A mother's fight

Stamford mother in race against time to win back custody of son

By STEVE KOBAK / thehour.com

STAMFORD -- North Stamford resident Maria Gonzalez will likely spend her second straight Mother's Day without seeing or hearing from her 5-year-old son Santiago.

The Department of Children and Families aggressively sought and obtained a temporary order of custody committing Santiago to the agency's care in mid-October 2012 despite the fact that the child was never abused, neglected or placed in dangerous conditions while in Gonzalez's care. The agency's actions resulted in a prolonged custody battle in which the agency reversed its stance and advocated for a mother and child reunion, but the child has never been returned to Gonzalez's custody.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has signed a bill setting new standards for guardians ad litem and counsels for minor children, who represent children in divorce and custody cases.

"It's very hard, but I have a lot of hope that this is going to be the last Mother's Day that we are going to be separated," Gonzalez said.

Facing federal sentencing and deportation from the United States due to the method in which she took Santiago to the country after saving him from life on the streets of Guatemala City, Gonzalez is battling tremendous odds to be reunited with Santiago.

"I am a mother, and I am fighting for my child," she said. "That's not a question. I am not going to stop."

GiGi

Gonzalez obtained a work visa and came to the United States from Argentina in 1993 with the goal of taking college courses on the English language. She first lived in Manhattan and then relocated to Stamford, finding work as a babysitter and taking college courses at Norwalk Community College and UConn Stamford.

Known to friends and family as "GiGi," Gonzalez enjoyed Stamford and decided to obtain her green card to stay in the community.

She began dating Henry Lopez, a renowned local chef who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 and the couple married in 2003. Lopez and Gonzalez started a popular local catering company -- Positano Gourmet -- and by 2005, they were able to purchase their second home in North Stamford.

Lopez and Gonzalez continued to thrive in?Stamford, and Gonzalez eventually became a popular nanny among upwardly mobile persons in the community. They traveled the world and "had a beautiful life together,"?Gonzalez said.

The couple had been trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child. They had not considered adoption until learning about the plight of Melissa, a pregnant homeless teenager on the streets of Guatemala City.

Gonzalez's Guatemalan housemaid learned of Melissa's struggles during a phone conversation with her mother, who lives in Guatemala City. The housemaid relayed the story to Gonzalez.

At the time, Lopez was visiting family in Guatemala, and Gonzalez decided to meet up with him and float the idea of adopting Melissa's child.

Melissa

Melissa, whose last name is being withheld due to her status as a sexual assault victim, was born in Guatemala City sometime in November 1994. She was left to fend for herself at an early age. Her mother abandoned her in December 1998, and her father died on March 3, 1999. She was raped in August 2008 and became pregnant. She spent months begging for someone to care for her child.

By the time Melissa met Lopez and Gonzalez, she was about eight months pregnant. The couple ensured that Melissa received proper medical care and paid for the child's birth via Caesarian section on April 18, 2009. The doctor listed Lopez and Gonzalez as the parents of the child -- later given the name Santiago -- to prevent the child from being committed to an orphanage.

In an e-mail to The Hour, which was verified by her Guatemalan attorney Lisbeth Rodriguez and translated by a state-certified Spanish interpreter, Melissa wrote: "I handed Santiago to Mrs. Maria voluntarily and nobody stole him from me nor did I sell him or did any of those ugly things that are being said. I handed him over so he could have a better life and because I am not capable of raising a child."

Gonzalez and Lopez could have obtained a visa for Santiago if Gonzalez were able to provide a pre-natal history. Melissa's lack of documentation put the couple in a peculiar situation.

"She didn't exist in their country," Gonzalez said.

In their haste to get Santiago into the United States, the couple purchased a passport for Santiago off the black market in Guatemala.

Timeline

1993 — Gonzalez comes to America

"His future was in our hands," said Gonzalez. "We tried to save him from what is happening to him now."

Santiago

After touching down in the United States, Gonzalez hired an attorney in Guatemala and Judith Sporn, a Westport-based immigration attorney, and tried to "fix what we had done."

As Sporn tried to remedy the situation behind the scenes, Lopez and Gonzalez attempted to provide the best life possible for Santiago. He had "every toy imaginable" in a large playroom at his home,?Gonzalez's civil attorney Alexander Schwartz said. Before his second birthday, Santiago could recite the English and Spanish alphabets, frontwards and backwards, and spell a few words. He had memberships to the Bronx Zoo, the Maritime Aquarium and Stepping Stones Museum for Children. Gonzalez provided him with a diet of raw organic foods and regularly scheduled play dates for him.

