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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wertz v Wertz, 2018 WL 1575830 (W.D. Virginia, 2018)[Canada] [Grave Risk of Harm] [undertakings] [Petition conditionally granted]

       In Wertz v Wertz, 2018 WL 1575830 (W.D. Virginia, 2018) Tammy Mae Wertz petitioned the court for return of the parties’ minor child to that country.The child, L.E.W., age 8, was removed from Canada on December 20, 2017, without Petitioner’s consent, by Respondent Lewis Edward Wertz, III, and  remained in Virginia since that time. The district court found that Petitioner  met her burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Respondent’s removal of L.E.W. to the United States was wrongful within the meaning of the Hague Convention. In defiance of a Canadian court order and Petitioner’s custody rights, Respondent wrongfully removed the child from Canada on December 20, 2017, where he had habitually resided his entire life. However, the court heard clear and convincing evidence that the child would be subject to a grave risk of harm were he to be returned to Canada without the implementation of certain safeguards, called undertakings, which are necessary to assure the child’s safety. Subject to the undertakings, the court  conditionally granted the  Verified Petition. 

On February 5, 2018, Petitioner filed a Verified Petition against Respondent. The court appointed a guardian ad litem for L.E.W., and directed him to conduct an independent investigation into the facts relevant to the Verified Petition and the defenses raised by the respondents. The court sua sponte appointed counsel for Respondent.The guardian ad litem conducted in-person interviews and upon completion of his investigation, filed a report and recommendation setting forth his findings  The report was provided to the parties and the court received it into evidence at the March 15 bench trial.
        Petitioner and Respondent were married in Canada on November 3, 2007. The parties had one child, L.E.W., born April 3, 2009, who was a dual citizen of Canada and the United States. The family lived together in Ontario while Respondent worked as an engineering professor. The parties separated in late 2009. Petitioner left the family home and moved to public housing, where she continued to reside, with J.W. and the infant L.E.W. Respondent remained in the family home. The parties eventually divorced but continued to maintain a sporadic sexual relationship long after their initial separation. Both parents developed a close bond with L.E.W. and sought custody of him. Over the span of the ensuing eight years, the Canadian court was asked to resolve custody issues. 

          Petitioner’s trial testimony gave the court a full view of Petitioner’s prolific use of illegal substances over the course of two decades. Petitioner admitted to using cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, and marijuana, as well as abusing a staggering list of prescription drugs—Dilaudid, Ritalin, Percocet, OxyContin, Ativan, Adderall, morphine, methadone, diazepam, suboxone, and ketamine—by various means. Petitioner testified she has used drugs while L.E.W. was at school, used cocaine, crystal meth and opiates while L.E.W. was asleep in her home, and smoked marijuana in L.E.W.’s presence. The court was not aware of any Hague Convention cases involving this level of substance abuse, and the enormity of Petitioner’s drug abuse, while the child was in the home, overshadowed this case. Petitioner testified that she completed a 35-day treatment program in 2014 but has relapsed several times over the past two years. As recently as 2017, she admitted to using both cocaine and crystal meth and had numerous positive drug screens. In her Verified Petition she attested she “has been completely free of illicit substances for approximately two years. Other aspects of Petitioner’s life closely associated with her pervasive drug abuse compound the risk to the child. Arguably the most troubling was Petitioner’s relationship with John, a man she knew had been charged with sexual abuse of a child and had a history of domestic abuse of women. Petitioner testified that although she was aware that John had been ordered to have no contact with his own child, she nevertheless began an abusive relationship with him in May 2017, to which her child was exposed. Testimony at trial established that Petitioner appeared at Respondent’s house drunk in the middle of the night complaining that John had abused her. Another time, Petitioner testified John threw a cup at her and cut her face. John was arrested, charged, and served 75 days in jail for this abuse. The court was not convinced that the threat posed by the child’s exposure to men such as John has passed. Indeed, although Petitioner claims to be done with him, John is no longer in prison and was seen by her on the street.

         Although Petitioner admitted that John was present in the home with L.E.W., she insisted she never left her son alone with him. The court’s concern that Petitioner’s drug-influenced lifestyle posed a risk to L.E.W. was confirmed by her on-and-off romantic relationship with another man, Shawn. Petitioner described Shawn as the “main friend” with whom she used drugs. She testified Shawn had given her crystal meth, heroin, and Dilaudid, and that she has given Shawn her prescription Percocet. Petitioner and Shawn used drugs together in her home while L.E.W. slept. At trial, Petitioner referenced by name a host of others she bought drugs from, sold drugs to, and/or used drugs with, neighbors, friends, and a prostitute she met through Shawn.

