Thousands of parents are trapped in New Zealand because their child’s other parent refuses to allow the child to leave, or is unwilling to relinquish custody.
A high percentage of them are migrants in relationships with Kiwi partners, or migrants who moved to New Zealand with children born overseas. To take their child and run would expose them to persecution and the risk of a long prison sentence. Yet there are parents who are willing to sacrifice everything to remove their child from an abusive parent or an undesirable environment.
They (and E2NZ.org) will be watching with interest the court trial of Dorothy Lee Barnett in Carolina. Dorothy is an American mother that went on the run with her infant daughter back in 1994 and lived under a fake identity in New Zealand and Australia for 20 years.
This case will resonate with the mothers in New Zealand who feel that odds are stacked against them in the fight to be able to leave with their children. Many of them find they are on the back foot in court, where their every move and word is gauged for signs of hysteria or instability, while the father escapes similar scrutiny. A symptom of a patriarchal society perhaps?
Dorothy, a flight attendant, was pregnant when her brief and abusive marriage to wealthy stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III fell apart and she filed for divorce. She told a doctor that Todd didn’t want the baby and demanded she have an abortion, she later went on to miscarry one of the twins she was carrying and gave birth to Savanna.
Within six months of getting married the couple had
“… split permanently but their skirmishes continued right up until Savanna’s birth in May the following year.
A grim struggle for custody of the child began. In the divorce proceedings, Barnett claimed Todd was gay or bisexual, citing nude home movies he had made with friends in the 1970s as evidence of perversion and unfitness as a father. None of this was accepted. Meanwhile expert witnesses lined up to say that Barnett was mentally unstable, promiscuous and volatile, causing her to become increasingly unhinged in the court.
The judge repeatedly cautioned her for making remarks, “talking excessively or too loudly (and) getting up and down from her seat”. She had gone through a variety of moods “from tearfulness, abjection, agitation, anger to near euphoria”. Perhaps this was understandable, given Barnett must have known she was about to lose custody of her nine-month-old daughter…
In his judgment, Judge Mallard blamed Barnett entirely for the break-up of the marriage and awarded sole custody of Savanna to Todd, determining that a stockbroker working full-time was best placed to look after a child who was still being breast-fed. “The psychological and emotional problems experienced by the mother, if left untreated, will create conflict and havoc in the child’s life and she will suffer accordingly,” Judge Mallard concluded.
Todd was “a caring, conscientious and stable person who tried to get help for his wife but failed”, according to the judge.
While Todd had been prepared to allow joint custody, Barnett had made it clear she believed her daughter should have no contact with her father whatsoever.
Overwhelmed in court by her husband’s battery of psychologists and pediatricians, Barnett would walk from the marriage with a $9000 emerald engagement ring, a ride-on lawnmower and a set of steak knives. She would be allowed to have Savanna only two weekends a month. On the first weekend visit, she failed to return the child and the court ordered her access to Savanna be supervised.
Dorothy abducted her own child during her fifth visit in 1994 and had been on the run ever since.
Last year, after a tip off from a supposed ‘friend’ Dorothy was apprehended on the Sunshine Coast region of Australia. She’d been living under the name of Alexandra Geldenhuys with her 21 year old daughter (real name ) Savanna Todd, a nursing student at James Cook University. Australia deported her back to the US where she is now in custody in Charleston County Jail.
Children of the Underground
Faye Yager, the founder of Children of the Underground, which claims to have helped 7000 women escape abusive spouses, says Barnett never had a chance. “He stomped on her like an ant. They set out to prove she was crazy so they could strip her of all her rights as a mother,” according to Yager, who claims to have helped Barnett while on the run.
Remarkably, another court-appointed psychiatrist in April 1994 found Barnett was not suffering from any mental illness or personality disorder. Madelaine Wohlreich reported that Barnett was suffering from no more than an acute reaction to the stress of being separated from her baby in the crucial first year of life.
“Hyperthymic personality” was not even a recognised diagnosis, according to standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, Wohlreich wrote.
Sturgis claims this report was “rigged” as the doctor had been sympathetic to Barnett’s case…” source
Dorothy Lee Barnett has pleaded not guilty to international parental kidnapping. Her daughter Savanna is standing by her and was last seen at her mother’s bail hearing holding up a placard that simply said ” I love you Mom”
Want to discuss this issue?
If this issue affects you please join in the discussion with other parents on our long running thread Migrant Stores: Trapped in NZ – Father won’t let child leave.