"I liked to spoil him,"?said Gonzalez. "If he wanted something, he got it."

When asked to describe Gonzalez as a mother, those around her often use the words "doting" and "amazing."?Christen Brevvia, whose daughter was Santiago's first friend, said all of Gonzalez's years of serving as a nanny proved fruitful when Santiago came into her life.

"She is wonderful,"?said Brevvia. "I think she was better at mothering than I was because of her experience as a nanny."

Ann Maria Lowman, the director of Our Gang -- the Darien pre-school that Santiago was attending, said Gonzalez was "very well aware of the child's needs,"?and Santiago was always well-dressed, well-groomed and healthy. She described Santiago as "respectful of authority and other children"?and said by the age of 3, he had already mastered the skill of sharing.

While Santiago thrived in school, the marriage of Lopez and Gonzalez dissolved. Lopez left the house, and Gonzalez kept custody of Santiago. Gonzalez allowed a family friend, Jose Riveros, to stay in the house.

When she rejected Riveros' sexual advances and ordered him to leave, he threatened to alert DCF?and the Department of Homeland Security to Santiago's immigration status. Stamford Police were notified of the incident, and Officer Erin Trew responded to Gonzalez's home. Trew noted that Gonzalez tried to keep Santiago insulated from the drama unfolding between Riveros and Gonzalez.

"Jose advised me that he was going to ruin Maria's life and get back at her for trying to throw him out on the street by going to the housing department and DCF to report that she was abusing her son,"?Trew later wrote in a letter of observation.

An Anonymous Tip

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received an anonymous tip in early September 2012 that Gonzalez and Lopez had engaged in human trafficking by procuring Santiago and taking him to the United States. DCF became involved in the case, because the anonymous tipster also alleged that Santiago was abused.

Martha Saavedra, a DCF?social worker, later visited Gonzalez's house and interviewed her in September 2012. Gonzalez says after Saavedra interviewed her and observed Santiago, she was told "not to worry" and that DCF has to keep the case open for 45 days.

Saavedra returned to the home on Oct. 10, 2012 with DHS?Special Agent Jolinda Pasciucco in tow. When questioned about Santiago's social security number, Gonzalez told the authorities about Santiago's background, including the manner in which he'd been taken to the United States.

"I didn't lie,"?she said. "I didn't try to hide anything."

DCF?placed a 96-hour hold on Santiago and for the first time in his young life,?he was separated from his mother.

"I begged her. I said, 'Do not take Santi. We have never been separated,"?said Gonzalez. "Santi has never experienced any type of trauma in his life."

Separation

During the 96-hour hold period, the department scrambled to find a judge to grant DCF?temporary custody of Santiago. Judge A. William Mottolese rejected the ex-parte motion for temporary custody on Oct. 11, 2012, finding that the child was not subjected to abuse or neglect and his surroundings did not place him in immediate danger. Judge Gary White's findings echoed Mottolese's when he rejected the same motion on Oct. 12, 2012.

When the hold period ended, Santiago was returned to his mother, and life, for him, resumed as normal. He had a play date on Oct. 13, 2012 and went to Stepping Stones Museum for Children with his mother on Oct. 14, 2013. He returned to school after the weekend, but Oct. 15, 2012 would be the last day that he returned to his North Stamford home.

While Santiago was attending Our Gang on Oct. 16, 2012, the DCF?finally found a judge willing to remove Santiago from the mother he'd known since birth. The DCF legal team submitted a document packet to Judge Donna Nelson Heller with a sworn statements from DCF?Investigation Social Worker Ingrid Aarons and Saavedra. Both DCF employees base their custody argument on the fact that Gonzalez is not the biological mother of Santiago. Aarons states that Gonzalez is at risk of absconding from the country with Santiago.

"What they didn't say was that we had an agreement that would have kept Santiago with his mother, and we had provided them with assurances that (Gonzalez and Santiago) wouldn't go anywhere,"?said Schwartz. "Santiago doesn't have a passport and couldn't go anywhere if he tried. Even though (Gonzalez) knew full well they were onto her, she stayed where she was."

Despite uncovering no evidence of physical or emotional abuse or neglect, Aarons concluded:?"Leaving the child with Ms. Gonzalez would keep the child in a zone of immediate physical danger."

