St. Paul attorney Gerald Williams represents a woman in a jurisdictionally complicated child-custody case involving the laws of two countries.
By Barbara L. Jones | Published in Minnesota Lawyer, January 16, 2006, used by permission
Also covered in the Star Tribune and WCCO News.
St. Paul attorney Gerald O. Williams recently had the unique experience of using his family-law skills to help woman who was in the United States under a grant of political asylum reunite with her daughter whom she had not seen in more than a decade.
Blanch Ndangha, a native of Cameroon who now resides in Shoreview, had not seen her daughter since her husband returned to Cameroon, taking the girl with him, in 1995.
The couple subsequently divorced and the mother’s attempts to contact her daughter were rebuffed. When the mother learned that her daughter, now 14, was temporarily in Cottage Grove, Minn., staying with the father’s family, she sought help from Williams.
Knowing that the girl would soon be flying back to Cameroon to rejoin her father, Williams swung into action. Invoking the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), Minn. Stat. Ch. 518D, he filed for an emergency hearing.
The act allows the court to assume emergency jurisdiction where “the child is present in this state and the child has been abandoned or it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child because the child … is subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse.”
Williams was able to show to the court’s satisfaction that there was an imminent likelihood the girl would be removed from Minnesota. The court immediately issued a temporary order placing the daughter in the mother’s custody.
Although the final result on the case is not in yet, Williams called the temporary order allowing daughter and mother to reunite “a real upper.”
Williams told Minnesota Lawyer that actions brought under the UCCJEA can be dicey and don’t always succeed. But in seeking the temporary order, things fell “into place in the right way,” he observed.
Taken to Cameroon
The mother had received political asylum in Minnesota and the child was born here in 1992. Mother and daughter resided here until 1995. The father, Sylvester Formekong Egwayia, remained in Cameroon but visited Minnesota. In 1994 he took the girl to visit Africa and returned with her.
In 1995, when the girl was 2, the father took her to visit Cameroon, but did not return this time. The mother obtained a divorce in Cameroon on Jan. 10, 1995.
In Cameroon, it is customary that a divorce will not address custody because it is assumed that the child will remain with the mother, Williams said.
The father thwarted the mother’s efforts to visit the child in Cameroon. For the same political reasons that made her seek asylum, the mother could not return to Cameroon to live. In early 2005, after a decade apart from her daughter, the mother was able to connect with the girl via e-mail.
Earlier this month, the mother was informed by a friend that a girl by the same name and age as her daughter recently had been baptized in a Cottage Grove church. The mother was able to confirm that it was her daughter, who was now living in Cottage Grove with the father’s relatives. The girl was scheduled to depart to California and then back to Cameroon on Jan. 10.
The relatives attempted to block the girl’s her access to her mother, Williams said. On Jan. 4, the girl was able to call her mother and speak on the telephone for over an hour. She told her mother she wished to remain in the United States, but was afraid of her father, according to Williams.
On Jan. 6, Williams, was able to obtain a temporary custody order in Ramsey County after the administration “moved mountains” to get the case before a judge in one day. With the order, the mother was able to retrieve her daughter in Cottage Grove and prevent her from leaving the country. Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.
According to Williams, courts normally will not assume jurisdiction unless a child has been present in the state for at least six months. If the child has not been in the state that long, the judge has to find a different basis for jurisdiction, which could include an emergency situation.
A number of factors were important for the successful result in the present case, Williams said. First, Cameroon does not recognize the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and Williams felt that the court was willing to be a little more “activist” because it was dealing with a foreign court system.
Furthermore, Williams maintained that the father had abducted the child and therefore court intervention was necessary to protect the child from an unfit parent. Additionally, no Cameroon court had granted custody to the father and the child was here in Minnesota without the father, Williams observed. “You’ve got the freedom to do something creative without violating a court order,” he added.
Williams said it was also important to case that the mother and child were able to preserve their bond during their forced separation. “A 13-year-old was able to reach out to a mother she hasn’t seen in 10 years. Other times in situations like this the bond has been broken,” he observed.
Williams said obtaining the temporary order was “a huge upper.”