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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Estrada v. Salas-Perez, 2012 WL 4503147 (N.D.Ill.) [Mexico][Habitual Residence] [Grave Risk of Harm]

In Estrada v. Salas-Perez, 2012 WL 4503147 (N.D.Ill.) Petitioner Enrique Estrada and Respondent Sofia Salas-Perez were the parents of a seven year-old child. On February 13, 2012, Estrada filed a Hague Convention petition in the district court. The district court granted the petition.

Estrada was born in Mexico and moved to the United States in or around 1996. He was a Mexican national. Estrada moved from Illinois back to Mexico in May 2007. . Salas-Perez was born in Mexico and moved to the United States in or around 2001 with her son Rigoberto. She was a Mexican national and currently resided in Illinois.Estrada and Salas-Perez met in Mexico as children. When Salas-Perez first moved to Chicago, Estrada helped her get situated. On October 5, 2004, in Chicago, Salas-Perez gave birth to the child. Estrada's and Salas-Perez's romantic relationship ended in or around May 2006. On July 17, 2006, Estrada filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, a petition to establish his paternity of the child. On August 25, 2006, the Illinois court entered an agreed order awarding Estrada the "sole care, custody, control and education" of the child. Salas-Perez was given weekend visitation rights and was required to pay child support. After losing his job, Estrada decided in 2007 that he wanted to move back to Mexico with the child. Without obtaining Salas-Perez's consent or the Illinois court's permission, Estrada moved with the child to Mexico on May 27, 2007. Salas-Perez did not have advance notice of the move and did not learn that Estrada had left for Mexico with their child until days later. On July 17, 2007, on Salas-Perez's motion, the Illinois court entered an emergency order of protection requiring Estrada to return the child to Illinois, in compliance with the  court's August 2006 custody order. On July 26, 2007, Salas-Perez submitted a Hague Convention petition to the United States Department of State, claiming that Estrada's removal of the child to Mexico was wrongful because it violated her custody rights under the Illinois court's August 2006 and July 2007 orders. Salas-Perez's petition eventually was registered in the Family Court of Cuautitlan Izcalli, Mexico. Estrada enrolled the child in kindergarten and elementary school in Mexico. On May 16, 2009, Estrada married a woman named Janet. Estrada did not learn of Salas-Perez's Hague Convention petition until June 2009, when he was served with process by a Mexican court officer.

In January 2010, Salas-Perez, filed a Motion for Modification of Parenting Agreement in the Illinois court. The motion asked the state court to modify the August   2006 order to give Salas-Perez sole custody of the child. In early 2010, Estrada and Salas-Perez spoke about negotiating a custody agreement; Salas-Perez credibly testified at the evidentiary hearing, without contradiction, that Estrada threatened that she would not be able to see the child unless she reached an agreement with him. An agreement was reached with the assistance of the parties' lawyers; Salas-Perez's lawyer was not licensed to practice in Mexico. Salas-Perez's lawyer told her that it might be difficult for the Mexican authorities to bring Estrada into court, and that the fastest and surest way for her to see the child again would be to reach an agreement. In March 2010, the Office of the Secretary of Foreign Relations of Mexico wrote a letter to the Mexican family court reporting that the parties had reached an agreement regarding custody. The letter noted that Salas-Perez had submitted the custody agreement to the Secretary of Foreign Relations for the purpose of having it signed by Estrada and ratified by the Mexican court. Salas-Perez signed the custody agreement at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago in front of a consular official. The custody agreement was entered on March 17, 2010, by the Mexican family court. The court order was signed by the Mexican judge, a representative of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Estrada, Estrada's attorney, and Silvia Torres Elizondo. Elizondo signed on Salas-Perez's behalf, having previously been granted power of attorney.