        In 2011, Petitioner overdosed on Ritalin and suffered a psychotic episode in which she hallucinated and wandered around the common area of her housing complex with a baseball bat, believing there were homeless people in the bushes and dead babies on the ground. Petitioner was hospitalized for two days following this episode, which her daughter J.W. witnessed. L.E.W., who was then just shy of 2, was asleep at the time.
Petitioner had not engaged in legitimate employment in more than a decade. She survived on social assistance and had resorted to illegal means of earning income, such as selling drugs and prostituting herself through an escort agency called Niagara Dolls. Petitioner testified she last worked as a prostitute in 2013. This testimony contradicted a statement she made to the court-appointed guardian ad litem that she had only ever exchanged sex for money with Respondent. Petitioner admitted on direct examination that she was not truthful about this fact in her interview with the guardian ad litem.

  Petitioner frequently asked Respondent for money, long after the parties divorced. At times, money was given in exchange for sexual favors. Petitioner testified that it was possible that she used that money to buy drugs. Other incidents of Petitioner’s addiction adversely impacted the child. School records from 2016–17 revealed L.E.W. was absent 21 and a half days and tardy 56 days while he was in Petitioner’s care. Petitioner admitted leaving L.E.W. alone, unsupervised, with men who lived in her housing complex,one of which is known to Petitioner only by first name. In 2016, she assaulted Respondent in front of L.E.W. While in the car on the way to her suboxone treatment, she punched Respondent and split his lip open.

          Petitioner claimed to have “changed drastically” since then. Drug screens from the past few months of 2018 had been clean, and she claimed to be resolute in her desire to live a drug-free life. Yet her self-described support system included a friend with whom Petitioner currently smoked marijuana and from whom she had illegally purchased suboxone. Also of concern was Petitioner’s testimony that she is confident in her ability to stay clean because the “main friend” she did drugs with,  Shawn, was currently incarcerated. All of this, along with her admitted false statements and long history of drug abuse, led the court to find Petitioner’s claim that she was capable of assuring the safety of the child utterly incredible.

The district court found that petitioner established a prima facie case for return and that Respondent had not established by a preponderance of the evidence that Petitioner acquiesced to the removal of L.E.W. to Virginia during the summer and fall of 2017. It noted that Respondent primarily defended his wrongful removal by arguing that L.E.W. would be subject to grave risk in Petitioner’s care in Canada.  

        The court observed that drug use, under certain circumstances, ... may qualify as grave-risk conduct.” Mlynarski v. Pawezka, 931 F. Supp. 2d 277, 284 (D. Mass. 2013), aff’d, No. 13-1361, 2013 WL 7899192 (1st Cir. May 8, 2013) (finding no grave risk where petitioner had “susceptibility to taking psychoactive substances” and occasionally smoked marijuana). Courts use a two-step approach to determine whether allegations of drug use qualify as a grave risk. “[T]he court must first determine whether the alleged ... drug use in fact occurred. Beyond that, the court must consider as part of the grave risk analysis how such conduct, if confirmed, would affect the child were he to be returned to his habitual residence.” There was no case law to help guide the court in assessing grave risk for the level of drug use presented here.

