Monday, May 23, 2016
Gomez v Fuenmayor 2016 WL 454037(11th Cir, 2016)[Venezuela] [Petition denied][Grave Risk of Harm established where violence directed at mother]
In Gomez v Fuenmayor 2016 WL 454037(11th Cir, 2016) the Eleventh Circuit held that sufficiently serious threats and violence directed against a parent can nonetheless pose a grave risk of harm to a child as well.
This lawsuit ariose from a battle between Salvi and Naser over custody of their four-year-old daughter, M.N. All three individuals were citizens of Venezuela. Salvi and Naser were never married and Naser was now married to Anibangel Molina Anais (“Molina”). Beginning in 2012, Naser and Molina made repeated threats against Salvi and his family. Molina called Salvi’s mother and told her that if Salvi ever returned to Molina’s home seeking to visit his daughter, it would be the last thing Salvi did in his life. Then, in July 2012, Naser and Molina left Venezuela with M.N. and took her to Miami. Salvi filed a petition under the Convention in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and successfully obtained an order requiring that M.N. be returned to Venezuela in his custody. During the course of the court proceedings in Miami, the district judge awarded Salvi primary custody of M.N. while granting Naser visitation rights to be exercised in the presence of a court-appointed supervisor, Karina Lapa. At these visits, which occurred in the United States, Lapa noted Naser’s hostility toward Salvi, including hearing threats made over the course of the ten visits she supervised. Lapa specifically testified that Naser repeated that she was going to make Salvi “pay” for what he had done and said that “something is going to happen” to him when Naser regained custody over M.N. Lapa relayed these threats to Salvi. On one occasion, Lapa found Naser’s mother standing outside the visitation site, reportedly trying to determine where Salvi was coming from with M.N. Lapa said that she was “very concerned” about M.N.’s safety. Upon returning to Maracaibo in Venezuela, Salvi and M.N. went into hiding, preventing Naser from visiting her. At a Venezuelan court hearing attended by both Salvi and Naser shortly after their return to Maracaibo, Naser was accompanied by armed guards, who also accompanied her to every subsequent court date. In October 2013, a Venezuelan court ordered a continuation of the United States federal district court’s custody arrangement, granting Salvi primary custody. Upon hearing this ruling, Naser had an outburst in court, threatening to kill Salvi. Subsequently, Salvi’s girlfriend, Claudia Poblete, picked him up from the courthouse; they were followed for several blocks by individuals on motorcycles. Three days later, Poblete dropped off Salvi, Salvi’s sister, and M.N. at Salvi’s parents’ home after attending a birthday party. The windows of Poblete’s car were tinted black, making it impossible to see inside the vehicle. While driving home, Poblete was shot at and struck three times. Additional bullet holes were found in the side of the car, the headrest of the passenger seat, and above the child seat. Salvi testified that he did not know who shot Poblete because he was not present when it happened. Approximately a week later, Salvi saw Naser at a courthouse in Venezuela and heard Naser telling public defenders there that she was concerned about M.N.’s safety because the earlier shooting had been intended for Salvi. Salvi had told no one about the incident except the attorney he had met with that day. The violence continued on November 2, 2013, as several people broke into Salvi’s parents’ building in Venezuela. The individuals shattered one of the windows of Salvi’s mother’s car and spray-painted on the side of the car in Spanish, “You are going to die.” Moreover, Salvi’s sister and mother testified that they had seen several men enter the garage that housed the car carrying a package and then leave without the package. Later, they discovered that a package containing twenty-five glassine envelopes of cocaine had been placed in the mother’s car. Salvi does not know who broke into and defaced his mother’s car. Throughout this time frame, on approximately five occasions, Naser’s brother and several armed men went to schools in Venezuela where Salvi’s sister worked, seeking information about when she arrived, whom she traveled with, and whether her brother came to the school. They offered money to employees at the schools to obtain this information. On December 20, 2013, a Venezuelan court affirmed the decision granting Salvi primary custody of the child and awarding Naser supervised visits. Just over a week later, Salvi’s mother was arrested after a search of her car by the Venezuelan National Guard discovered drugs. She testified that, as with the first time drugs were planted in her car, she did not know who placed the drugs there. The investigation was reportedly unusual and the charges against her were later dropped. Based on these facts, Salvi testified in federal district court that he feared for his daughter’s safety because of the violence directed against him and his family and the possibility that M.N. would live with Molina, who, Salvi claimed, is involved in trafficking drugs. Salvi added that he made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain from the Venezuelan government protection for himself and his family. Eventually, he said that he was advised by government officials to leave the country because he could not be protected in Venezuela. On May 7, 2014, the Venezuelan Family Court issued an order revoking Salvi’s custody rights. Salvi, his sister, his mother, and M.N. all have pending asylum applications in the United States.
The district court concluded that, under the Convention, Naser, the mother, had established a prima facie case requiring the return of her daughter because the father, Salvi, had “wrongfully removed the child from her habitual residence in Venezuela.” However, the district court concluded that the Convention did not require M.N. to be returned to Venezuela because doing so would cause her to face “a grave risk of harm or to be placed in an intolerable situation.” The court highlighted the repeated threats made by Naser and her husband, Molina against Salvi and his family, that Molina was a fugitive “who has repeatedly demonstrated a disregard for the law,” the repeated presence of armed guards at court hearings, reports that Salvi and his family were followed on multiple occasions, the vandalism and destruction of Salvi’s mother’s car, the planting of drugs in that car, and the shooting of Salvi’s girlfriend. The district court squarely laid the blame for these repeated acts on Naser and Molina: The Eleventh Circuit found that the evidence had established that [Naser] and Molina directly made threats, and the evidence also supported the finding that it was highly probable that [Naser] and Molina were involved in the acts of violence against [Salvi] and his family. These acts of violence, although not specifically directed at the child, placed her in a perilous position with a high risk of danger. Even setting aside the risk of physical harm, the Convention’s exception also applies to the grave risk of psychological harm. It seemed almost self-evident that a child raised in an environment where one parent is engaged in a sustained campaign of violence (including the use of deadly force) against the other parent faces just such a grave risk.
To the extent that Naser argued that none of these incidents directly affected M.N. and that no physical harm had yet come to M.N., she was correct. But, the Court previously held the inquiry under the Convention is not whether the child had previously been harmed. Rather, the question is whether returning the child to Venezuela would expose her to a grave risk of harm going forward. The uncontroverted evidence of intended and actual violence—including the shooting—directed at Salvi and his family yielded every indication of posing a grave risk to those around him, including his daughter. The district judge correctly found that clear and convincing evidence supported a determination that M.N. would face a grave risk of harm if she were to be returned to Venezuela, and that Naser’s petition should be denied. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.