In Fernandez v Bailey, 2016 WL 5149429 (M.D., FL ., 2016) the district court denied Petitioner Roque Jacinto Fernandez’s Petition for Return of his Children to Panama. Petitioner, a Panamanian citizen, and Respondent an American citizen working in Panama, were involved in a romantic relationship. Respondent gave birth to the couple’s twin sons, C.R.F.B. and R.J.F.B., on August 18, 2008. Although Respondent and Petitioner never married, Petitioner’s name was on the children’s birth certificates. In May of 2009, Respondent left Panama with the children and moved to Missouri without Petitioner’s consent. On May 13, 2010, Petitioner filed his first petition under the Hague Convention, seeking the return of the children to Panama. The District Court ordered that Respondent return the children to Panama in September of 2010. 2010 WL 3522134, at *3 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 1, 2010), modified, 2010 WL 5399220 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 23, 2010). As a result of a prior felony conviction he received while living in the United States as a juvenile, Petitioner was unable to obtain a visa and attend the 2010 hearing in person. Pursuant to the Missouri court’s order, Respondent returned to Panama with the children. In Panama, Petitioner initiated custody proceedings and criminal charges against Respondent for the previous removal of the children. Pursuant to the ongoing custody proceedings, Petitioner had visitation rights to visit with the children every other weekend. Because of the contentious relationship between the parents, the Panamanian court designated a local children’s police station as the drop-off and pick-up location for these visits. On February 2, 2014, Respondent and the children flew from Panama to Tampa, Florida. Petitioner was unaware that Respondent and the children had moved to Florida. Before learning that the children were in the United States, and in late January of 2015, the Panamanian immigration authorities informed Petitioner that the children had left Panama nearly a year earlier on February 2, 2014. Petitioner then filed a Hague Convention application in late February of 2015. The United States Department of State provided information regarding the location of the children to Petitioner, eventually disclosing the children’s current location in Tampa, Florida. On August 24, 2016, Petitioner filed his Verified Petition for Return of Children to Panama
The district court found that the petitioner established a prima facie case for return, and found that respondent did not establish the grave risk of harm defense nor the wishes of the child defense. However, it found that the children were wrongfully removed more than one year before the petition and that the children we is now settled in their new home. Hague Convention, art. 12. To fall under this exception, “the child must have significant connections demonstrating a secure, stable, and permanent life in his or her new environment.” Alcala v. Hernandez, 826 F.3d 161, 170 (4th Cir. 2016) It found that during their time in Florida, the children resided in two locations, both in the Tampa Bay area. Both residences were in the same general area. The children built relationships with Respondent’s family members since their arrival in the United States. Although the distance between the children and these relatives prevented daily interaction, the Court found that the children built a meaningful connection with their extended family while living in Florida. Since enrolling in their current school in Tampa in April of 2015, the children attended consistently and earned all satisfactory or excellent marks on their report cards. The elementary school gave the children awards for good behavior and citizenship. The children made friends and participated in extracurricular activities. While living in St. Petersburg, they played in a local t-ball league. Later, at the children’s request, Respondent registered them to play on a club soccer team, for which they travel with their teammates and play competitively. Last summer, Respondent enrolled the children in a Christian summer camp, where the children participated in adventurous activities like rock-climbing and archery. Respondent was an American citizen working in a well-paying job, which Respondent testified partially motivated her move from Panama to Florida. She had been steadily employed since her arrival and has sufficient financial resources to keep a live-in nanny to help with child-care. The Court found that Respondent had a stable career and adequately provides for the children. The Court was not persuaded that Respondent used the concealment tactics alleged by Petitioner. Regardless, if they were used, the Court found that these tactics had not prevented the children from forming a permanent and stable connection to their new environment. The children attended the same school for over a year, were enrolled in school and extracurricular activities in their own names, and had lived in only two homes in the Tampa Bay area since their arrival from Panama. The children were thriving in Florida. The Court believed that the children’s interest in settlement outweighed the other interests that would be served by returning the children to Panama. The Court was deeply disturbed by Respondent’s actions. This was the second time Respondent has removed the children from Panama without Petitioner’s consent. Because Petitioner had been unable to secure a visa to attend the 2010 Hague Convention hearing because of his prior conviction, Respondent likely knew that Petitioner could not travel to the United States to search for the children or participate in person if future custody proceedings were initiated here. While preventing this type of forum-shopping by parents was a major motivation for the enactment of the Hague Convention, the interest in discouraging wrongful removals like that perpetrated by Respondent is not enforced at any cost under the Hague Convention. Lozano, 134 S. Ct. at 1235. The Court found that the children’s interest in settlement outweighed the other interests of the Hague convention because disruption of the stable and permanent connection the children established to their new home would be harmful. The fact that Petitioner may have had a good reason to file his petition over a year after the children’s removal did not negate the harm that would come to the children if they were removed from their new environment.