Child Custody Dispute and Abduction Precursor to Murder of Father and His Family

DSC00275_1A Mississauga family: father, mother and adult son, were systematically eliminated in what police say may be revenge and payback arising from a high conflict custody case, resulting in this week’s arrest of 34-year-old Melissa Merritt and her common-law spouse, Christopher Fattore, age 37.

This bizarre case is the ultimate tale of “truth being stranger than fiction”, but it began so happily when Melissa Merritt and Caleb Harrison met and began living together in 2000.

Two children followed in quick succession and they married in 2003. However, domestic violence marred their union and the couple split in 2005 after Caleb was convicted of assaulting Melissa.

A month after their separation Caleb drove drunk, killing a taxi driver and injuring four teenagers. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and his mother, Bridget Harrison, took over the care of the children.

From there the battle lines were drawn… but the tragedies did not subside. In 2009 Melissa’s father-in-law, Bill Harrison, suddenly died at the home he shared with Bridget, his death attributed to a heart attack.

A month later Melissa abducted her two children, remaining at large for several months. Upon her return, she was convicted of criminal child abduction but served no jail time. Her access to the children, however, was now limited to every second week-end and specified holidays.

Almost a year after Bill Harrison’s death, one of the grandchildren found Grandma Bridget dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home. Suspicions were heightened with the second Harrison death in twelve months.

In the meantime, a fire destroyed the home Melissa shared with her common law spouse and their four children. The couple lost everything, but the custody battle still raged, and in 2013 Melissa filed a court application for joint custody.

A month later Caleb Harrison was also dead, and police began an investigation into the deaths of three family members in five years.

In January 2014 Melissa Merritt and her spouse, Chris Fattore, were charged with first degree murder in the deaths of her ex-husband, Caleb Harrison, and his mother, Bridget Harrison.

This week Melissa and Christopher were also charged with the murder of Bill Harrison and extradited from Nova Scotia to Brampton Ontario where they remain in custody.

All six of their children are now in care. It is unfathomable that one woman could destroy so many people’s lives…of course, she is innocent until proven guilty.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

And Now the End is Near- 2014 Highlights

BarristerFor me, 2014 was fulfilling, both personally and professionally. On the work side, I arbitrated some interesting family law cases, handled several Hague Convention child abduction cases: one that saw the successful reunion of father and child after an abduction from Portugal to Canada, and the other an appeal from an order that a child be returned to Montana.

Personally, I found time to workout with my incredible trainer, Janice; enjoy neighbourhood cook-outs and pool parties; sing in my choir; brainstorm ideas for a book on women in leadership, and enjoy the beauty of California and B.C’s Okanagan.

Meanwhile my contribution to the blogosphere continued throughout the year, with the following highlights:

1. Shared parenting: MP Maurice Vellacott’s bill on shared parenting crashed and burned when the Liberals and most of the Conservatives voted against it in the earliest stages of second reading.

Despite it being a part of Harper’s election platform, only a few brave backbenchers supported the bill. In retrospect it is likely that the focus on a strict equality of parenting time, instead of an emphasis on shared parenting that could see one parent with less than 50% depending on the work and school schedules of parents and child(ren), led to its early demise.

2. New Prostitution Law: On December 6, 2014 the Conservative government brought into effect their new law, based on the Nordic model adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and other European countries.

After the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s previous law in 2013, which did not criminalize prostitution, but made it illegal to solicit for prostitution, operate a common bawdy house, or live off the avails of prostitution, Justice Minister McKay’s new bill was reviled in many quarters.

The new law criminalizes prostitution for the purchaser of sexual services, while women, girls, and boys who sell sex are no longer subject to legal sanctions. They are treated as exploited victims, with the goal of helping them escape the sordid life of prostitution with its inherent danger.

3. Conscious Uncoupling: Amid mockery and snide remarks, Gwyneth Paltrow introduced “conscious uncoupling” to the world of divorce, as a softer and gentler way to separate and divorce. The details of this model remain elusive but months after its debut, it has found little favour in the real world.