The March 2010 custody agreement provided for shared custody. It stated that  the child shall remain "under the care and attendance of her father [Estrada] in the  domicile located in [Cuautitlan Izcalli, Mexico] in reason of considering both convenient  and healthy for their minor daughter." It further provided that the child shall  attend school in Mexico under her father's "attention," that Salas-Perez shall have  phone privileges while the child is in Mexico, and that the child shall visit Salas-Perez in
Illinois during school breaks in December, Holy Week, and the summer. The  agreement also provided that the child shall return to Mexico from Illinois around the time school resumes after those breaks. n August 3, 2010, the Illinois court entered an order stating: “As this settlement agreement addresses all issues before this Court and the respondent having moved this Court for leave to withdraw her Motion to Modify the Parenting Agreement, ...respondent is given leave to withdraw her Motion to
Modify the Parenting Agreement.” The order was prepared by Salas-Perez's counsel. In March 2010, July 2010, December 2010, and April 2011, consistent with the March 2010 custody agreement, the child visited Salas-Perez in Chicago for one - to three-week periods. At the end of each of these four visits, Salas-Perez sent the child back to Mexico. The child traveled to Chicago to visit Salas-Perez in May 2011 for summer vacation. Salas-Perez did not allow the child to return to Mexico in August 2011. Salas-Perez retained the child because the child said that she had been abused by Janet (Estrada's wife) in Mexico.

On September 30, 2011, Estrada filed a Hague Convention petition with the  Mexican Central Authority seeking the child's return to Mexico. The Mexican Central Authority forwarded the petition to the United States Central Authority on October 3, 2011.   The district court found that Salas-Perez retained the child in Illinois in August 2011 by failing to return her to Mexico for the start of the school year and that Mexico was the child's habitual residence immediately before the retention occurred. Estrada's unilateral and unauthorized move of the child to Mexico did not in any respect weigh in favor of finding the child's habitual residence to be Mexico. The child's habitual residence was Illinois in the wake of, and in the years following, Estrada's move to Mexico with the child in May 2007. The child's habitual residence changed from Illinois to Mexico in March 2010, when the Mexican family court entered an order ratifying the custody agreement reached by Estrada and Salas-Perez. The March 2010 custody agreement explicitly manifested Estrada's and Salas-Perez's shared intent as of March 2010 that the child spend most of the year with Estrada in Mexico, where she would attend school, and that she stay with Salas-Perez in Chicago only during school vacations. The agreement resolved the judicial proceeding that the Mexican court opened to adjudicate Salas-Perez's Hague Convention petition, which sought the child's return to Illinois; the agreement therefore manifested Salas-Perez's unequivocal understanding and intent that the child's principal residence be Mexico rather than Illinois.

Salas-Perez contended that the March 2010 custody agreement did not reflect her  true intent because it was signed out of fear that Estrada otherwise would have  prevented her from seeing the child. The contention was not without force, and had it  been made immediately after she signed the agreement, a close question would have been presented. But much water passed under the bridge between March 2010, when  the agreement was entered by the Mexican family court, and the summer of 2011;
during that time, Salas-Perez's actions plainly and unequivocally demonstrated that she shared an intent with Estrada that the child's habitual residence be Mexico. Salas-Perez sent the child back to Mexico after four visits to Illinois between  March 2010 and May 2011, reflecting her ratification and acceptance of the custody agreement even if it had been coerced at its inception.

The Court held that Estrada had rights of custody over the child  under Mexican law at the time of the August 2011 retention.. The custody agreement was entered by the Mexican family court in March 2010, and it required Salas-Perez to return the child to Mexico in August 2011 so the child could resume school there. Estrada's custody rights under Mexican law were beyond any reasonable dispute.

Salas-Perez also argued that Article 16 prohibited the Mexican court from deciding "the merits of rights of custody" while her Hague Convention petition was pending. Convention, art. 16 ("After receiving notice of a wrongful removal or retention of a child in the sense of Article 3, the judicial or administrative authorities of the Contracting State to which the child has been removed or in which it has been retained shall not decide on the merits of rights of custody until it has been determined that the child is not to be returned under this Convention or unless an application under this Convention is not lodged within a reasonable time following receipt of the notice."). The argument failed. The Mexican court that entered the March 2010 order was the very court before which Salas-Perez's Hague Convention petition was proceeding, and Salas-Perez expressly agreed to the entry of that order. Salas-Perez's submission that the Mexican court could not approve a custody agreement that she herself reached with Estrada could not be reconciled with Article 13(a), which excuses an otherwise wrongful removal or retention if "the person ... having the care of the ... child... had consented to or subsequently acquiesced in the removal or retention."Convention, art. 13(a)."[I]t is hard to think of a more formal acquiescence than entering into a consent order providing that the other parent be awarded custody ."

