There, I’ve said it. I’ve thought long and hard about this, but I can’t convince myself otherwise. Not after several very convincing cases that I’ve dealt with firsthand.
Let’s start off by clearing up the main difference:
In Puerto Rico, there’s physical and legal custody. Physical custody entails having physical control over the minors. Legal custody is the right that all parents have to assert physical custody. Both parents have legal custody in equal measure, unless a court states otherwise. Physical custody can only be shared if both parents live together. Parents don’t always live together, so when they don’t, only one parent has physical custody.
Good, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s complicate things.
Let’s start with the first case. Mom leaves her two kids with their paternal grandmother to attend a rehab program in the US, with the promise that she’ll return for them when she completes the program. She completes the program only to find that Grandma has filed for legal custody in PR. The written temporary custody agreement signed between both has magically disappeared. Mom wants physical custody back, and counters the suit by claiming legal custody.
Thankfully, Grandma failed to summon Mom correctly, and failed to sue Dad (who’s in jail). Round one is over in just a few months. Now it’s time for Round 2.
Mom hires me, and sues Grandma and Dad for legal custody, and Mom summons both correctly. The court orders a Social Worker to evaluate which of the three parties has a better chance at raising the kids. Dad files for custody, although he’s still in jail. The kids are still with Grandma, but Mom is growing desperate. Mom calls me and asks: “What if I simply fly to Puerto Rico, pick my kids up, and leave?”
Well, you can’t steal your own kids. The court hasn’t granted anyone temporary custody, or prevented the kids from leaving Puerto Rico. I say “Sure, take the kids out for a ride, and hop on a plane.” It’s not parental kidnapping, unless there’s a custody order in place. Mom, very nervously, travels to PR, picks her kids up at Grandma’s and hops on the next plane out of PR.
Was this parental kidnapping? Did I just collaborate with a mother who kidnapped her children? Nope. The court never ordered temporary custody, so Mom always had legal custody, unless stated otherwise.
The social worker completes her report. It took two years to complete it, and recommends that the children stay with Mom in the US. The court accepts the Social Worker’s recommendation, and grants Mom full legal custody. Thankfully, this only took two years. Mom and the kids are living a very happy, balanced and drama-free life in the US.
Mom and Dad meet, fall in love and get married. Mom lives in the states, Dad lives in Puerto Rico. They met while travelling. Mom travels frequently to PR, Dad travels frequently to the US. Mom finds out she’s pregnant. Dad makes arrangements to have Mom move to PR with the baby. Mom landes a great job in the US, and can’t move to PR. Mom has baby in the US, and Dad flies out to see the baby. Their relationship deteriorates, and they break up.
When the baby is four months old, Dad asks Mom to let him see the baby. Dad arrives in the US, and visits Mom. Dad asks Mom to spend the afternoon with the baby. Mom hesitates, but thinks that Dad should spend time with the baby. She pumps a few bottles of breast milk, and packs a light bag for Dad. Dad leaves with the baby.
Dad hops on a plane, flies to PR and calls Mom. He tells Mom that if she wants to see the baby, she’ll have to come to PR. Mom freaks out.
Mom runs to the police, files a report. Mom runs to court, files for emergency custody. Mom is granted full temporary custody, and the court orders the baby needs to return. Mom then calls me, and hires me to enforce the court order in Puerto Rico. I soon discover that this court order is basically useless in Puerto Rico.
I file in court to enforce the US order in Puerto Rico. The court orders that an “emergency” hearing will be held in two months. Two months is a long time for a breastfeeding four month old. I push for a quicker hearing. Four motions later, the court schedules the hearing for a month away.
I have a civil arrest warrant against Dad, issued in the US. I call the police. They tell me that they can’t enforce a bench warrant, and I’m given the run-around. I then proceed to call everyone I know.
I call the US State Department, the FBI, the Departamento de la Familia, Emergencias Sociales, INTERPOL, the PR Department of State, Special Arrests and Extraditions for the PR Police, the local District Attorney’s office, the US District Attorney’s office, and I speak to approximately 70-80 employess, District Attorneys, Special Agents, supervisors and government agents in total. No one can help. That’s when I’m convinced that PR is a safe haven for parental kidnappers.
Had there been a custody order in place, and Dad had violated it, the story would have been different. But Dad did not commit parental kidnapping, just like in Case #1. He just came to Puerto Rico with his baby. That’s not the scary thing. The scary thing is that now we had a custody order and an arrest warrant, and both were totally useless in Puerto Rico. There is absolutely nothing we could have done to enforce them in Puerto Rico.
The court stated that it was up to the police to enforce the warrant, and the police and DA’s office said that it was up the Puerto Rico court to order the arrest. A proverbial Catch 22.
With a little finesse, negotiations and unrelenting legal pressure, Dad finally gave up and handed the baby over to Mom. Mom happily left to the US, never to return again to Puerto Rico. I don’t blame her. In fact, I told her never to come back.
So, what’s the moral of both stories?
Simple, always make sure you have a custody order granting you legal custody before your give up physical custody. Without an order, you can’t enforce the other parent to return the child. Verbal custody agreements do not exist. Private custody agreements are completely useless. Only a court order can be enforced, and even then, your chances are still very slim. Be very, very careful.