In addition to her work as a whistleblower attorney, James Hoyer Partner Jillian Estes devotes her time to pro bono work handling international child abduction cases which fall under the Hague Convention. In her latest case, she secured the return of a little girl to her father in Guatemala.
“This was my fifth Hague return case – five beautiful little children returned to the only lives they ever knew. I am so proud to continue to be involved in these cases that truly protect children during an extremely traumatic situation caused by one parent’s decision to circumvent the laws of their own country.”
A Trip Under False Pretense
This latest case began when Elexis Martinez, the mother of 5-year old Sofia, took the little girl to Florida from her home in Guatemala, under the pretense of a vacation to visit family and Disney World. Sofia’s parents are separated, but were co-parenting. The father, Javier Escobar, gave his approval for the trip, with the understanding that it was a temporary vacation for 10 days over Christmas in 2014. At the end of the trip, Martinez sent the child’s father a message via Skype saying they were not going to return.
After that one message, all communication was cut off, leaving Escobar in a panic, trying to contact and locate his ex and their daughter. “She did not answer Skype, turned off her cellphone, didn’t respond to emails, and turned off all social media profiles,” explained attorney Estes.
Wet foot, Dry foot Maneuver
Martinez, a native of Cuba, entered the United States under Cuba’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which comes from a 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. It essentially states that anyone who fled Cuba and entered the United States would be allowed to pursue residency a year later. In this case, Martinez did not flee Cuba directly. She came from Guatemala, where she had lived for many years. Nevertheless, the legal maneuver left Sofia caught in the middle and her father desperately seeking his child’s return.
Hague Convention Rules: Child Abduction
Under the Hague Convention which is a series of international treaties agreed upon between countries on various issues of law, the case turned into a child abduction. Through the U.S. Department of State’s Hague Convention Attorney’s Network, Estes agreed to represent the father pro bono to help get Sofia back to her home in Guatemala. Escobar filed a Petition for Return under the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Authorities in the United States, Guatemala and Interpol all worked together to locate Sophia. Several months later, she was finally tracked to Tampa, Florida. Escobar traveled to the U.S. in May 2015 and was reunited with his daughter for the first time in five months. Estes was there for the reunion.
“It was a sight to see as Sofia literally ran across the lobby into her dad’s arms. I will never forget it,” Estes said. “I was so fortunate to have such a dedicated client who clearly loved his little girl so much.”
The reunion was a big step, but not the final word. Two hearings were held before U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Honeywell in Tampa to present the details of what happened. At the final proceeding on June 24th, Attorney Estes showed that Sophia should be returned to Guatemala under Hague Convention rules, emphasizing the strong relationship between Sofia and her father. In the final ruling, Judge Honeywell ordered the return of Sofia to Guatemala.
“Javier’s steadfast commitment to doing the right thing for Sofia and the unwavering support from his family throughout the entire process are true reminders of what family is all about.” Estes said.
Sofia finally did get to visit Disney World with her father, before flying home to Guatemala on June 27th. Her mother decided at the time to stay in the U.S. in pursuit of her legal residency.