Turning Personal Loss into Public Law
by John Edward Gill
"What should I say?"
"That you only want to stay a week."
"But at night he'll be with Priscilla."
"Think of your baby."
I listened to her heartbreak, her feeling of betrayal, hurt, and anger.
"Your love of your baby, Bobbie, or your jealousy of your friend. You have to chose."
We talked some more and she agreed to call Priscilla and her husband. Within three days she was on her way to Los Angeles. "It's easy for me to say, Bobbie, but hard to do," I told her. "You have to be an actress."
She had her own room there and couldn't take the baby outside for several days. Finally, they let her take her son for walks, but always with Priscilla or her husband with them. Then she could take her son for short walks, then longer walks. It took two weeks for her to gain their trust. But on a hot Wednesday afternoon, she found herself alone for several hours and took her baby to the airport.
The first flight she could get left in fifteen minutes after she arrived at LAX. It was to Sacramento and she took it, boarding a night flight from there to LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
Eventually her husband returned to Long Island and they reconciled.
There were cases where we did get the law to work, only in another state, and we wanted to get newspaper coverage if it all went well.
A young mother had custody of her two sons, but her ex-husband kidnapped them to Los Angeles. New York wouldn't do anything because custodial interference was only a misdemeanor. But she knew where her children were and flew to California, where parental interference was a felony. There she registered her New York custody papers and that gave her custody in California, which recognized her New York decree.
Then she filed a criminal complaint about interference with custody, got a felony warrant, and police went with her to her ex-husband's apartment, and she recovered her children, returning to Long Island the same day.
We got her story in Newsday. We pointed out why New York had to make custodial interference a felony. In 1978, I went to our local Assemblyperson with a proposed law drawn up by the New York City Bar Association. He immediately introduced it into the Assembly and our local State Senator sponsored that bill in the State Senate. It would make custodial interference in New York a felony.
We hoped that second Los Angeles case would help us in Albany and continued monitoring where that bill was, sending copies of the Newsday story to the Assembly Codes Committee.
And we continued meeting and talking with parents, urging what "professionals" in the court system called "self-help".
Soon lawyers began to dislike us. They urged us to go through the "legal system", hiring attorneys in New York and also in the second state where children were. But states often weren't like California and didn't honor custody orders from other states. And what if there was no custody order?
One of our parents, a father, went to court in three states: New York, Kansas, and Oregon. His ex-wife had custody of his daughter and we learned, as many fathers' rights groups have learned, that visitation orders can be impossible to enforce. Finally, Oregon allowed him to see his daughter.
Lawyers and private investigators came to our meetings, which, by 1979, we held five times a year in Nassau County. We allowed them only if they gave free advice. Parental abduction was big business for them, and there was no other group around with such emotional, complicated, and expensive domestic cases.
When we got stories in the press, I always asked reporters not to mention names of lawyers or investigators. Such lawyers and investigators wanted to get clients from being mentioned in newspaper stories. We wanted parents to contact us first, so we could tell them what to ask attorneys or investigators, sometimes convincing them such "professionals" weren't qualified to find and recover, or "back-snatch" children.
One attorney even threatened to sue me for practicing law without a license.
"But I don't charge fees," I told him.
"You're still giving legal advice."
"So do other parents at our meetings. Are you going to arrest them, too?"
"I'm the only one who can give legal advice at your meetings."
"Then don't come anymore."
And he didn't. I'd learned that when he invited some of our parents to his office, he would charge fees. So I threatened to expose him publicly at our meetings, and we never saw him again.
But I had problems lobbying for our bill.
Most parents in our group weren't interested. They repeated that such a bill, if passed, wouldn't help them now. They wanted their children back as soon as possible. Also, they were afraid that lobbying and writing letters to public officials might annoy police, district attorneys, and police. Then they feared their ex-in-laws would find out and tell judges and reporters that such lobbying was just for revenge.
"I don't want to be embarrassed," one father said. "The judge on my case might think I was trying to push him around."
So I turned to the press. Whenever there was a parent's story that seemed unusual or different from other parental abductions, I would go to Newsday and local weeklies where that parent lived. Always I stressed that parental abduction should be a felony, so that warrants could be served out of state.
Sunday afternoons were best for Newsday. It had a local office near where I lived and Sunday was always a slow day for news. I would go there in casual clothes, Bermuda shorts and short-sleeved shirts, but always shaved and decent-looking, bringing roses from my garden to the receptionist. After three Sundays, I got to see the managing editor, showing our news clippings, names and phone numbers of our sponsors in Albany on that bill, and, of course, all the details of new cases.
I tried to make it easy for editors, writing a short story about a new case of children being recovered, then listing phone numbers and hometowns of both parents and their attorneys.
It was difficult, because I had to coach parents to be patient and let reporters ask questions. Some were hotheaded and wanted to vent their anger.
"Just let news people take their time," I always said. "And, most important, don't lose your temper or make speeches about how bad your ex-in-laws are."
We began to have stories printed three or four times a year, which was a lot considering Newsday saw itself as a national and international news source.
But the local weeklies helped, also. These stories were unusual and most weeklies had editors with children of their own. But I always briefed them on how weak New York's laws were on this issue and how they might call our sponsors for quotes on our proposed new law.
It helped to get public officials in the press.
That publicity worked. Other legislators introduced similar bills. But that New York State Assembly Codes Committee, made up mostly of men and women from the New York City area, opposed our bill, as did local feminists.
"What happens if a parent takes his or her child to Yankee stadium and gets involved in traffic jams on the way home and can't return in time, as outlined in his visitation order?" an aide to that committee asked.
"No one's going to be arrested for being a couple of hours late," I said over the phone.
"It still could be a felony, though," that aide said.
One local feminist called when she heard about that our bill.
"John," she said. "I'm going to oppose it."
"Suppose a woman has visitation and her ex-husband has custody and she has visitation rights for Saturdays and Sundays. Suppose those rights are spelled out in the custody order, yet she doesn't see her children. She could be arrested then for violating that custody order."
"Yes. She wouldn't be seeing her children in the times ordered by the court and could go to jail for a felony."
"Jo-Ann, what?" This was a woman I knew and to whom I'd referred women for information about child support.
"That's right. Violation of a custody order, under your proposed law, would make her a felon."
"If she doesn't see her kids, she would be committing a crime since the custody order, and its visitation clause, would have been violated."
"Jo-Ann..." I couldn't believe her.
"Women could be prosecuted if your bill is passed, John."
"No one's going to jail for not visiting their children."
Women's groups told me parental abduction wasn't a woman's problem. Yet most of the time it was mothers who were left behind. Fathers' groups, on the other hand, were against parental abduction.
In the end, though, New York's state legislators sided with parents. Our local District Attorney, who spoke at one of our meetings, even wondered how you could put a loving parent in jail for kidnapping his or her own child.
"It's not an act of love," I told him.
We had no lobbying power, couldn't muster busloads of registered voters to visit Albany and stage protests, couldn't get parents to sign form letters to their state politicians. They were mostly middle class and lower-middle class working people afraid of the Establishment and not used to being activists. They were parents who wanted to raise their children, go to work, enjoy their families on holidays. Politics seemed foreign to them. Looking for their children took all their strength.
Most felt wounded and didn't want to admit their ex-spouses had abducted their children. They felt people would think they were unfit.
So we had to settle for half a loaf. In the early 1980s the State Legislature passed a bill which made parental abduction a felony, but under narrow circumstances. There could be no felony warrants issued unless a custody order was violated, children were taken out of state, and there was permanent intent to keep children out of state.
How could you prove a child was out-of-state if you didn't know where that child was?
But we got the new law working in several cases. A few parents were arrested for hiding with their children. There were stories in Newsday about parents given jail sentences, even though such punishments were suspended. Everyone knew child stealing by parents was now a felony, especially attorneys, who often didn't know how narrow that law was.
By 1983 we stopped having meetings because we had no more cases of parental abduction. We still receive calls about custody and visitation problems and now publish newsletters about children's issues in general...health, education, safety, housing, drugs, guns, etc. We try to let people know what dangers there are to children. For instance, accidents take more lives of youngsters than any other danger.
Yet parental abduction is still not a federal crime. Proposed bills to outlaw this form of child abuse went unnoticed in Congress during the early to mid-1980s. Stranger abduction, a very rare problem, took center stage then. It received more headlines and was perfect for talk shows. After all, reporters and broadcast producers said, parental abduction was a family problem, like spouse abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, children running away.
But stranger abduction was more sensational, they said.
So the nationwide scandal alleging that strangers dragged thousands of children off streets every year had begun.
Up Next: How "Cause-Related Marketing" Fuels the Scandal of Missing Children
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