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Monday, December 16, 2013

Application of Gavia v Hernandez, 2013 WL 6115725 (D. Utah) [Mexico] [Guardian ad litem] [Well-Settled] [Age and Maturity] [Petition Denied]

In Application of Gavia v Hernandez, 2013 WL 6115725 (D. Utah) Alma Rosa Ornelas Gavia ("Petitioner" or "Ms. Ornelas") on October 29, 2013 filed a Verified Complaint and Petition for Return of Minor Children. Petitioner was a Mexican national residing in the City of Leon, Mexico in the State of Guanajuato. Respondent was a Mexican national residing in Sandy, Utah. Petitioner and Respondent were married in Leon, Mexico on March 19, 1999. After their marriage in 1999, Petitioner and Respondent moved to the United States. ABTO was born in Los Angeles, California on February 28, 2001. MZTO was born in Los Angeles, California on February 15, 2002. ABTO and MZTO were both United States' citizens. They lived in California until 2009, with the exception of a period prior to 2009 when the Petitioner took the Children to Mexico. On or about July 7, 2009, Petitioner and Respondent separated. After the separation, Petitioner returned with the children to her parent's home in Leon, Mexico. Respondent relocated from California to Utah. Respondent testified that as Petitioner was preparing to leave him and take the Children to Mexico, she told him that if he would not agree to them residing with her in Mexico that she would take them and disappear in Mexico. Respondent therefore acquiesced to the Children residing with Petitioner in Mexico. Shortly after Petitioner moved to Mexico, she gave birth to a third child SCTO, who was the daughter of Petitioner and Respondent and the sister of ABTO and MZTO. Between July 2009 and late June 2012, Petitioner and the children lived with Petitioner in her family home in Leon, Mexico. The children's mother, the Petitioner, worked in Mexico as a secretary 20 hours per week. Petitioner had a boyfriend. In approximately January 2012, he came to live with Petitioner and the Petitioner's three children in Petitioner's parents' house. In approximately March 2012, the boyfriend's three children also came to live in the house. Petitioner's boyfriend and his three children continued to reside with Petitioner. While the Children were living in Mexico, the Petitioner did not regularly cook for them, often leaving one of the Children to prepare the family meals. One of the Children was often sent alone to buy food, which made her nervous. The Petitioner "partied" and sometimes left the Children to care for themselves and their younger sister for long periods while Petitioner was away. . On occasion, Petitioner threw things at the Children, once throwing her cell phone at one of the Children. On one occasion, Petitioner struck one of the Children in the back of the head, which caused the child to strike her front tooth, breaking it. Although the Petitioner testified that the area where they lived was safe, the Children said that they feared going out onto the streets because of a fear of gang activity. Petitioner did not take the Children to the doctor in Mexico, but relied on their grandfather to make medications to care for them when ill. The Children did not feel safe living with Petitioner in Mexico. While the Children were living in Mexico, the Respondent regularly sent money to the Petitioner for the support of the Children, including tuition for private schooling.

In April or May of 2012, Petitioner and Respondent began to discuss the possibility of the Children coming to live with the Respondent in Utah. The Petitioner testified that in June of 2012, she agreed to allow ABTO and MZTO to travel to Utah to be with their father. Petitioner testified that the children were to remain in Utah for only two weeks at which time they were to return to Mexico. The Children testified that their mother told them they were coming to Utah to visit for two-weeks. The Respondent testified that the children wanted to come to Utah and remain indefinitely. He testified that they were to remain in Utah until they decided they wanted to return to Mexico. He denied that there was any agreement that the children would return to Mexico after two-weeks. The Children arrived in Utah on July 3, 2012. Upon arrival in Utah, the Children carried with them a passport, social security cards, child identification cards issued by the state of California, immunization records for both Children, and birth certificates which had been given to them by the Petitioner before they left Mexico. Petitioner testified that once the two-weeks had passed, Respondent refused to return the Children to Mexico and told her she would never see her Children again. Petitioner testified that she contacted the FBI and the Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City, Utah in an effort to have her Children returned. On August 2, 2012, Petitioner filed with the Secretary of Foreign Ministry in Guanajuanto, Mexico, a request for the return of the Children, claiming they had been wrongfully retained in Utah. Petitioner testified that she did not know the address where the Children were residing and was unable to find their location until shortly before the Verified Complaint was filed in this case on October 29, 2013. Since July of 2012, the Children remained in the United States, residing at all times at the same address in Utah with Respondent. Respondent testified that he has made no effort to conceal the Children or hide their whereabouts.

