In what has become a daily ritual for the Reynolds family of south Minneapolis, two children huddled with their father around a computer monitor placed atop their dining-room table and waited excitedly for their mother to appear on the flickering screen.
Moments later, Sylwia M. Pawlak-Reynolds, 43, who lives in Poland, appeared via Skype, looking tired but cheerful as she listened to her children — Audrianna, 10, and William, 7 — recount their day’s adventures in intimate detail.
As the tender conversation played out, what did not come up is the chilling death and protracted court case that threaten to tear apart a family now living on separate continents.
In the eyes of the court, Pawlak-Reynolds is a suspect on the run, accused of killing a child at her day care and refusing to return from Poland to face justice.
The case has spawned a bitter battle in Hennepin County court, drawn criticism from national child welfare advocates and is now attracting attention from authorities of Poland, who worry that her rights to a fair trial are being violated.
“We’re living in a nightmare that never ends,” said William E. Reynolds Jr., 53, the father.
The family’s legal odyssey began on the morning of July 12, 2017, when an 11-month-old infant was discovered lifeless, with vomit around his mouth, at the day care operated by Pawlak-Reynolds in their hilltop home near Lake Nokomis. The child died four days later, and an autopsy indicated that the boy suffered from severe brain bleeding and hemorrhages in both eyes that were “too numerous to count.” A doctor later concluded that the child’s injuries were consistent with severe shaking.
In February, Pawlak-Reynolds, who had repeatedly attempted to resuscitate the boy that morning after calling 911, was formally charged with two felony counts of second-degree murder. In a separate action, Hennepin County authorities also moved to terminate her parental rights.
In recent weeks, attorneys representing Pawlak-Reynolds and her husband say they’ve obtained medical testimony showing that the infant fell and struck his head while unsupervised at home, just days before he came to Pawlak-Reynolds’ day care. They also have obtained opinions from two outside medical authorities suggesting that the boy’s injuries occurred before his time at the day care.
Yet in an unusual turn of events, the family may not be allowed to present this evidence at a court hearing.
The complications stem from the fact that Pawlak-Reynolds left the United States for her native Poland in November 2017, before she was criminally charged, to care for her ailing father, and she now refuses to return. Pawlak-Reynolds has since given birth to the couple’s third child, Artur, now 7 months old. Citing “exceptional circumstances,” Pawlak-Reynolds said she cannot return to the U.S. because it would mean leaving behind her infant son, whom she says has complicated health problems and lacks proper documents to enter the United States.
Pawlak-Reynolds and her husband, who met in 2003 while working at a Minneapolis restaurant, said they have not seen each other in person since last May, when the father traveled to Poland. Audrianna and William have had their passports seized under court order and cannot leave the country to see their mother.
“I would have to be a coldhearted mother to abandon a newborn like a piece of luggage,” Pawlak-Reynolds said in a Skype interview last week from Poland. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t abandon him.”
In the eyes of Hennepin County prosecutors and the court, however, Pawlak-Reynolds is an international fugitive. They say she fled the country to avoid murder charges and has failed to justify staying abroad.
Citing her failure to appear in person, prosecutors have taken the rare step of seeking to terminate her parental rights through an expedited court process known as a default judgment, rather than through a trial in which both sides present evidence. Prosecutors have also asked that the family’s attorneys not be allowed to call or cross-examine witnesses in the parental rights matter.
“[Pawlak-Reynolds] is currently on fugitive status in Poland, evading a warrant for her murder charges,” Assistant County Attorney Britta Nicholson wrote in a memorandum filed with the court. “Respondent mother should not be permitted to benefit from such conduct.”
Yet some legal scholars and child-welfare advocates argue that default judgment is an extreme and inappropriate measure. Attorneys for the family have argued that the underlying criminal charges have not been proved or fully investigated, so a termination of Pawlak-Reynolds’ parental rights by default judgment would be premature and violate her due process rights.
“This case is insane. Essentially, they are presuming that a parent is unfit just because [she doesn’t] have the ability to show up for a court hearing,” said Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
Joanna Woolman, a professor and director of the child protection program at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the court should focus on the best interests of the children, who would “clearly be traumatized” if their mother’s parental rights were terminated through an expedited hearing. “It’s easy to … lose sight of the fact that these children have a loving and nurturing relationship with their mother,” she said.
In interviews and court pleadings, Pawlak-Reynolds has insisted that she is willing to appear in court — just not in person. Her attorneys have requested permission for her to appear remotely from Poland via interactive video technology, which is permitted under state juvenile court rules upon agreement of the parties or in “exceptional circumstances.” In addition, both Poland and the U.S. are parties to a 1970 international treaty that permits the sharing of evidence between the two countries.
“I am not a fugitive,” Pawlak-Reynolds said emphatically in a recent Skype interview. “I am ready and willing to answer any questions and to testify.”
However, in a ruling last fall, Hennepin County District Judge Juan Hoyos denied her request, saying interactive video technology “would not allow the Court to adequately weigh her credibility, which is a crucial determination.” Hoyos said Pawlak-Reynolds left the country voluntarily and could return, so her request did not meet the “exceptional circumstances” threshold.
Now the case has drawn the attention of Polish authorities. In a recent interview, Piotr Janicki, consul general of the Republic of Poland, expressed concern that the mother’s due process rights would be violated if her parental rights were terminated without a trial.
“To do the job right, you need to use the proper tools, and they are not using them. International convention allows for them to obtain evidence, so there is no need for this default,” Janicki said. He added, “Any reasonable person would not expect a mother to leave an infant child behind … and come to the United States.”
Reynolds said his wife faces a “Sophie’s choice”: either leave her infant son behind in Poland and face incarceration in the U.S. or stay in Europe and possibly lose her two children here. “These children are terrified, because if [Pawlak-Reynolds] comes back, she will be incarcerated,” Lucas Dawson, a Minneapolis attorney representing the mother, said at a hearing in March.
A judge’s ruling on the issue of default judgment is expected in April.
For now, Reynolds has been working extra jobs as a bartender and Uber and Lyft driver to pay the family’s legal bills. Despite his efforts to shield the children, they sometimes show the strain of the ordeal. One recent afternoon, William asked if he could sell his collection of Pokemon cards to fund a plane ticket to bring his mother back to Minnesota. At bedtime, Audrianna will sometimes ask for an extra hug and another promise that her mother will one day return, the father said.
“We just want our day in court and the opportunity to bring Sylwia home,” said Reynolds.
As they chatted on Skype, William suddenly thrust his hand toward the screen to show his mother a cut he suffered while playing outside. “Can you please kiss it, mom, please?”
Leaning toward the camera, Pawlak-Reynolds blew a dozen kisses at the screen as her son giggled.
As with most evenings, the long-distance conversation ended with outpourings of “Kocham cie˛! (I love you)” in Polish.