
Zagaris was stunned.
“It’s just back and forth, back and forth,” she said. “I’m frustrated. I’ve won the right twice now from Greece. I’ve got the acknowledgments from the courts.
“It’s been 19 months.”
While all this was happening, Zagaris said she received an angry phone call from her ex-husband. According to an FBI affidavit, Nick Zagaris threatened to “take (him) to the United Arab Emirates” — a nation not part of the Hague Convention.
Not long after that call, an FBI special agent filed the paperwork and U.S. Magistrate Judge Tim Baker signed the formal federal charges against Nikolaos Zagaris for international parental kidnapping.
Those charges have been filed with Interpol, the international police community comprising 190 countries, including Greece.
Greek authorities now (or soon) will have the authority to simply arrest him on those charges.
But now all Zagaris can do is wait for the words that will finally end a mother’s nightmare.
At this point, Alissa has decided to take the case in her own hands. Disgusted with the State’s Departments sluggishness in granting her justice as she is the rightful custodial parent of the child and putting the responsibility of enforcing the order back on her, she has opted to start a fundraising platform. As she states on the “Zagaris International Child Adbuction Return Fund” page, she has two options: one hiring another lawyer in Greece which would take 150 Euros an hour in legal expenses and perhaps another three to six months to execute the order or hire a private investigator team that specializes in child recovery cases for $15,000. She is opting to take the second course. She hopes to make her son a cause celebre for her mission which is to reveal how unfair the entire system is for “left behind parents” and abducted children. As she states in her Fund page, “As unbelievable as it is, these parents must finance their own rescue missions to get their children home again. The left behind parents are often drained financially by this very long process. Needing lawyers in both countries and fighting for years, they can often find themselves taken out of the game just when they are on the verge of seeing their children again. Why? Because they run out of money.
These children are the last of the unprotected. They and left behind parents find themselves victimized by the taking parent and the system/process itself. It is unfair and wrong but that is the reality. The average person cannot keep up with the expenses of legal assistance and travel between two countries. During the return phase, most parents get delayed in foreign lands for weeks or months as they wait for the foreign courts to finalize the process.
This fund was created to aid those working class parents so they can keep battling to recover their children. Money should never be an obstacle when it comes to rescuing our kids from abuse abroad.
One day these laws will change but until they do we must all come together and aid these parents. One day our children’s rights as citizens will matter and taking parents will be considered criminals. Until then we must all join in the fight and help each other rescue these children. This fund was created for just that purpose. At the time these parents need help the most.”
Those who wish to contribute can log onto: https://www.fundraise.com/alissa-zagaris/zagaris-international-child-abduction-return-fund
CASE 3: Missing on Corfu: Yiannis Lignum Mouzakitis
Another more recent case occurred last year during the summer, as most of these child abduction cases to Greece happen during the summer months. This time the case involves a 26-year-old British woman, Emma Lignum, from, Middleton, Rochdale, and her three-year-old son Yiannis who has been missing on the island of Corfu allegedly kidnapped by her partner, George Mouzakitis.
The case is the same story but with different details (source http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2172644/Mother-fighting-reunited-boy-taken-away-Greek-father.html#ixzz2dBVVwHY8)
Miss Lignum met Mr Mouzakitis while working in Greece as a travel representative for a British tour company. She moved to Athens in 2007 and Yiannis was born in September the following year.
After the couple split, Miss Lignum was planning to move home with her son following a custody hearing scheduled for October.
In May, Mr Mouzakitis agreed to care for Yiannis for a fortnight while Miss Lignum moved her belongings out of their home.
On the day before Yiannis’s disappearance, Mr Mouzakitis brought him to the hotel where Miss Lignum was staying claiming that their son wasn’t well.
He told Miss Lignum he would take him home and she could collect him the following day – but when she arrived at the address there was no sign of either of them.
Miss Lignum called her former partner who said he was in Corfu, but he has since changed his mobile phone number.
She added: ‘He signed official documents saying he would bring Yiannis back.’
The mother has since then traveled back and forth to Corfu several times starting up her own investigation, without result.
Miss Lignum has tried to publicize the case by calling on all fellow British tourists who visit the island of Corfu to keep an eye out for the boy using social media such as Facebook. In her case, both child and kidnapper partner have disappeared. She also has run out of money to make the frequent trips back and forth to Corfu. Needless to say, as she was not technically married to the boy’s father taking legal recourse in a still conservative legal system in Greece makes it harder for parents who want to push custodial rights out-of-wedlock.
Those who have any tips or sightings can refer to the Facebook page set up for the case:
CASE 4: Katerina and Marcus Theocharides
Here is the story from a recent news article:
Her story has been in USA Today, the New York Daily Newsand on CNN. Marla Theocharides says she went public with the fight to get her kids back from her ex-husband in Cyprus because the legal system isn’t working. But there are new concerns from her parents that all the attention could be dangerous for Theocharides and her kids.
She packed up her life in Osceola, rented out her house and moved to Cyprus in April, where she says her ex has kept their kids since 2011.
Theocharides wanted to be closer to 7-year-old Katerina and 4-year-old Marcus.
Before she left, Theocharides told her parents she’s prepared to die for her children.
“We went to dinner two days before I took her to the airport, and she told me that she had completed her last will and testament, and I needed to have a copy and keep a copy,” said Jeri Smith, Theocharides’ mother, tears welling in her eyes.