The Court held that Salas-Perez's retention of the child in Illinois breached Estrada's custody rights under the March 2010 custody order. By failing to send the child back to Mexico in August 2011, Salas-Perez deprived Estrada of his right to custody of the child during the school year. Estrada exercised and sought to exercise his rights of custody as of the time of retention. Estrada proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Salas-Perez's retention of the child in Illinois was wrongful under Article 3 of the Convention.

The court held that Salas-Perez did not prove grave risk by clear and convincing evidence. In July 2011, Salas-Perez brought the child to see Jennifer Lara, a licensed clinical professional counselor. Lara's written report of August 12, 2011, was admitted into evidence, and Lara testified at the evidentiary hearing.

On the parties' joint motion, the court appointed Dr. Hector Machabanski, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, as an expert under Federal Rule of Evidence 706. The parties agreed that the court could consider Dr. Machabanski's report without having to call him to testify. They also agreed that neither party would call the child to testify.

Janet required the child to eat food that had been put in a blender. The court credited Lara's unrebutted testimony that the child understood this to be a form of punishment. But the court also credited Estrada's unrebutted testimony that  a doctor in Mexico recommended that the child's food be blended in those instances when the child was experiencing trouble swallowing. The child told Dr. Machabanski that Janet hit her on the arm two or three times, once with a wooden spoon, and that Estrada once hit her on the bottom with a shoe. Lara's report noted that the child said that she had been hit on the arm with a wooden spoon, hit on the bottom (though by Janet, not by Estrada), and thrown onto the couch, but the report did not address the frequency of those physical episodes. Lara's report also noted that the child said that she was forced to eat spicy food without being given water or tea. Dr. Machabanski concluded that "the episodes of hitting in Mexico were rare and unusual events, not recurrent or part of a pattern of violence. Lara testified that she disagree with this conclusion. The court resolves this discrepancy in Dr. Machabanski's favor. Lara's report stated that the child "did not want to return to Mexico with her father ... and his family because they made her feel 'bad.' Lara opined at the hearing that returning the child to Mexico would place her at a grave risk of psychological harm in light of the hitting episodes and the child being required to eat blended food.

Dr. Machabanski's report indicated that when asked about how she was treated in Mexico, her response was 'they treated me well.' When asked about having any problems in Mexico, her answer was 'no.' Later she said that Janet disciplined her, yelled, and hit her. When asked about the hitting, [the child] showed a slight slap on the arm, adding that perhaps it was two or three times and that it was always in the arm and once it happened with a wooden spoon." The report further stated: "When asked about where she would like to live and with whom, [the child] said, 'I don't know' several times. Later, she added that it was a difficult question and that she would like to live with both parents." Dr. Machabanski's report concluded: "While hitting children is not acceptable or an appropriate way of managing or disciplining them, in terms of what is generally defined as child abuse ..., what [the child] seems to report about the incidents in Mexico do not seem to constitute significant or a serious pattern and do not seem to suggest that [the child] would be in any kind of grave risk if she were to return to Mexico. It is possible that the attention given to this matter and/or the reaction of others to the reports of hitting/abuse and other issues in this case would make [the child] highlight or tune into these matters more than might be appropriate. The hitting episodes seem rare and not severe, and [the child] seems to describe her overall life in Mexico as positive and desirable."

The court found Dr. Machabanski's conclusions regarding the risks of returning the child to Mexico more persuasive than Lara's conclusions. The evidence showed that there were a handful of physical episodes during the two years that Janet lived with Estrada and the child. While both Lara and Dr. Machabanski opined that physical discipline was unacceptable, the court agreed with Dr. Machabanski that the "rare and unusual" physical episodes-which in addition to being rare and unusual were not terribly severe when compared by the episodes described in reported Hague Convention cases, did not create a serious risk of physical or psychological harm, let alone a grave risk of such harm. The evidence also showed that the child was required to eat blended-up food on at least one occasion and perhaps others. That may seem unusual, but Estrada and Janet took this step on a physician's advice after the child experienced trouble with swallowing. If Estrada and Janet had not followed that advice, they might have been deemed grossly inattentive for allowing the child to be insufficiently nourished despite having received medical advice on how to address the child's swallowing problems. Their decision to follow the physician's advice could not be deemed to have placed the child at a grave risk of physical or psychological harm.

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