"There was no reason to take this kid from his home," said Schwartz. "So, they made one up. He was strong, happy, healthy. We were working with DCF?to give them whatever they wanted. This entire process could have taken place with him living where he was living. They decided it was better for him to be broken."

Heller signed the motion for temporary custody, and DCF?officials picked Santiago up from school.

"What I believe is that they do this a lot," said Gonzalez. "It's just that nobody talks. There is no justice for children in this country."

Closed Doors

As Santiago shuffled from foster home to foster home, his future was decided in a series of closed-door proceedings in juvenile court at Stamford Superior Court without any input from his mother. Juvenile proceedings in Connecticut courts are not open to the public. The case files are sealed. Documents pertaining to juvenile cases are protected from most Freedom of Information requests.

Attorney General Lorri Kirk, counsel for DCF, and court-appointed lawyers, who were tasked with representing Santiago, instead hashed out the details of Santiago's life. DCF maintained that Gonzalez had no legal standing to be involved in the case, because she was not Santiago's biological mother and had no legal right that she could demonstrate. Schwartz was repeatedly rebuffed from his attempts to intervene in the case, effectively ensuring that Gonzalez would have no voice in the proceedings.

Santiago's first court-appointed attorney Georgette Perimenis, who, according to court documents, was in agreement with the DCF's order of temporary custody, had to recuse herself from the case after deciding that she wanted to adopt Santiago. Perimenis said she could not comment on the matter.

His second court-appointed attorney Lisa Kouzoujian withdrew from the case after a potential conflict of interest came to the attention of DCF and Melissa's Stamford-based lawyer Susan Rothenberg. Gonzalez had met with Kouzoujian in October 2012 when DCF first took custody of her child. Gonzalez said she detailed her story to Kouzoujian and requested legal assistance from her.

When reached by a reporter and asked about the case, Kouzoujian said, "I don't know anything about that."

The reversal

In the summer of 2013, the DCF?reversed its stance and actively advocated for the reunification of Santiago and Gonzalez. Kirk conducted interviews with potential witnesses that could speak to Gonzalez's character. Schwartz said DCF "has done a complete 180," and he believes the agency "would admit it made a mistake."

"Once they admitted to it, the system had taken over, and it has its own inertia,"?Schwartz said.

By the time Schwartz filed his second motion to intervene on June 11, 2013, he had used an investigator in Guatemala to track down Melissa, Santiago's birth mother, and obtain a sworn, written statement as well as a DNA sample to confirm that she was Santiago's mother. He had fulfilled and exceeded every request put forth by the court and DCF officials.

Still, Heller denied Schwartz's motion to intervene, stating that although the rulings of the court would undoubtedly affect Gonzalez's life, her presence may lead to further delay in the case. Schwartz said his involvement would have jump-started the case.

Without an advocate in the courtroom, Gonzalez's visitation rights were steadily eroded. The last time she saw Santiago was in August 2013. Her phone contact with Santiago ceased soon thereafter.

Our Gang remained the one semblance of Santiago's former life to which he was attached. After Santiago was taken away from his mother, Lowman noticed a change in the boy. He was undergoing a "lot of stress" and as the school day dwindled down, Santiago would stand in the hallway crying, needing reassurance that he would return the next school day, Lowman said.

"He wanted his mom," she said. "He was making sure that he was coming back here. It was his life. It was the only thing he had in common with his mom. He lost his mom. He lost his toys. He lost his room. The only place he had was his school."

DCF officials took Santiago out of Our Gang in December 2013. Schwartz never received an explanation as to why the agency decided to take Santiago out of the school.

"What I have seen happen to this young boy in juvenile court is a shame. Truly, a shame," said Schwartz. "They took a happy young boy and turned him into someone who is broken and who is probably going to need therapy for the rest of his life."

DCF?officials would not comment directly about the case. In response to inquiries about the case, DCF?spokesman Gary Kleeblatt released a statement regarding the agency's increasing involvement with "families who are affected by U.S. immigration and international laws" and its commitment to "improving how we serve families affected by immigration law and international law." The full text of the statement is featured in a sidebar.

DCF Statement

“The Department increasingly is involved with families who are affected by U.S. immigration and international laws. It makes our work with these families particularly complicated because the a…

"In some cases however, we are unable to achieve the outcomes that we otherwise would like because the legal framework exceeds our capacity to intervene," the DCF statement reads in part. "However, we always feel that we can learn from our work and improve it going forward."

Indictment

Gonzalez and Lopez were indicted on April 16, 2013 for offenses related to their method of bringing Santiago to the United States. In court documents, federal agents related that they had tracked down Melissa, and the girl told them that she wanted her child to remain with Gonzalez and Lopez.