There’s an arrest warrant out for the 33-year-old in Cyprus because she hasn’t paid child support, but Cyprus hasn’t issued her a permit to work, meaning she has no income.
Desperate for help, Theocharides and her parents thrust her case into the national spotlight this week.
“She’s basically run out of money, and we’re running out of time to get the children back,” her father, Wayne Smith, told WSBT. “So far, the State Department and the government, nobody has really done anything.”
Her ex-husband is a Cypriot. He married the Penn High School grad here in 2004 then became a U.S. Citizen, and their children were born here. The couple went through a messy divorce in 2011.
The State Department encouraged Theocharides to allow the children to go to Cyprus to be with their father, and she hasn’t been able to bring them back.
A St. Joseph County judge gave Marla full custody, but she says her ex ignores orders from all courts, including scheduled visits she’s supposed to have with her kids.
Her ex-husband told CNN that’s not true.
“I’m the one, that I go to the park and swimming pools, and I get together with her and she sees the kids,” Charis Theocharides told a reporter.
Charis reportedly told the Indianapolis Star Thursday that he’s been alone in Cyprus with his kids for the last three years, and their mother chose not to be there until she made the move three months ago. He also apparently said Marla is getting the media involved because she’s trying to collect money.
Now, more than a few hours without a text, a Facebook message or an email from their daughter sends her parents into a panic.
“They have followed her on motorcycles, they have taken down her license plate and any chance he gets he tells her, ‘You’ll never last in Cyprus,’” Jeri said. “It’s very threatening.”
“He’s potentially a very violent person,” Wayne added.
The State Department told WSBT it is monitoring the case but called it a “private legal matter” before the Cypriot courts. Congresswoman Jackie Walorski’s office also said they’ve been in contact with Marla and are working to help her.
The latest in Maria’s case has occurred this past month. A warrant for her arrest was issued within minutes of her reuniting and hugging her son. She also keeps her followers abreast of the situation via her Facebook page.
Here are some of her latest posts:
July 3: Monday was a court ordered visit at the grandparents home and they refused to answer the door. Today is a court ordered visit at Funtastic play park and they did not show up! No words.
July 4: Tomorrow my ex will put me in jail again. This time it is for 2 months unpaid alimony. The alimony is 500 euro per month. I can not pay because immigration has not given me my papers to work. … I am told they will put me in jail until I can pay. When they realize that I can not pay they will make payment arrangements and release me.
July 5: It is official. Warrant has been issued for my arrest.
Monday: What to do? I have a court ordered visit today at the grandparents home in one hour. If I go I am risking getting arrested in front of my kids. If I do not go then he will tell them that I don’t care and did not come to see them! Seems like a no win situation. … Marcus is 4 and Katerina is 7! Katerina is old enough to understand that she is trapped in the middle of a war. They have also brainwashed her to hate me, hate America and they have told her that I left her and didn’t want anything to do with her.
l l l
Marla was jailed in a trip in November 2011, because her ex-husband’s family had pressed kidnapping charges and raised issues with the previous Tribune articles. But she was released after an overnight stay.
Since then, Marla has been pushing her court case in Cyprus, despite the fact a St. Joseph County judge back home ruled that she should have custody. She has racked up legal bills and travel expenses, and friends and family have contributed with fundraisers and moral support.
“I am waiting for the warrant to make it from the court house to the police,” Marla wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “I will not have any warning, they will just show up at my house or court or a meeting with my kids and arrest me.”
Now, with the stakes even higher, online support is growing, with bloggers and Facebook writers urging elected officials and the U.S. State Department — whose help Marla calls “useless” — to intervene.
One Facebook poster told Marla about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that needs a co-sponsor, HR 1951, “the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention & Recovery Act,” introduced by Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J..
More supporters are expressing outrage, like this poster: “ANYONE who relocates without prior legal notice should be CHARGED IMMEDIATELY! THIS IS NO LONGER A ‘FAMILY’ ISSUE FOR FAMILY COURT!!! THIS IS A HOSTILE, CRUEL, and MALICIOUS ACT!”
COMMON THREADS and KNOTS:
When a family breaks apart, it is always a sad event. But when children disappear 7,ooo miles away leaving the other parent panic-stricken, heart-broken and broke, it becomes a cause for social justice. Reviewing these mere four cases out of the many thousands like them reveals common threads: the courts, the State Department, and international treaties like the one on child abduction by the Hague Convention can only bureaucratically intervene by issuing many fine words on pieces of paper. Ambassadors and Senators in the US government will not intervene when they claim it is a civil manner. Even then after a long legal process across international lines finishes with enforceable decrees for a custodial parent, justice remains only on a piece of paper. Greece as a nation holds a bad history of enforcing verdicts from foreign courts and is reluctant to cooperate with international law enforcement when it comes to child custody that involves a Greek national. When it comes to executing justice, the burden falls on the custodial parent who is left with few financial means to see justice carried through. As is often the case, it is the children who are the victims in an international tug-of-war. They are often denied their rights and wishes to have contact with their parents and besides have their entire life stripped from them. In the best case scenario, they become like most valuable cargo or expensive pieces of luggage that get hauled between two worlds and two cultures, never feeling completely at home in either one. Given the fact that bi-cultural, bi-national marriage is on the rise, a by-product of globalization, regrettably so is international divorce. Our prediction is that cases like Adonis, Leo, Yianni, Katerina and Marcus will be on the rise in the coming decade.