4. Trinity Law School: Conflict and consternation abound when Trinity Western University’s governmental approval to open a Christian law school was announced. British Columbia lawyers railed against the governors/benchers of the Law Society who voted 21 to 6 to permit Trinity law graduates to article in B.C.

The majority of B.C. lawyers who voted at a special meeting, denounced the governors’ decision to permit Trinity students to article in B.C., alleging that Trinity’s community covenant that only permits sexual relations between married, opposite sex couples amounted to sexual discrimination and a breach of human rights.

The Law Society eventually capitulated and adopted the views of Trinity’s critics. The matter is now before the Court in B.C. and in other courts across Canada where the same position prevailed.

5. Madam Justice Lori Douglas: After several years of missteps, rancour, judicial resignations, and the interference of the Federal Court, Judge Douglas finally put an end to the Canadian Judicial Council’s inquiry into the collection of nude photographs of her placed on the internet by her husband, the late Jack King, a well-regarded family law lawyer in Winnipeg, by announcing her resignation from the bench.

The entire exercise highlighted the flaws of Canada’s system of judicial discipline and Judge Douglas’ resignation was welcome relief from the embarrassing sideshow the inquiry had become.

Here’s looking to 2015 with great anticipation for a new year full of juridical intrigue, legal entanglements, and matrimonial mishaps.

Happy New Year!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Happy Ending for Local Child Abduction Case

DSC00275_1Not all abduction cases end in the disappointment of “no return” or even death, like little Amber Lucius. Early last month I became involved in a child abduction case that spanned the globe from Portugal to Vancouver to Corner Brook Newfoundland.

The parents of a nine-year-old girl named Lauren moved from their long-time home of Vancouver to Portugal three years ago. They settled in and Lauren’s mom who was a Canadian citizen applied for and was granted Portuguese citizenship as did Lauren, who was born in Canada. Their new life began, Lauren was registered in school and by all accounts, her parents enjoyed their new home, particularly Lauren’s father who was a dual citizen and had family and business interests in Portugal.

Unfortunately, the marriage began to falter but the parties remained together in the family home. Lauren’s father became concerned that his wife would leave Portugal with Lauren. He was so concerned that he obtained a “travel ban” which is a non-judicial warning to immigration that a child cannot be removed from the country without a court order or the consent of both parents. Lauren’s mom knew that her spouse would never agree, so she planned a clandestine middle-of-the-night departure, circumventing Portuguese authorities by driving to Seville Spain and catching a plane to Newfoundland where the parties had a summer cottage and where her family resided.

Lauren’s mom knew that her midnight dash was contrary to the law, having received advice from several lawyers and other officials, but she ignored them all. Lauren’s father immediately left Portugal and arrived in Vancouver, ready to do whatever was required to bring his daughter back to Portugal for the start of school on September 11. In the meantime, Lauren’s mother had already obtained an ex parte order from a Newfoundland court giving her interim custody of Lauren. My quarrel with ex parte orders is well-know to regular readers of Lawdiva. They are a blatant breach of due process and ought not to be granted unless there is clear evidence of impending danger to the leaving parent or the child.

We rapidly prepared an application pursuant to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, an intricate process that entails the compilation of many relevant documents. Of course, all of the documents required translation as they were in Portugese. Back in Portugal a criminal action was commenced since child abduction is a criminal offence. The next step was to locate a lawyer in Newfoundland who was able, on short notice, to get into court there to argue for the return of Lauren. An experienced QC jumped on board to secure Lauren’s return.

An interesting part of this case was that Lauren’s father and mother shared a computer which gave Lauren’s father access to all his wife’s emails, many of which were extremely damaging to her case. After obtaining advice from a lawyer specializing in privacy law, the decision was made to include the emails in the Hague application. Lauren’s return was paramount and any evidence that assisted had to be utilized.