ABTO was now 12 years old and lived in the United States for 9 of her 12 years, except for the short period she lived in Mexico with her mother prior to 2009. MZTO was now 11 years old and has lived in the United States for 8 of her 11 years, also with the exception of the short period in Mexico prior to 2009. The Children were both fluent in English and are well acclimated to living in the United States. At the end of the summer of 2012, the Children were enrolled in public schools in Sandy, Utah, where they participated for a full school year. They were now in their second year since returning to the United States. Both Children are doing well in school. The Children each had friends at school and in their current neighborhood and were well integrated in their current family, school, neighborhood and community. Respondent's sister lived next to Respondent and the Children like spending time with her and their cousin. They also associated with other members of Respondent's extended family who lived in the State of Utah. Respondent resided at the same address for the past three years. Respondent and the Children lived in a mobile home trailer with Respondent's girlfriend and his girlfriend's two daughters. Although the home only had two bedrooms, the Children testified that the bedrooms were large and they had enough room for their things. They also testified that they have a good relationship with the Respondent's girlfriend and her children. They did not express concern or complaints about their living arrangements in Sandy, Utah. Respondent, his girlfriend, her two daughters, and the Children lived as a close, loving and mutually supportive family.

Respondent testified that the Petitioner agreed that the Children could remain with him in Utah. The Children testified that after they arrived in Utah, Respondent told them that Petitioner had agreed that they could remain in Utah until they chose to return to Mexico. Sometime after the controversy arose, Respondent put Petitioner on the speakerphone with Respondent and the Children. Respondent told Petitioner in that conversation, in the presence of the Children, that it was not up to him or Petitioner, but that it was up to the Children where they lived. Both Children said that they wanted to remain in Utah with Respondent, to which Petitioner responded that would be fine. Respondent told Petitioner and the Children that if the Children wanted to go to Mexico, he would pay for their tickets to return. Respondent repeated his statement in court that he not only would allow, but would pay for the Children to return to Mexico whenever it is their wish to do so.

The court observed the Children and their demeanor in chambers. Through the course of the interview, it became clear that they strongly desired to remain in Utah with their father. They expressed an emotional and strong objection to being required to return to their mother in Mexico. They expressed their view that they would not feel safe living in the neighborhood where Petitioner's home was located. They also expressed they would not feel comfortable living in the home with their mother and her boyfriend. If there were to be a visit, they wanted another adult to accompany them. The court found the Children to be mature for their ages and capable of formulating their own ideas and feelings about where they want to live. Based on the court's observations, it found that the Children had attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take into account their views. It found that Children had a strong desire to stay with their father in Utah and to not be forced to return to Mexico. More than one year had elapsed between the date since Petitioner alleged the Children were wrongfully retained by Respondent in the United States and the date Petitioner commenced these proceedings. The Children were now settled in their new environment with Respondent in Utah, having become so settled in Utah that forcing them to return to Mexico against their wishes would be against the Children's best interest.

