Custody Goes to Supreme Court
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Aug 31, 2012, 16:06
Each year, the United State Supreme Court hears less than one percent of the cases submitted to it. This year, one of those cases will be that of Fort Lee soldier Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Chafin, who has been fighting to reverse a lower court decision that sent his five-year-old daughter to live with her mother in Scotland.
Chafin, who is an instructor in Explosive Ordnance Disposal at Fort Lee, knows when he heard the Supreme Court would hear his case down to the minute. It was 10:55 a.m., Aug. 13.
“I was actually trying to make sure it wasn’t a dream,” he said.
Chafin’s attorney, Michael Manely, founding partner and C.E.O. of the Manely Firm, P.C. based in Atlanta, said the path to the highest court in the nation began in November 2009, when his client returned from deployment in Afghanistan. That’s when Chafin’s now estranged wife, Scottish national Lynne Chafin, began making plans to come to the United States with the couple’s daughter, Eris, Manely said.
In February 2010, the United States Army moved Ms. Chafin and all her possessions to Alabama, where the couple lived together near Hunstville.
Manely said Ms. Chafin applied for a green card in 2010. During her time in the United States, Manley alleged, Ms. Chafin had several brushes with the law due to worsening alcoholism. The incidents culminated in an arrest for domestic violence on Christmas Eve 2010, he said.
Chafin awoke that night to find his wife standing over him with a knife.
“She just looked at me and said, ‘you’re not making it out of this room alive,’” Chafin recalled.
He said he managed to escape to his daughter’s room, where he quietly called the police while Eris slept. He said he fears for his daughter’s safety with her mother.
“I barricaded myself in my daughter’s room that night after this whole thing, ...” he said. “She stuck the knife into the door, trying to get at me, and who knows what else could have happened if she was actually able to get in the room before the police showed up.”
Ms. Chafin was deported in February 2011. After arriving back in Scotland, she contended that her daughter Eris was being unlawfully held in the United States.
The United States District Court in Hunstville, Ala., ordered that Eris be sent to live with her mother in Scotland, calling it her “habitual residence” under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alabama, dismissed Sgt. Chafin’s appeal in February, because Eris was in already in Scotland, which, according to the 11th Circuit Court, placed her outside of its jurisdiction.
Manely said that the fact that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which they will do on Dec. 5, shows the significance of the issues at play in the case.
“The reason our Supreme Court takes on cases is because they have some huge national significance,” he said.
Manely said that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is following a precedent that says once children leave the boundaries of the United States, the court no longer has jurisdiction over them. Manely said that rule is at odds with other Circuit Courts in other parts of the county and that the Supreme Court wants to resolve the issue.
There is also a second matter of significance for the Supreme Court.
“The big issue that applies to everybody is, if the 11th Circuit’s rule should hold, then it means that all a parent’s got to do is hop, skip and jump down to Mexico with a child and it’s over,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will have significance for parents aside from the Chafins.
“They will use Eris specifically to say, ‘okay 11th Circuit, it is not moot, ...” he said. “’You still have jurisdiction to look at this case, even though Eris has been taken back to Scotland. It will directly impact Eris, but it will also directly impact every other child who is at risk.”
Chafin said he visited his daughter in July, during which time she repeatedly asked to come back with him, even trying to stow away in his bags.
“We were playing in our hotel room,” he remembered. “She would lay down in my suitcase and look at me and say, ‘Daddy, if I zip this up, I can go home with you.’”
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case in December. Ms. Chafin will be represented by Washington, D.C.,- based attorney Stephen Cullen. Cullen was not immediately available for comment on Friday morning.
The Thomson Reuters article on the case quotes him as saying that the Hague Convention is often raised in cross-border custody battles involving military service personnel. “’You’ve got this child who’s like a ping pong ball, and no one knows who’s supposed to decide the custody question.’” Reuters quotes him as saying.