A Newfoundland judge presided over a four-day hearing last week that focused exclusively on the question of which court had jurisdiction to deal with custody of Lauren: Portugal or Newfoundland? The law is very clear that the court where the child “habitually resides” has sole jurisdiction to make custody decisions. Naturally, Lauren’s mother attempted to argue that Newfoundland was Lauren’s habitual residence, a position that was doomed to fail, given the extensive evidence of Lauren’s life in Portugal.

Thankfully, the Newfoundland court found that Portugal was the jurisdiction to determine Lauren’s custody and an order was made that her father return with her to Portugal immediately, just in time for the first day of school.

If Lauren’s mother is determined to bring Lauren to Canada, she must now convince a Portuguese judge that her position is in Lauren’s best interests. The battle is won, but the war is not over.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Alberta Child Who Was Abducted Found Dead

10950859361151CDPIn a heart wrenching story out of Alberta today, we learned that nine-year-old Amber Lucius was abducted by her mother, and later found dead in a truck parked on a country road in Millet, a farming community outside of Calgary with a population of 2,000. Her mother was with her when she was discovered. How could this have happened and what can be done to prevent the violence that rears its ugly head in high-conflict custody battles between warring parents?

Amber’s parents, Laura Coward and Duane Lucius, were married in 2004 and separated three years later in 2007. In the beginning of their post-separation parenting, the parties shared joint custody and Amber lived primarily with her mother. I should clarify that joint custody does not mean equal parenting time, it means equal decision-making, a concept that is illusory where one parent refuses to collaborate with the other.

Ms. Coward was one of those mothers who made her former husband’s life a living nightmare by refusing to facilitate his parenting time with Amber, a situation that led to ten court orders intended to address Ms. Coward’s refusal to accommodate Mr. Lucius’ parenting time. It took ten court orders before the Court finally transferred custody of Amber from her mother to Mr. Lucius in June of 2013. Ms. Coward was given specified visitation time with her daughter.

In April of 2014 Ms. Coward again breached a court order and refused to return Amber to her father’s home. The RCMP intervened at that time and it appears that Ms. Coward’s parenting time was restricted until a judge made an order last week permitting Ms. Coward to have four consecutive days with Amber over the Labour Day long weekend. But Ms. Coward had planned something far more sinister than spending four lazy summer days with her daughter.

She picked up Amber on Thursday and was to return her on Sunday, however, on Sunday night there was no sign of Amber or her mother. Regrettably, there was no Amber alert for Amber Lucius either. What police have learned since finding Amber’s body and arresting Ms. Coward for child abduction is that she had given notice on her rental premises and a new family had already moved into her former home. Where she was going has not yet been determined and neither has Amber’s cause of death. No charges have yet been brought for the girl’s death pending an autopsy next week.

The community of Millet is understandably shocked by Amber’s death, the second tragedy in Millet in the last few years. In 2010 Allyson McConnell drowned her two sons, ages 2 1/2 and 10 months in a bathtub in her home and attempted to commit suicide. She was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to six years, and spent 15 months in a psychiatric hospital until her deportation back to her home country of Australia. Shortly after returning to Australia she took her own life. Allyson McConnell was also engaged in a custody battle with her estranged husband.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Airplane Carrying Abducted Child Ordered to Return to the US

GEO CASUALLinda Liu no doubt thought she had made good on her clandestine departure from Washington DC after she successfully boarded an American Airlines jet last evening bound for Beijing with her 4-year-old son and her mother.

That is, until the Federal Bureau of Investigation was alerted and the airline was ordered to return to its home base despite completing five hours of its flight to China.

After Ms. Liu (also known as Wenjing Liu,) a Chinese citizen, and  her husband, William Ruifrok, an American citizen,  separated in 2013 they entered into a custody agreement that provided for joint custody and also stipulated that neither parent would remove their young son from the United States “without express written and notarized consent of the other party, provided in advance of the trip.”.

When the flight landed at Dulles Airport, an official  welcoming party escorted Ms. Liu off the plane and took her into police custody on a criminal complaint of unlawfully attempting to remove a child from the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights. Ms. Liu’s mother was not detained and the young boy, who has dual citizenship, was returned to his very grateful father.

Once a child is kidnapped, particularly to a jurisdiction that is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, the process to recover the abducted child is fraught with difficulty and crippling expense. China, of course, is not a signatory and so one can appreciate Mr. Ruifrok’s immense relief at the FBI’s intervention.

Summer is frequently the time when parents who wish to  take their child and run seem to do so. In previous summers I have handled up to three abduction cases, while this summer I worked on the return of a child who was abducted from her Canadian father who lives  in Portugal to  the home of the abducting mother’s  family who  reside in Eastern Canada. That case is still before the Court and hopefully justice will be served and the child will be returned to Portugal. Under the Hague Convention the protocol is for the Court where the child habitually resides to decide whether the child is permitted to move to a new permanent residence, a decision based on the best interests of the child.

The only  question that remains is how Mr. Ruifrok managed to convince the  FBI to order the return of the aircraft. Lucky man!

Abducted Child Returns Home After 18 Years

GEO#1Last month a 23-year-old man walked up to a counter in the United States Embassy in Guadalajara, Mexico with his US passport and social insurance card.

His name was Nathan Slinkard and he told the Embassy clerk that he hadn’t seen his father in 18 years and wanted to go home.

In 1995 Nathan’s mother, Trena Slinkard, lost custody of him and his siblings, Sydney, age 3 and Andrew, age 7, after an Indiana judge made a custody order in favour of their father, Steven.

Trena Slinkard, in an utterly selfish move, ran with her children, ending up in Mexico, effectively severing any bond or relationship between the children and their father, who was deemed by the court to be the most appropriate custodial parent.

Steven Slinkard did what all left-behind parents do. He searched endlessly for his  children, using every resource available, but to no avail.

Despite the pain and trauma of his situation, Mr. Slinkard made the best life he could. He worked as a paramedic in Indianapolis and later became a deputy county coroner, working in the same building as the sheriff’s office, the very office that received the news and advised Steven that his son wanted to be with him.

Nathan was flown from Mexico to the Houston, Texas office of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, and the following day was reunited with his dad in an emotional reconciliation.

Nathan, fluent in Spanish and English, had retained his American accent and told his father he wanted to go to university to study medicine.

Still protective of his mother, Nathan has thus far chosen not to discuss her or his siblings and their whereabouts with his father, probably because she is still facing felony abduction charges in the United States.

A happy ending, a rarity in abduction cases and still, in my view, the most destructive form of child abuse.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Why Do Parents Sometimes Act Like Children?

BarristerIn most major newspapers you can read a section called “Celebrating” where you will find the usual assortment of happy events: birth announcements, wedding anniversaries and high school graduation congratulations. Colour photos of happy, smiling faces abound.

But in the Vancouver Sun newspaper one morning, there was one Happy Birthday greeting that unsettled me. The contributor of the greeting wished his 8 year-old son a happy day, and reminded him that: “There’s not a day in the last five years that I have not thought about you…hopefully one day you will be in my life.. there’s so much you and I have missed…maybe next year you will be in my life.”

So, what’s the story here? From where I sit as a family law lawyer, a happy ending is probably unlikely. A number of scenarios come to mind.

Was the boy been abducted by his mother? Is this a case of parental alienation? Maybe the Courts have found this father unfit to parent? Or perhaps he is a victim of false molestation allegations? Is this young boy just a pawn in a dirty divorce?

Each of the scenarios described form a part of the work day of family law lawyers who take cases that no other lawyer wants to handle.

Reading between the lines, the parental pain is apparent and yet, the real victim is this young boy. The psychological literature tells us that kids raised with one parent missing from their lives will experience social, behavioral and psychological problems that children with two engaged parents may not.

Two questions arise: Why would a parent intentionally harm a child in this way? Why would a parent act like an angry child?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang