On Tuesday, Jeff Chafin won a significant victory at the United States Supreme Court as part of his ongoing efforts to retain a relationship with his daughter. While Jeff’s case is one of the rarer types involving an international custody dispute, his efforts to remain a part of his daughter’s life will have a familiar ring to parents who have spent years in court battling for their children.
Jeff is something of an unusual guy. He’s career Army and a member of a small fraternity within the army known as EOD technicians. EOD stands for Explosive Ordinance Device. Jeff is one of the guys whose life is on the line every time he’s called out to work – he disassembles bombs for a living. He’s served in Iraq and Afghanistan and saved countless lives.
While stationed in Germany, Jeff married a woman from Scotland. They had a baby daughter. After returning from Afghanistan, Jeff was permanently reassigned to the United States returning to a base in Alabama. Jeff’s relationship with his wife was deteriorating, in large part due to her alcohol abuse.
E.C. is the couple’s daughter. From the Supreme Court decision:
“…Ms. Chafin took E. C. to Scotland. Mr. Chafin was eventually transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, and in February 2010, Ms. Chafin traveled to Alabama with E. C. Soon thereafter, however, Mr. Chafin filed for divorce and for child custody in Alabama state court. Towards the end of the year, Ms. Chafin was arrested for domestic violence, an incident that alerted U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to the fact that she had overstayed her visa. She was deported in February 2011, and E. C. remained in Mr. Chafin’s care for several more months.”
After being deported Chafin’s wife launched a successful child custody action under the Hague Convention whereupon U.S. courts ordered the child’s return to Scotland. As further described in the Supreme Court decision:
“In May 2011, Ms. Chafin initiated this case in the U. S.District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. She filed a petition under the Convention and ICARA seeking an order for E. C.’s return to Scotland. On October 11 and 12, 2011, the District Court held a bench trial. Upon the close of arguments, the court ruled in favor of Ms. Chafin, concluding that E. C.’s country of habitual residence was Scotland and granting the petition for return. Mr. Chafin immediately moved for a stay pending appeal, but the court denied his request. Within hours, Ms. Chafin left the country with E. C., headed for Scotland. By December2011, she had initiated custody proceedings there. The Scottish court soon granted her interim custody and a preliminary injunction, prohibiting Mr. Chafin from removing E. C. from Scotland. In the meantime, Mr. Chafin had appealed the District Court order to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.”
Note what’s transpired in the case to this point. A woman, arrested for domestic violence, charged with assaulting a police officer and deported, petitioned a foreign tribunal and received a temporary custody order. She then filed suit in an American court, which stripped the father of custody of his United States citizen daughter and returned her to Scotland after the child had been living in the U.S. for nearly two years, one of which she lived exclusively with the father.
Jeff immediately appealed the court’s decision. The appeal was denied with the appellate court ruling the case moot given the child was no longer in the United States. Presto, bingo, Jeff is now stuck in the middle of an international child custody case, fighting for his American daughter in a foreign court.
Jeff took his case to the United States Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the Court ruled in a unanimous, 9-0 decision, that Jeff’s case was not moot and he could continue contesting for custody of his daughter through U.S. courts. The practical effects of this ruling are as yet unclear; his daughter remains in Scotland, he is here and the matter is still up in the air. That noted, it’s good to see the Supreme Court grant U.S. parents the opportunity to continue their cases in United States courts. While fewer than 500 custody cases each year involving the United States are decided under The Hague Convention, parents who have lost their children to international kidnappings or are forced to fight for the return of their children in foreign courts face a grueling battle.
Here’s what the Supreme Court had to say in conclusion:
“The Hague Convention mandates the prompt return of children to their countries of habitual residence. But such return does not render this case moot; there is a live dispute between the parties over where their child will be raised, and there is a possibility of effectual relief for the prevailing parent. The courts below therefore continue to have jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of the parties’ respective claims. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.”
Sweet words indeed.
Some of the saddest stories received at ACFC are from military fathers who have served their country only to feel betrayed when their service is held against them in family court. Jeff is one of those soldiers who’s served his country well and has carried his same battle hardened will into the fight to be a father to his daughter. Jeff’s case benefits expats and military members with foreign born spouses. Today, we salute Jeff and congratulate him.
(Final note: Jeff first reached out to ACFC over a year ago, shortly after his daughter was returned to Scotland. We worked with Jeff to develop his case facts into a cogent presentation of the issues. We set up numerous meetings on Capitol Hill and accompanied Jeff at those meetings where we explained the issues fathers, and particularly military fathers, face in the family and federal courts. We continue to seek a legislative solution to address the issues that give rise to cases like Jeff’s. Every day we are working, both in Washington, DC and around the nation through a network of dedicated affiliated organizations. Sometimes we are vocal about the work, at other times, such as in Jeff’s case, we work quietly. We are only able to do this kind of work because of your support. Please help us to continue these efforts. Go to the ACFC homepage, press the Donate button in the middle of the page and contribute. Any amount helps. Thank you.)
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