Petitioner demonstrated that the Children were habitual residents of Leon, Mexico before coming to the United States in June 2012 and that under Mexican law petitioner had the right as a parent to custody of the Children. The evidence was undisputed that the Children came to Utah at the end of June 2012, with the permission and consent of Petitioner. Their removal to Utah was not wrongful. Petitioner contended that after the two-week visit, to which she agreed, Respondent wrongfully retained the Children in Utah. Petitioner contended that she demanded return of the Children, but Respondent refused, telling her she would never see her Children again. Respondent testified that it was understood when the Children came to Utah that they would remain indefinitely in Utah, that after they were here Petitioner agreed to their remaining and that she changed her mind only later. The evidence was inconclusive on this issue. Petitioner's claim that she did not know the Children's location lacked credibility. Because Petitioner had the burden of proof on this issue, and the evidence was inconclusive as to whether there was agreement for the Children to remain in Utah, the court found that Petitioner has failed to prove that the retention of the Children in Utah was wrongful.

The Court observed that the Convention requires that a child shall be returned to the state from which he originally was wrongfully removed unless both of two conditions are met: (1) one year has elapsed between the date of wrongful removal and the date proceedings commence; and (2) the child is found to be "well settled" in her new environment. Bernal v. Gonzalez, 923 F.Supp.2d 907, 926 (2012).

n determining whether a child is settled within the meaning of Article 12, a court considers a number of factors that bear on whether the child has "significant connections to the new country." 51 Fed.Reg. at 10509. These factors include: (1) the child's age; (2) the stability and duration of the child's residence in the new environment; (3) whether the child attends school or day care consistently; (4) whether the child has friends and relatives in the new area; (5) the child's participation in community or extracurricular school activities, such as team sports, youth groups, or school clubs; and (6) the respondent's employment and financial stability. The most important factor is the length and stability of the child's residence in the new environment. In Re B. Del C.S.B., 559 F.3d 999, 1009 (9th Cir2009). ABTO and MZTO resided in Utah with Respondent for just over one (1) year. Under Second Circuit precedent, which had been followed in this district, equitable tolling does not apply even where a parent acts to conceal the whereabouts of a child. See Loranzo v. Alvarez, 697 F.3d 41, 51 (2nd Cir.2012). Moreover, even were equitable tolling to apply, the evidence in the case did not support that Respondent acted to conceal the Children. The evidence strongly supports that both ABTO and MZTO were well-settled as that term is used in the Hague Convention. Each of the six factors to be considered by the court weighed heavily in favor of the Respondent, which supported a conclusion that the Children had significant connections to Utah. The court found that it would be disruptive and traumatic to remove them from the family they now accepted and from a school which they enjoyed and at which they were thriving. The well-settled exception was satisfied and the court found under this exception, that even were the Children wrongfully removed, they should remain in Utah.

The Court also observed that the Hague Convention provides that "[t]he judicial or administrative authority [considering a petition] may also refuse to order the return of the child if it finds that the child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views." Hague Convention, art. 13. ABTO was twelve years old and MZTO was eleven. Both children were interviewed in chambers with counsel and other court personnel present. The Children demonstrated by their behavior and responses that they understood the circumstances and understood the gravity of the decision to be made. ABTO and MZTO each expressed a desire to remain in Utah. They expressed reservations about returning to Mexico. The views they expressed were sincere and strongly felt. The strong preference to remain in Utah expressed by each of them was consistent with their own description of what their lives were like in Utah compared to their lives in Mexico. Both ABTO and MZTO expressed goals for the future that assumed they would remain here. They unequivocally expressed their love for their "step mother" and their family association. They did not express similar feelings for family or relatives in Mexico. They found living in a two-bedroom mobile home preferable to living in a four-story house in Mexico. They strongly preferred school here. The court found that they had the level of maturity to express meaningful and well-considered opinions about their own future and preference for remaining in the United States. The court was influenced by the recommendation and persuasive argument of the Guardian Ad Litem that the Children's interest was best served by remaining in Utah. He met with the Children, considered their circumstances and had no interest other than their best interest in making that recommendation. The court found that the evidence strongly supported that it was in the best interest of each of ABTO and MZTO to remain in Utah and the United States.

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