Nevada case highlights parental custody cases across international lines

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- In a picture taken in a Henderson parking lot, Jessica Harrison's hair is loose and shoulder-length. She's wearing overalls and a short-sleeved purple and pink shirt. She's smiling at her dad.

"I knew that was the last time I would see her for a long time," Mark Harrison said of the July 11, 2000, photo. "But there was nothing I could do."

Harrison was following a Clark County Family Court order to turn over his daughter, then 4, to her mother, Martha Harrison. A judge had ruled that the girl should alternate between Las Vegas and Puebla, Mexico, every two months until she reached school age.

Eighteen days after the photo was taken, the mother, a native of Mexico whose maiden name is Ruiz, left with Jessica from McCarran International Airport. Harrison hasn't seen his daughter since.

In the months that followed, the Family Court decision was reversed, giving Harrison full custody of Jessica, and the Nevada attorney general's office charged Jessica's mother with violation of custody rights, a felony.

But until several weeks ago, Harrison and his mother, Lydia Harrison, had little hope of seeing the girl, now 7. As a last-ditch attempt to resolve the case, Lydia Harrison wrote 25 letters to Mexico President Vicente Fox during a week in June. She got a mid-August reply saying that the governor of Puebla was looking into the case.

This came after dozens of letters to Mexican federal, state and local agencies and tens of thousands of dollars given to people who promised to bring Jessica back.

A late 2000 phone call in which his daughter stuttered the words, "I love you, Daddy," was followed by a click. It was the last time Harrison heard his daughter's voice. The phone in Mexico was disconnected shortly thereafter.

In the past three years, the Harrisons have become another case study of what experts on international child abduction call a growing trend -- foreign-born spouses of U.S. citizens taking their children to another country when the marriage breaks up.

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting in June, several senators said the problem was not being adequately addressed by U.S. diplomatic representatives or the State Department.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev, was not at the meeting, but takes a special interest in the topic, an aide said. Reid sponsored legislation that became law in 1999, strengthening passport restrictions aimed at reducing abductions and he helped three Nevada parents of abducted children in the last year.

"Sen. Reid feels we must do more to help Nevada families who are stuck in these situations," said Sharyn Stein, spokeswoman for the senator.

About 15 percent of U.S. children abducted to foreign countries go to Mexico, according to the State Department, which sees about 1,100 cases a year.

"There's a growing body of cases (of international child abduction) ... and lots of cases out there aren't even being reported (to the government)," said Las Vegas attorney Greta Muirhead, who has worked with the Virginia-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She is not working on the Harrison case.

A U.S. parent can face a maze of false leads, rip-offs, federal officials limited in their powers and the need to get good contacts in a foreign country. Experts say part of the problem is no one in international circles takes the issue seriously enough.

"Very often, these cases are viewed as private family matters -- and it clearly goes beyond that," said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department consular affairs bureau.

"Parents can contact us for orientation," Patt said, "(but) unfortunately their options are not as clear and successful as we would like."

The official said the State Department contracts the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help parents register their cases under the Hague Convention, an international treaty meant to increase cooperation between countries in child abduction cases.

The center also distributes posters with photos of abducted children to border officials and the country where the children are found.

But Guillermo Galarza, international case coordinator for Latin America at the center, was frank with the Harrisons.

"As with all parents, (the Harrisons) wanted a quick end to their case," Galarza said. "Unfortunately, in Mexico, things don't always work out that way."

Mexico is one of about 50 countries that signed the Hague Convention. However, Patt said Mexico doesn't always comply with the treaty.

Part of the problem, he said, is that local judges may be unfamiliar with one of the treaty's basic terms -- the country where the child has resided most should decide which parent has custody.

In Jessica's case, that's the United States.

Harrison went to Puebla in March after hiring a Mexican lawyer who sent them a bill with a reference to a $5,000 bribe; a Nevada judge who told them he had a well-connected friend in Mexico; and a bail bondsman who said he was a private eye.

"We got screwed a number of times but each we time learned to recognize it quicker," Harrison said.

Harrison also got the Nevada state attorney general to file a criminal complaint against Jessica's mother late last year. But U.S. authorities can only make arrests on on U.S. soil, said Brian T. Kunzi, senior deputy state attorney general.

"It's very difficult to get international cooperation on these cases," Kunzi said. "For starters, we can't get extradition from Mexico. We can't just go to the country and grab that person back."

In Puebla, Harrison found himself hiding in front of his ex-wife's house, hoping for a glimpse of his daughter. Instead, he saw her brother, whom he had met before.

He decided not to reveal himself, fearing he would jeopardize his daughter's safety.

"I never wanted to tip them off ... because the family could claim anything and then the police could dump me in jail," said Harrison, who added that he thought about snatching his daughter and running.

Harrison and two companions later found themselves surrounded by policemen pointing automatic rifles at them. Harrison's girlfriend told the officers they were just tourists.

Now, the Harrisons are hoping that paperwork filed in Puebla, together with letters sent by President Fox's office, will lead to some sort of resolution.

Dario Lopez Cartagena, a Puebla government official, said it would take several weeks to find the status of the case.

"Unfortunately, that's the way things work here," he said.

Muirhead said authorities sometimes don't recognize the difficulty of custody issues involving marriages broken across borders.

"Nobody makes enough noise about these cases," she said. "They don't see a mother or father taking their child as a kidnapping since it's not a stranger."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment