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Dad’s custody quest shows cracks in the system

After being thwarted by an English court, a California quest to reunite with his abducted daughter has become a crusade to reform international child custody laws.

Josef Cannon found his daughter. He’s still seeking justice.

Cannon, an actor from the L.A. area, has spent the last two years traveling between California and England in a battle to bring home his 11-year-old daughter, Shelby. In the midst of a custody dispute eight years ago, Cannon’s ex-wife took the girl and fled overseas.

Four years after Shelby’s disappearance, Cannon tracked her down, but he remains
locked in a custody fight and is out to reform an international law that’s been criticized by parents’ and children’s rights advocates alike.

“I’m just trying to bring her home,” he said. “I’ve made this my full-time job.”

Attorneys for Cannon's ex-wife, Catherine, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

According to court documents, Catherine first disappeared with Shelby while on a trip to visit her parents in Navan, Ireland, in late 1998. Cannon says his split with his wife several years earlier was amicable. They shared custody of Shelby and under that agreement Cannon consented to her trip, he said. Shortly before Catherine and her daughter were to return, Cannon said, Catherine stopped calling.

“All the phone numbers changed and I couldn’t get through,” he said.

Cannon says rather than return home, Catherine filed for sole custody of Shelby in Ireland. Cannon sought help from British authorities, who, according to court papers, ordered Catherine and Shelby back to the U.S. in July 1999 under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. The treaty calls for custody disputes regarding children snatched by a parent abroad to be settled in their country of residence.

Gone without a trace
With a new custody hearing looming in California, Catherine again disappeared with Shelby, Cannon said. Court documents indicate that in an effort to elude authorities, Catherine assumed a fake name and gave Shelby the identity of a deceased Irish child.

During his search for Shelby, Cannon enlisted the help of the British press and fellow actors, including Navan-native and “James Bond” star Pierce Brosnan. After pictures of Cannon and Brosnan and old portraits of Shelby appeared in Irish tabloids in 2003, a British reader identified Shelby as a classmate of her son in Liverpool, according to local Irish reporter Nicola Tallant.

“The press in Ireland picked up the story on a Sunday,” Cannon said. “By Monday morning Shelby had been found.”

Cannon filed another Hague petition seeking his daughter’s return. During the proceedings, a British judge wrote that Catherine said she took Shelby because she could not afford a custody fight in the U.S.

Given the circumstances of Shelby’s abduction and U.S. custody orders in his favor, Cannon assumed British courts would approve his latest petition. But court proceedings dragged on for more than a year.

According to court documents, Shelby was glad to see her father, but told social workers she didn’t want to leave England. The court questioned Catherine’s influence on Shelby but eventually ruled that the girl had developed a tight social network and should remain in the country.

“I was floored,” said Cannon. “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

A dad’s dream deferred
Cannon learned the hard way that the Hague Convention is subject to broad interpretation in the 56 countries that have signed the pact. Judges can overlook an abduction and foreign court orders if they determine a child has become emotionally “settled” in his or her new home.

“There really is an incentive to delay” Hague cases, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is tracking nearly 1,400 international child abduction cases for the State Department. “The longer the abductor has been with the child, the more likely it is a judge will cite special circumstances” for not returning the child.

The Hague treaty and a growing number of state laws meant to discourage parents from fleeing or “venue shopping” in search of a favorable custody ruling have also been criticized by advocates who believe some parents are not treated fairly by family courts.

Joy Henley, an advocate for non-custodial mothers, says the legal system is stacked against women with few financial resources. While not condoning kidnapping, Henley believes some women feel there is no other way to seek a fair hearing than by fleeing.

“Many mothers feel they lost custody because they don’t have money,” she said. “They feel prejudiced against before they even walk into court."

No backing down
Cannon says that he, too, has been victimized by the legal system.

A British judge wrote in an October ruling that “there seems to be no justification" for Shelby's mother “disappearing off the face of the earth and depriving (Cannon) of the society of his daughter; and, equally important, depriving (Shelby) of one of the two most important relationships in her life.”

Despite this, British judges have stood by their ruling.

Cannon says his quest won’t be complete until Shelby is “back home in America with a normal life and both her parents in it equally.” In the meantime, he visits his daughter in England about once a month.

“I’ve devoted my entire life to bringing my kid home,” Cannon said. “If I can shed some light on this issue, then it’s been worth it.”