Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Expect the unexpected: lessons on child custody across countries

Nobody gets married thinking that things might not work out in the end.

Certainly, few people decide to have children with their partner with the idea that they’ll be doing anything other than raising them together. 

The sad reality is, as many of us already know, that marriages and other domestic partnerships don’t always work out. This fact is hard and sad enough for any couple. When the partners are from two different countries and don’t have children, they can each usually decide to go their separate ways, even if this involves moving back to one’s home country. It’s sad, but at least it offers the prospect of a fresh start.

If the couple has children and one of the parents wants to move to a different country with them, however, then things can get extremely complicated, adding an element of panic and horror to what would have otherwise just been good-old-fashioned pain.

In my own case, this was fortunately not a problem that I faced: I knew I didn’t want to be married anymore, but I also knew that I wanted to stay where I was in Xalapa indefinitely. I have a nice community of friends here and live well. This is my home, and it’s my child’s home.

And while my ex-husband and I had our share of differences both before and after (especially after), he was and is an excellent father who I had no intention of separating from our daughter.

Even so, things were tense and very tricky. As the sociological Thomas theorem goes, “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Either from the natural mistrust that can come after a separation or from the suggestions of friends I do not know, but he was convinced that I would try to flee the country with our daughter in tow and refuse to return. I was not planning on doing this, but understood his fear: it’s certainly been done by plenty of other people.

Nothing I said could convince him that this was not my plan, and as a consequence of his fear, he asked me for primary custody of our daughter with the down-the-middle visitation schedule that we’d already agreed on. I did consider it, but in the end decided it was definitely a bad idea.

Three and 1/2 years and a lot of drama and hand-wringing passed before we were finally able to set things in stone legally.

Not being able to put a period at the end of that sentence felt like torture, but honestly, it was nothing compared with what people around me have gone through. A few cautionary tales:

  1. One friend in the US married a Mexican woman, came with her and their children to Mexico for vacation, then went back earlier to work. He then received an email saying she wanted a divorce and they’d be staying in Mexico permanently. When he quit his job and moved to Mexico to be closer to them (and his incredibly high child support payments decreased significantly) she accused him of abuse and worked hard to ensure that he would only be able to see his children for court-supervised visitation.
  2. A Canadian woman I know had two children with her Mexican partner and traveled to Canada for a month when her father was dying. When she returned, she found she’d been accused of having abandoned them. The father had taken them away, and convinced a judge (likely by monetary means) to not allow her to see them. 
  3. A local friend, Mexican, recently received a message from the father of her children that he would not be taking them back to her unless she agreed to pay a certain percentage of their private school tuition right before blocking her (thankfully, he was bluffing and returned them to her at the regular time).

These examples – there are many more, unfortunately – aren’t to scare you out of having relationships or children with people from other countries. But if the parents are from two different countries, then there are some things you should definitely keep in mind.

  1. Think about the worst-case scenario, and talk about the worst-case scenario with your partner. If there are incidences of abuse, then that’s obviously a no-brainer (just make sure you have actual evidence). But what about simply wanting to end the relationship? Unfortunately, I’ve seen many instances of one or both ex-partners trying to use their children, either through parental alienation or restricting visitation (often both). Like all areas in life, communication is key, and planning is paramount. If you can, put a “worst-case scenario” plan in writing and sign it. It could save you.
  2. Know the law. While it used to be that one parent always had to have primary custody, now most states allow for shared custody (which is what I have with my daughter’s father). This might not be the right arrangement for every family, but it’s important to know that it’s an option. And when it comes to children in a divorce in Mexico, they are the ones with the rights: to be able to see both of their parents, to be fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, entertained…a judge will not sign off on a divorce without ensuring that the children’s’ rights are protected. Another important feature of the law: you cannot move away with your child without the other parent’s permission (even if you have primary custody), and you most certainly cannot flee the country with them without the other’s permission: that’s international kidnapping.
  3. Know the limits of the law. In Mexico, we know that skirting the law is relatively easy and that manipulating outcomes, particularly through bribes, is also common. Unfortunately, when this happens, the wheels of justice can turn very slowly, and sometimes not at all. When adults are extremely upset, they’re capable of taking hurtful actions you would never have believed them capable of, blind to the fact that they’re hurting their own children just as much. One acquaintance, for example, had an ex-husband who had hand-picked a psychologist to manipulate their children into saying that she was abusive (though he had thrown her out of the house in the middle of the night and locked the door). Though he is very wealthy, he has full custody of their children, and she is required to pay half of her meager earnings in child support to him. Money gives people a lot of freedom to manipulate the justice system, including in family court.

Again, my purpose is not to scare or discourage you. But from the other side of a tricky situation – my own and others’ – it’s always better to be prepared. Mexicans are famous for their passion; just remember that it can swing to the opposite side.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mexico News Daily, its owner or its employees.

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