In Custodio v Samillan, 2016 WL 7030356 (8th Cir., 2016) Custodio and Torres, were Peruvian citizens, who had two children, 16-year-old M. and 15-year-old G. When they divorced the Peruvian court issued a custody order pursuant to which the children lived with their mother for the majority of the year. In November 2013, the Peruvian court authorized M. and G.’s travel to St. Louis with Torres, requiring that they return by March 24, 2014. Torres married an American citizen, and the couple had since had a son. After Torres failed to return the children to Peru by the deadline the Peruvian court issued four orders compelling Torres to return M. and G. to Peru. The district court held a three-day evidentiary hearing. The district court denied the petition. It refused to order return because Torres established the mature child affirmative defense.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed. It agreed with Torres that the appeal was moot as to M. because he had reached 16 years old and the Hague Convention no longer applied to him. Hague Convention art. 4. It noted that the State Department’s interpretation of the Convention’s age limitation provision was in accord with Torres view which was supported by the official Hague Conference Explanatory Report. Elisa Pérez-Vera, Explanatory Report: Hague Convention on Private International Law ¶ 77 (1981), https://assets.hcch.net/upload/expl28.pdf.
Torres raised the mature child defense under Article 13 of the Convention. The Eighth Circuit noted that in order to carry her burden on this defense, Torres had to must establish by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the child has “attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views” and (2) “that the child objects to being returned.” Hague Convention art. 13. The child’s objections can be the sole reason that a court refuses to order return, but when they are, the “court must apply a stricter standard in considering a child’s wishes.” Tsai-Yi Yang v. Fu-Chiang Tsui, 499 F.3d 259, 278 (3d Cir. 2007). The sole issue on appeal was whether the district court properly considered G.’s objections. The Court concluded that the question of whether a child objected to return is subject to clear error review. Such deference was appropriate here where the district court observed G. testify twice: first, in chambers outside the presence of the parties and lawyers and later, in open court and subject to cross examination. The district court found that G. wished to remain in St. Louis because he did not want to separate from his mother, stepfather, and two brothers. He did not want to return to Peru because he “does not feel safe with his father.” In chambers, G. said he was afraid of his father, who was “very aggressive” and had previously struck him and his brother. The district court also observed that G. liked his school in the United States and had many friends, whereas he disliked his Peruvian school and had no real friends there. The court found G. to be a “very thoughtful and intelligent” young man whose testimony represented his “genuine thoughts and feelings.”
The Eighth Circuit rejected Custodios argument that the district court improperly considered objections relevant only to a custody determination. He contended that a wrongfully removed child may not object based on a wish to live with a particular parent or on circumstances that are the product of the wrongful retention, as decisions based on these objections would embroil the court in the underlying custody dispute. The Court pointed out that with regard to the mature child defense, the Explanatory Report makes clear that a mature child’s views on return can be “conclusive.” The Explanatory Report “does not suggest the child’s interpretation of [his] ‘own interests’ is invalid if it is based” on custody considerations. The drafters of the Convention simply deemed it inappropriate to return a mature child ‘against its will—whatever the reason for the child’s objection. It held that the district court did not err in considering objections that may also be relevant to a custody proceeding. G.’s testimony included particularized objections to returning to Peru. Based on these facts, the Court held that district court did not clearly err in finding that G.’s statements constituted an objection within the meaning of the mature child defense.
The Eighth Circuit rejected Custodio’s argument that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to order return. He argued that allowing G. to remain in the United States improperly ignored the Peruvian court’s custody orders, which were entitled to deference and comity in this court. The Eight Circuit observed that even though Torres met her burden of proving the mature child affirmative defense applies, the district court has the discretion to refuse to apply the defense and order the return of the child if it would further the aim of the Convention which is to provide for the return of a wrongfully removed child. District courts may decline to apply a defense where doing so would reward a parent for wrongfully removing or retaining the children in violation of a Contracting State’s custody orders. It held that while Torres’ actions were concerning, they did not compel a finding that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to order return. The district court’s decision to respect 15-year-old G.’s opposition to returning to Peru and desire to remain in the United States was not an abuse of discretion. The court acted within its discretion in deferring to the objections of an undisputedly mature child. The district court’s consideration of a mature child’s views may but need not be affected by the wrongful actions of his or her parent.