Adele, a South African national, contacted Child Find’s Parent Help program from overseas stating she had previously been living in North Carolina with her husband, a U.S. citizen. When they lived in North Carolina, Adele believed that he had applied for a marriage-based green card for her. By the time she realized this was not the case, she was already outside the country with no secure right to return to the U.S. – or to her 1-year-old daughter, Emma.
The Start of Family Conflict
Adele met her husband, Lucas, in South Africa where they resided during the first months of their marriage along with Adele’s older daughter, Meera. Shortly after Emma’s birth, they relocated to North Carolina where Lucas had family and friends, but Adele had none. Not long after the move, the relationship soured. Lucas wanted her to leave, threatening to harm himself. His family intervened, pressuring Adele to agree to a temporary separation. Adele agreed to a cooling off period during which she would go visit her father in Germany—leaving Emma behind with Lucas and her mother-in-law. Shortly before taking off for the airport, family members presented Adele with documents they insisted she sign. She complied without having the time to read them, feeling there was no other choice given she would miss her flight. She also sensed the situation was escalating to the point where she and Meera might be in danger.
Sorting Through the Confusion and Manipulation
Despite her strong connection to the U.S. through Emma, Adele was having great difficulty getting free help from U.S.-based aid agencies, because she was no longer in the country. Once she called Parent Help, her case worker was able to fill in this gap for her. Our research revealed her situation was perhaps worse than even she thought: the documents she had signed included a “post-nuptial agreement” that gave Lucas full custody of Emma, and he’d already sped through a divorce proceeding, for which she received no notice. Adele didn’t know how she could challenge any of this in court if she couldn’t physically get here. Her case worker intervened at one point by reaching out to her former mother-in-law, to try to help keep Adele in regular phone contact with her daughter.
Adele’s case worker told her about the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal law that includes protections for victims of domestic violence who are also vulnerable in their immigration status. It gives victims an ability to claim legal status to enter or remain in the U.S. without relying on their abusive spouse to do so for them. We guided Adele through the process of gathering and preparing the relevant supporting documents to make this petition, as well as in choosing a reputable legal service provider to prepare the petition.
Beyond the Sea
The big break in Adele’s case came when she was granted a visitor visa to return to the US. Determined, she booked a flight back to North Carolina for herself and Meera, making no advance arrangements and with very limited funds, hoping to be able to access shelter and legal services upon arrival. This led to a frightening 48-hour period with Adele and Meera living out of a rental car. Once notified, Child Find scrambled to find services and was able to quickly identify a wraparound service that was able to provide her with shelter, and ultimately, an attorney to help her challenge the existing divorce and custody arrangements.
Reconnecting a Divided Family
Adele has been able to get the divorce and prior custody orders set aside, and temporarily obtain 50-50 time-sharing with Emma while her case winds its way through court. She tells us the time she is getting with her daughter has been going very well, and Meera is delighted to see her little sister again. On the basis of her pending VAWA petition Adele has been able to adjust her immigration status and obtain a work authorization in the U.S.