Woman races against clock to rescue her sons stuck in Brazil

It’s been 18 months since Viviane Ferreira Leite last saw her two young sons, Christyan and Gabriel.

Eighteen months since she’s been able to hold them, to revel in their sweet kisses.

Vivane Ferreira Leite, 29, of Ocean, a Brazilian native. Her kids were abducted by the father and taken to Brazil. Christyan is 9 and Gabriel is 7.

Her boys are trapped in Brazil behind a wall of red tape. Leite, 30, of Ocean Township, is running out of time — and legal options — to bring them home.

It’s a complicated story, one that involves an impenetrable mix of an international custody dispute, domestic violence, U.S. immigration laws and the courts.

But for Leite, the solution is simple.

She wants her boys back in their Ocean Township home.

“I have searched all possible avenues to try to have them returned to me,” said Leite, who works seven days a week as a house cleaner and makeup artist, “and sadly my youngest is not a U.S. citizen. That has complicated our situation more.”

A rocky relationship

The story began in 2004 when Leite left Brazil. She illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexican border to join her uncle and find a better life. Two years later, she met Antonio Carlos Dias Jr., another Brazilian native without legal status.

They fell in love, but the relationship was tumultuous.

Leite gave birth to Christyan in May 2008 in New Jersey, making him a U.S. citizen. Six months later, Dias was ordered to leave the country. He convinced Leite to fly back with the baby, too.

They spent the next six years with Dias’ family in Brazil. Gabriel was born in that country in 2010, making him a Brazilian citizen. Yet the couple’s relationship troubles continued.

Viviane Ferreira Leite, 29, of Ocean, a Brazilian native. Her kids were abducted by the father and taken to Brazil. Christyan is 9 and Gabriel is 7.

Leite followed Dias back to the U.S. in 2014. She said Dias wanted to use their American son to re-enter the country after two failed attempts. Leite insisted the family of four travel together. They settled in an apartment in Eatontown.

That’s when their affairs took a turn for the worse.

The abduction

On Feb. 12, 2016, Leite told Dias she wanted to leave with the kids. As she later told police, Dias grabbed her wrist, put his hands on her neck and punched her leg several times, leaving a bruise.

Dias was arrested and charged with simple assault. He was barred from returning to the apartment, according to the police report.

A judge granted Leite a temporary restraining order the next day. But days later Dias asked to spend the weekend with the kids in Long Branch. She relented.

“I had a bad feeling that something was wrong before I dropped off the kids,” she recalled, “and I told Christyan to call me if anything goes wrong.”

That was a Saturday night. By Monday morning, Dias and the boys were in Brazil.

“When I spoke with them, (Christyan) asked me, ‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone? Why didn’t you come get us?'” Leite said in a Portuguese interview through a translator.

Dias has since been caught and faces child custody interference charges. He is being represented by a public defender. Efforts to reach the attorney were unsuccessful.

Dias remains in Monmouth County Jail in Freehold. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email that once criminal proceedings are done, the agency will deport him to Brazil.

Fighting for custody

Viviane Ferreira Leite, 29, of Ocean, a Brazilian native. Her kids were abducted by the father and taken to Brazil. Christyan is 9 and Gabriel is 7.

Child abduction cases are frightening enough for a parent, but custody lawyers say international abductions can quickly become a family’s worst nightmare. One parent can have full custody in the U.S. and end up fighting for those same rights in the country where the child was taken.

Parents can seek help through the Hague Abduction Convention, an international treaty designed to protect children from international abductions and wrongful retentions, including those committed by a parent. Such cases are difficult if a country isn’t a signatory to the convention or, as in Brazil’s case, if the courts don’t typically follow the treaty.

“Brazil is a signatory, but Brazil is a place that’s not playing well with others,” said Trish Apy, a custody lawyer known for representing Eatontown dad David Goldman in a famous Brazilian custody case from 2004 until 2009.

Goldman fought for five years to win custody of his son, taken to Brazil by his wife, after she remarried and later died. The stepfather fought to keep Goldman’s son, Sean, in Brazil. The U.S. Congress eventually interceded and Brazil sent Sean back to the U.S. in 2009.

In Leite’s case, the U.S. court granted her full custody, but she had to fight a separate custody battle in Brazil. Shortly after the boys’ abduction, the paternal grandmother filed for full custody in the Brazilian court, claiming Leite had abandoned the sons.

Leite found out about the custody petition by chance and hired an attorney before the court’s deadline to challenge the request. She spent a year fighting the grandmother’s request, sharing details of the abduction investigation, before the judge ruled in her favor.

The judge, however, ordered Leite to pick up the children in Brazil or designate someone to bring them to the U.S.

The immigration laws are not working in Leite’s favor. She is in the U.S. illegally, though she has a visa case pending. Her youngest son, Gabriel, who was born in Brazil, lacks legal status in the U.S.

Vivane Ferreira Leite, 29, of Ocean, a Brazilian native. Her kids were abducted by the father and taken to Brazil. Christyan is 9 and Gabriel is 7.

Yet protections under the Hauge convention state children should be returned to the country from which they lived before the abduction.

“If I were going to put my finger on one thing it’s that the treaty law is applied regardless of citizenship and regardless of nationality,” Apy said. “That by definition means you’re going to bump up against federal law in the U.S. or substantive laws in other countries, with regards to immigration.”

Leite is seeking a U visa, which gives legal statuses to immigrants who are victims of crimes and cooperate with law enforcement. Andres Mejer, Leite’s attorney, says she may well win the visa, but the petition might not be approved until 2018.

A list of federal crimes that could qualify a victim for a U visa. Other, similar crimes, also count.

The U visa delays have increased with its burgeoning backlog over the past decade. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration caps at 10,000 U visas a year, but in 2016 alone it received more than 62,000 petitions. New Jersey had 1,084.

Immigration attorneys and advocates believe the U visa cap is a flaw in the immigration system and want Congress to raise the limit. Some members of Congress have pushed back, arguing the process isn’t strict enough.

Mejer, Leite’s lawyer, says she is the quintessential U visa applicant. “This is a woman who was traumatized, who was abused, who when finally she stood up for herself, he hurt her the only way he could, by taking away the kids,” he said.

Leite’s only hope now is a last-minute request for humanitarian parole from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is being processed amid the Brazilian court’s deadline for a custody transfer. If too much time passes for the boys to be transferred into Leite’s custody, the Brazilian court may reconsider its decision.

“Yes, it’s complicated,” Leite said in Portuguese, “but I very much want them reunited with me. As soon as possible would be best.”

Written by Steph Solis and published on August 19, 2017 at Asbury Park Press.

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