Melissa Drennan - Center for Social Justice

CSJ Student Wins Hague Convention International Custody Case

In September 2017, the Center for Social Justice celebrated a victory: the Family Law Clinic successfully obtained the return of a nine-year-old girl to her mother in Colombia after she had been wrongfully detained by her father in the U.S. for over nine months.   

Evening student, Melissa Drennan ’18, with the guidance of Professor Jessica Miles, worked on the case for four months to return the girl to her home. During these months, Drennan frequently called her client, the girl’s mother, in Colombia to gather all the details of her story and amass supporting documents. She also contacted the mother’s attorneys in Colombia as well as the U.S. Department of State to prepare for the hearing in family court.

The mother’s story is truly heart-wrenching. Within months of having their daughter, the father left for the United States and the mother raised the child for the next eight years. Since her birth, the father visited their daughter only once a year and always in Colombia. Last December, the father requested that his daughter visit him in the United States for a couple of weeks in January. In the hopes of encouraging the father-daughter relationship, the mother agreed to the visit and arranged for her daughter’s first trip to the U.S. Towards what was planned to be the end of their daughter’s visit, the father told the mother that he would not return the child to Colombia as they had agreed but instead would keep the child permanently in the United States. Horrified, the mother quickly filed criminal charges for kidnapping against the father in Colombia and filed a Hague Convention application with the U.S. Department of State. After months of searching for an attorney to represent her in the United States, she contacted the Center for Social Justice, and the Family Law Clinic quickly accepted her case.

Drennan structured a compelling Complaint, Order to Show Cause, and supporting Legal Brief pursuant to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction as well as applicable federal and New Jersey state law, and filed the mother’s case with the New Jersey family court.  The assigned judge was so appalled by the situation that he heard the case the day the complaint was filed and ordered the father to appear in court. Drennan argued the case, requesting the immediate return of the client’s daughter to her mother’s custody in Colombia. Within hours, the Court ordered immediately removal of the child from the father’s home under police escort to avoid any attempt by the father to abscond with her. The Court also asked the Family Law Clinic to arrange for the child’s prompt return to Colombia, and Drennan negotiated an agreement that the Court approved as a Consent Order, whereby the father agreed to pay the airfare for returning his daughter to Colombia. Just nine days after the Center for Social Justice filed the brief in this case, the child was reunited with her mother.  She was greeted at the airport by family and friends.

Drennan had to fit in her work on the case with being a summer associate and, during the Fall, while being a full-time paralegal and taking evening classes “Once I was told about the case, I knew that I had to take it on. Of course I knew it would be difficult with my schedule—but I believe you have to make the time for what matters. I knew there was a mother out there who was wondering if she was ever going to see her daughter again, and so I was always motivated to do my best work to bring them back together,” said Drennan. “After seeing the video of my client reuniting with her daughter at the airport in Colombia, I knew that every single hour of work was worth it. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work in the Family Law Clinic and achieve justice for my client.”