MONTICELLO, MINN. - Decked out in a new pink dress from Toys ‘R’ Us, Olivia MacInnes dug her spoon into a bowl of vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce while her mother held her closely on her lap.
Olivia, who turned 5 on Saturday, is at the center of a bitter international legal dispute between her two divorced parents.
Swedish courts have ruled that her mother, Mariah Talbot, abducted Olivia, taking her from Sweden to the United States without her father’s permission. On April 9, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ordered Olivia promptly returned. Olivia’s Swedish grandmother is expected to arrive in the Twin Cities this week and take the girl back to Sweden, where she was born and raised.
“I don’t know if I will ever see her again,” said her mother, tears in her eyes.
Olivia’s father, who took his daughter to the Mall of America during a three-day visit to Minnesota this month, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that Olivia’s family and friends are looking forward to her return.
“I am so thankful for all people involved in helping us get Olivia home,” wrote Mikael Lejon, who has joint custody of his daughter.
Olivia’s case illustrates what often happens in international custody fights, which have become increasingly common. In 2012, the State Department said it opened up 344 cases involving 477 children who were abducted from other countries and brought to the United States or were visiting here and not returned to their home countries.
Many of the cases are covered by the Hague Convention, a treaty in which 89 signatory countries, including the United States and Sweden, agree to return children to their home country so that custody can be determined there.
‘America will take care of us’
Mariah Talbot said she didn’t know that when she brought Olivia to live in Big Lake, Minn.
In an interview at a Perkins restaurant in Monticello, Talbot said she is the daughter of a missionary who lived in Sweden for eight years. She had two children from a previous marriage to a Swedish pilot. She met and married her second husband, Lejon, in Sweden and Olivia was born.
The marriage went sour within a year, Talbot said, and Olivia mostly lived with her, spending a few days a month with Lejon.
Talbot said she met Chad Talbot, a Minnesotan, through a Christian online dating site and the two hit it off. She was about to lose her sublet apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, and she was finding it hard to get work as a wedding photographer because it was wintertime and most marriages are in the summer. She decided to come to Minnesota where some of her relatives live, and brought Olivia with her in late January. She and Chad married in Minnesota.
“When I came here, I did not know I was doing something wrong,” she said. “I figured America will take care of us. We’ll take it up in an American court.”
She said she and her new husband, an accountant for a temporary staffing agency in Minneapolis, are expecting a child and plan to live in Minnesota.
She said that she and Chad have explained to Olivia she’ll be going back to Sweden.
“I don’t want my other father to take me,” said Olivia. “I want to be with my mommy.”
Swedish court orders arrest
Lejon offers a different account, according to court documents filed by his Minneapolis attorneys, Nancy Zalusky Berg and Liselotte Kaiser.
The lawyers said that the Swedish court granted him joint custody on Dec. 4. Late in December, the lawyers allege, Lejon learned that his ex-wife had become engaged “and was secretly planning to move to the United States and get married.” Lejon “worked nonstop for weeks alerting the American embassy in Stockholm and the Swedish authorities to a possible abduction.” Swedish police canceled Olivia’s passport.
Mariah, however, obtained an American passport and brought Olivia to Minnesota.
A Swedish court issued a warrant for Mariah’s arrest. Mariah’s mother, who is Swedish, supported Olivia’s father. In a Feb. 24 letter filed with the court, she said that Mariah is unable “to understand the feelings and emotions of others, especially her children, [which] makes me very concerned for little Olivia at this time.”
Mariah Talbot filed her own document in U.S. federal court, alleging that Lejon gets drunk, shoved her against a wall when she was pregnant and may have engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with Olivia. Talbot concedes she did not make that case in Swedish courts, after a court-appointed attorney told her that she could not raise the issue if she had no proof.
“The allegations contained in my ex-wife’s pleadings are not true nor are they founded in any grain of truth,” Lejon wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “The court greatly questioned the accuracy of her allegations at the time of our hearing, given that we had just finished a contested custody proceeding in Sweden and she had agreed to the two of us sharing joint custody of our daughter.”
Debbie Segal, an Atlanta attorney and an expert on international child-abduction law, said a parent can sometimes prevent having a child returned to their home country if they can prove that child is at grave risk. Other factors that might be considered include whether the child is settled in her new country for a year or more, is deemed mature enough to say where he or she wants to live, and is typically in her teens.
In St. Paul, Judge Frank determined that Olivia was a Swedish citizen and a “habitual resident of Sweden” and was wrongfully removed under the terms of the Hague Convention.
Settle custody before moving
Of the 100 staff people in the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. State Department, 75 work on abduction issues, according to Beth Payne, the director.
Though unwilling to discuss Olivia’s case, Payne said the Hague Convention “is a very effective tool” that can deter parents from wrongfully taking a child from their home country.
“This has a damaging effect on children, so I would encourage parents to resolve their custody dispute in the country in which the child has habitual residence,” Payne said.
Mariah Talbot acknowledges that she has left two of her older children, a girl, 11, and a boy who is 9, from her first marriage in Sweden, where they are being looked after by her first husband and his parents.
“Mariah’s mother, Olivia’s grandmother, and Olivia’s two brothers and her sister and many more with me want Olivia back,” Lejon says.
Mariah Talbot said she doesn’t know when she’ll see Olivia again. Because there is a warrant for her arrest in Sweden, she says she worries about going there even to visit. She describes herself as “devastated.”
Chad Talbot said he finds the circumstances confusing. “It’s very hard to see my wife,” he says. “She’s tearing up and crying every day.”