        The district court pointed out that  courts have found that past drug abuse, standing alone, is insufficient to constitute a grave risk. See Taylor v. Hunt, 2013 WL 620934, at *8 (report and  recommendation adopted, 2013 WL 617058 (E.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2013) (citing Sanchez v. Sanchez, 2012 WL 5373461, at 3 (W.D. Tex. 2012)) (“Evidence of past acts of domestic abuse or past drug activity in the place of habitual residence is not enough for the grave risk exception to apply.”) Likewise, courts have declined to find grave risk where the past drug abuse occurred outside the presence of the child, or where relationships that posed the risk of drug abuse have been abandoned. See Sanchez v. R.G.L., 761 F.3d 495, 500, 509 (5th Cir. 2014) (finding no gave risk where mother ended relationship with boyfriend who abused and trafficked drugs); In re Hague Application,  2007 WL 4593502, at *10-11 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 28, 2007) (rejecting grave risk defense where petitioner maintained drug-free home and terminated marijuana use, and where prior drug use was not in home or children’s presence). But the limiting factors present in those cases were  not present here, where the evidence established that Petitioner’s unrelenting addiction transcends every other aspect of her life, without regard to the consequences to her child. The petitioner had a staggering history of drug abuse. Petitioner testified to using cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, marijuana, Ritalin, morphine, OxyContin, and Percocet. She admitted using crystal meth and Dilaudid in her home while L.E.W. slept, and to selling drugs, Ritalin and marijuana, on the street. Drug screens from the past two years included positive results for a variety of illegal substances, including cocaine, morphine, OxyContin, benzodiazepine, methadone, amphetamine, ketamine, and methamphetamine. Despite alleging falsely in her Verified Petition that she has been free of illicit substances for the last two years, she has relapsed numerous times. Indeed, Petitioner testified to a relapse in July 2017 and had positive drug screens as recently as December 2017 and January 2018. Petitioner’s testimony suggests that she purchased drugs as recently as December 2017. Petitioner, to her credit, sought treatment for her drug abuse, and her drug screens for the past couple of months of 2018 suggested improvement. But Petitioner had multiple “restarts” due to missing treatments, and reported to her doctor in January 2018 that she had purchased unprescribed suboxone off the street. Given the admitted falsehoods in prior statements made in connection with this litigation, the court was unable to credit Petitioner’s testimony that her drug abuse days were over.

         Petitioner’s continuous pull to drugs further led her to engage in perilous personal conduct, including prostitution and exposing her child to men with dangerous criminal pasts. Although she claimed to have abandoned this lifestyle several years ago, Respondent’s witness Wayne Corby testified that Petitioner worked as an escort as recently as May or June 2017. Petitioner’s drug abuse caused her to expose L.E.W. to dangerous people. The court could not ignore the clear and convincing evidence that Petitioner’s drug abuse, and all of the consequences thereof, constituted a grave risk that L.E.W.’s unconditional return to her custody in Canada would expose him to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place him in an intolerable situation. 

          The district court found that the case was ripe for undertakings. Although the court found that L.E.W. faced a grave risk if returned, this risk could be mitigated pending the Canadian court’s opportunity to make a fulsome custody determination. Similar to the circumstances at issue in Sabogal v. Velarde, 106 F. Supp. 3d 689, 710 (D. Md. 2015), the court was made aware that there was a criminal investigation and possible charge against Respondent for leaving Canada with L.E.W. without Petitioner’s consent and against the court’s order. If working together with the Canadian authorities, the parties can arrange to (1) have the temporary and final custody orders entered on November 22, 2017 and December 21, 2017 vacated, so that the underlying September 26, 2012 joint custody order is reinstated, and (2) arrange to have the criminal charges against Respondent dismissed or the investigation closed, the legal landscape would return to the status quo at the time of the removal. Then Respondent could take the child back to Ontario for custody proceedings. 

         The court directed that it would order the return of L.E.W. to Canada, provided the parties provide proof within sixty (60) days that the following conditions, which would reinstate the status quo at the time of the wrongful removal, have been satisfied: 1. That this custody dispute be resubmitted to the Canadian courts, and a hearing scheduled. 2. That the parties agree to ask the Canadian court to vacate the November 22, 2017 and December 21, 2017 custody orders, and reinstate the September 26, 2012 order pending a further hearing. That the parties take all steps necessary to have dismissed or closed any pending criminal complaints, investigations, or charges in Canada against Respondent, relating to his removal of the child.  That, once L.E.W. is returned to Canada by Respondent, the parties agree that neither party shall remove him from the Niagara Region, Ontario, Canada without an express order of the Canadian court permitting L.E.W.’s removal.  That the parties agree that neither party shall take any drugs for which they do not have current prescriptions and that  the parties transmit forthwith the full record (sealed and unsealed) of this evidentiary hearing, including all pleadings, orders, reports, and transcripts, to the Canadian court presiding over the custody proceeding, FACS Niagara, and the Canadian Children’s Lawyer. The parties shall share the expense of ordering the transcripts. Upon proof that these conditions are satisfied, the court will issue a final order certifying that the conditions have been met, mandating compliance with the listed undertakings, and ordering the return of L.E.W. to Canada.

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