As the federal case progressed and the defense and the prosecution worked toward a resolution, the juvenile case in Stamford Superior Court stalled. From February to April 2014, the case remained dormant.

"I knew what everybody else knew, which was that delay would hurt my client," said Schwartz.

On April 22, both sides were finally able to schedule a hearing before Judge A. William Mottolese. By that time, Gonzalez had accepted responsibility in her federal case and was scheduled to be sentenced on May 2. Deportation to Argentina would likely follow her sentencing.

Mottolese called the matter a "tragic case," and said Santiago had to suffer "clear, clear damage" because of it. Despite finding that the grounds for DCF commitment no longer existed, he denied the revocation of the commitment, against the wishes of virtually every party involved in the case.

"And it's not just a question of making (Santiago) happy," Mottolese said in his ruling, according to a court certified transcript of the decision. "It's not just a question of doing what he requests that we do, of catering to his whims and desires. After all, he's only, what, 5-years-old now, and he's certainly not capable of making any kind of rational or mature judgment."

Mottolese stated that Santiago was thriving in the West Hartford environment in which DCF had placed him and removing him "would be so harmfully traumatic to him that he would suffer far greater from that trauma than he would suffer from any predictable, perceivable harm that he will suffer later in life."

"I have a vision in my mind of the kid, child being removed bodily, kicking and screaming and being taken out to visit his mother, because he's learned he's going back to his mother," Mottolese said.

In imagining Santiago's life with his mother in Argentina, Mottolese confessed his lack of knowledge of the country, which he repeatedly referred to as "down there," and its culture. He worried about the ability of specialists in Argentina to repair the psychological damage that had been inflicted on Santiago when he was removed from his mother's home.

"There may be psychological, psychologists, therapists," he said. "I don't know what their level of competence is. I don't know whether they're equipped, trained to deal with this -- this particular issue that this child faces, which rarely occurs in the experience of any psychologist. I don't know what kind of schools there are in Argentina. I don't know what the community consists of down there, whether it's appropriate or not."

Mottolese noted that he originally believed taking Santiago away from Gonzalez was a "grave injustice," but he "kept an open mind" when reviewing the facts.

"And now that I've given my decision, I have to tell you, when I first looked at this file, I was infuriated," he said. "I really was. I said, 'This child has to go back with his mother instantly.'"

The ruling caused outrage among many of the attorneys involved. Speaking to The Hour through a translator, Melissa's Guatemalan attorney Lisbeth Rodriguez said she wanted to "publicly denounce" DCF, calling the agency "the people that kidnapped Santiago." She cannot understand why the wishes of her client, Santiago's birth mother, were not honored.

"I am also aware that courts in the United States have not respected her wishes and her requests," she said. "On the contrary, they have violated her rights and the rights of the child. I am appalled, because the United States is well-known as a country that advocates human rights."

The fallout

Despite Mottolese's ruling, Gonzalez still has avenues available to regain custody of Santiago, but she does not have much time.

Two days after Mottolese's ruling, Gonzalez's criminal attorney Glenn Formica, who declined to be interviewed for the article, filed a motion for continuance in the federal case. In his motion for continuance, Formica wrote that an appeal of the juvenile court ruling "is expected."

"If Ms. Gonzalez is not in the United States, her absence may further complicate or impair the state court proceedings," Formica wrote.

The continuance was granted, but a sentencing schedule has not yet been set. Once the scheduling has been set, attorneys for DCF will likely motion to reopen the juvenile court case.

Schwartz has filed two lawsuits against DCF stemming from the Gonzalez case. Schwartz said ideally, he would like a ruling that allots enough time for a gradual reunification process for his client and her son.

"She needs her (federal) sentencing to be put off until months and months from now,"?he said.

Gonzalez has already communicated with Argentinian authorities, and her son has been recognized as a citizen of Argentina.

"Everything is set up in Argentina," said Gonzalez. "Santi's school, everything. I just cannot leave without my child."

If all else fails, Gonzalez has written the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., and she hopes the organization learns about her case before she gets deported. She has also written to Gov. Dannel Malloy and local assemblymen.

Gonzalez said it is important for Santiago to know that his mother fought hard to keep him, but his fate was out of her hands.

"Santi, mommy adores you every day, and I am waiting for you," she said. "And never forget in your little heart a mommy never gives up. Mommy won't ever give up on you."

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