By T. Anthony BellSeptember 5, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 5, 2012) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a Fort Lee Soldier's dispute with his Scottish-born wife over custody of their 5-year-old child.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Chafin, assigned to the Logistics Noncommissioned Officer Academy and the petitioner in the case, has been embroiled in a two-year-long effort to gain custody of his daughter. She was taken out of the country by his wife, Lynne, from whom he is seeking a divorce. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to be heard Dec. 5.
Chafin said he hopes the case eventually results in the reversal of a lower court ruling that allowed Mrs. Chafin to take possession of the couple's only child. The 14-year Soldier also vowed that an unfavorable ruling by the nation's highest court won't deter him from further seeking justice.
"I'm never going to give up on my little girl; never, ever," he said, noting that he will "go to Scotland," if necessary, to continue the fight.
A native of Overland Park, Kan., Chafin is an explosive ordnance disposal specialist. He has served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He met Lynne in 2005 while stationed in Germany. They married in 2006, and their daughter was born in 2007. Chafin said he has loved this child since the very minute he gazed into her eyes.
"I can't put it into words," he said. "People say a daddy's love for his child is something you can't explain. I can't ... She was just beautiful, and I just fell deeply in love with that little thing."
The case, however, has implications far beyond Chafin's love for his daughter and his fight to gain custody. A definitive high-court decision in the case (Chafin v. Chafin) may have a far-reaching impact on military Families due to the large number of military members married to foreign nationals and children born to those unions.
Furthermore, Chafin v. Chafin may not decide who is awarded custody of the Chafin child but whether or not Sgt. 1st Class Chafin is allowed to appeal a lower court decision. From that standpoint, it is less about the Chafins and more about the court's need to clarify existing international custody law pertaining to parents of different nationalities in the event of divorce or marital problems, said Joe Thompson Cravens, a Richmond family law attorney who spent several years in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps.
"This case is about the federal courts -- the United States Supreme Court -- attempting to interpret an international statute so that all of the federal circuits can operate in their interpretation of this international law in the same way," he said.
The law in question is the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. That law establishes procedures for the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, essentially a treaty among member nations that ensures the "prompt return of children to the state of their habitual residence when they have been wrongfully removed …."
Chafin has made the assertion that this wife "isn't the best mother" and stated that he took a number of desperate measures over the past 24 months to protect the child from his wife's destructive drinking problem.
According to police department records in Madison, Ala., where the Chafins lived after returning from Germany in 2009, Mrs. Chafin was arrested for public drunkenness on Dec. 14, 2010, and domestic violence 10 days later. Chafin said his wife was also arrested for disorderly conduct in Huntsville, Ala., on Sept. 23 of the same year. In court testimony, Chafin stated his wife has had a chronic drinking habit, and it has been the crux of their disputes. Intervention was sought on numerous occasions to tackle the problem, he said.
Stephen J. Cullen, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents Mrs. Chafin, said his client was a victim of Chafin's alleged plot of trickery that included conniving "to have her detained by CIS (Customs and Immigration Service) and deported ..." after her tourist visa expired and the Soldier's failure to notify her that she had received in the mail a notice allowing her to stay. Mrs. Chafin was deported in February 2011.
"That behavior is exactly what the Hague Treaty was designed to correct," said Cullen.
In October 2011, following divorce proceedings and a summons for Sgt. 1st Class Chafin to appear in court on ICARA charges, a U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Ala., rendered a decision stating the child's place of habitual residence was Scotland. The ruling came despite Chafin's contention that his daughter and wife spent most of the child's life with him while he was stationed in Germany and at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
In November 2011, Chafin appealed the decision through Atlanta's 11th Court of Appeals, but the bench declared the case moot because the child had been moved back to Scotland and it had no authority to act. Mrs. Chafin had flown the child back to the United Kingdom hours after the lower court decision, said Sgt. 1st Class Chafin.
Michael E. Manely, Sgt. 1st Class Chafin's lawyer, said the Atlanta court's position on the matter supports an easily exploitable loophole.
"It encourages parents to kidnap their children," he said, "to get them across United States boundaries, and the courts are powerless to do anything about it."
In light of the appeals court decision, Cravens said there has been a measure of inconsistency among the circuit courts over whether an appeal is valid.
"The 4th Circuit and the 5th Circuit have a totally different view (regarding ICARA appeals)," said Thompson, making comparisons. "Both say that the Constitution protects you, and that you have a right of appeal in this country. For a circuit to take the position -- that an individual who properly makes an appeal -- can't exercise that appeal simply because the child has been moved to a foreign jurisdiction sort of obfuscates the entire constitutional process we have in America."
The 11th, in a 2001 ICARA case, Bekier v. Bekier, ruled the same as it did in the Chafin case. However, the 4th Circuit, in 2003's Fawcett v. McRoberts, ruled otherwise, opining that an appeal is not moot "... if it remains possible to undo the effects of compliance or if the order will have a continuing impact on future action."
Whatever the outcome of the case, it is likely to set a precedent, said Cravens, noting the court was probably compelled to hear the case due to increased immigration and the frequency with which citizens travel abroad.
"In my view, those are the main reasons the Supreme Court wants its voice heard," he said. "If it wants nothing else, it wants to try to have uniformity in law and uniformity of result in federal actions."
Chafin did not speculate on how the Supreme Court might rule in the case, whether it will reverse the lower court ruling or whether a favorable ruling will eventually lead him to gain custody of his daughter. He is, however, optimistic.
My chances are much better than before," he said.
Although he feels encouraged about gaining custody of his daughter, Chafin said an unfavorable decision could force him into bankruptcy because the high court has allowed a petition to include payment of his wife's legal fees, which may run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A bankruptcy could cause him to lose his security clearance and essentially end his military career.
Additionally, Chafin has already spent "six figures" on his own defense, consuming all of his savings and investments. He said he has received additional support from friends and Family members.
"Thank God I have a very loving Family," he said. "They've been doing fundraisers like nobody's business. They've been raising money as much and as fast as they can."
Chafin is doing his part as well. He walked to Washington, D.C., on Father Day this year to personally raise funds and later visited legislators' offices in an attempt to gain support for a bill that would clearly define the rights of military members in situations similar to his.
All of his efforts, said Chafin, have been spent to gain custody of his daughter. He said she is too young to understand now, but he wants her to know that she is worth everything he's done in pursuit of her happiness and well-being.
"I want to look in my little girl's eyes and tell her I did everything in my power; everything I could," he said.
Chafin is scheduled to transfer to Fort Stewart, Ga., within the coming weeks.