Wyoming lawmakers want to penalize parents who run off with their children while leaving their spouses or ex-spouses behind, but aren’t not sure how to do it.
When it happens in violation of a custody order, parental abduction of a child already is a felony under Wyoming’s interference with custody laws, punishable by up to five years in prison.
It’s not always easy to prosecute, according to Monday testimony at the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee meeting.
A couple from Cody told the committee their granddaughter’s father ran away with the girl for weeks at a time and barely suffered for it. They asked for consideration of adding a larger variety of charges from which prosecutors may choose.
Julie and Fred Snelson said their 6-year-old grandchild’s mother lives in Billings and father in Wyoming. The mother has custody most of the year.
Though the girl’s mother — the Snelsons’ daughter — has moved to Montana, the custody case will stay in the Park County District Court until the girl turns 18, unless her father also leaves Wyoming.
When the girl was not quite 3 years old, “her father and his girlfriend took her from day care and hid her and cut off all communication,” said Julie Snelson. “Before then, she’d never lived a day without her mother.”
Julie Snelson said there were no repercussions for that except a “good scolding by the judge.”
She said there have been two instances since then. In January, said Snelson, the girl’s father took her far longer than his Christmas-break visitation terms allowed and she missed 26 days of school.
The girl believed that her mother had left her, Snelson said.
The Snelsons waited 45 days for a civil hearing to curb the father’s actions.
“No amount of calls … to any other authority could change this reality,” she said, adding that her local prosecutor would not charge the case criminally, saying it was a civil matter.
For showing contempt to the custody order, the judge had the girl’s father pay the Snelsons’ $4,000 in attorney’s fees that time, Snelson said.
“Our nightmare has not ended,” she continued, saying the father accosted the girl and her mother at the girl’s counselor center in Billings days later.
During the confrontation, the father’s girlfriend goaded the girl’s mother to fight her while the little girl — now 6 — hid under a blanket, screamed and cried, she said.
Committee members discussed multiple options, as did members of the public.
Cheyenne-based family attorney Elizabeth Lance proposed introducing a uniform child abduction act into Wyoming’s statutes. She said judges could use the law to put a hold on parents’ ability to get passports or travel to certain places during custody disputes if judges identify a risk that a parent may abscond.
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, worried that trying to anticipate what parents will do with respect to their own children could turn Wyoming authorities into the “thought police.”
“I’m certainly not interested in passing a thought police thing, even if it’s the courts that do it,” said Jennings. “I don’t want to make it harder on them.”
Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, agreed, saying it’s “really dangerous” to start limiting people’s rights with respect to their children before a custody order is in place.
Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, said she believes Jennings’ worries of “thought police” could be soothed if judges under a new law hold evidentiary hearings to determine risk of parental abduction.
Judges also could have time limits under which they can impose narrow restrictions on parents in custody proceedings, she said.
Not The Felony
Jennings said he’s hesitant to add more anti-parental-abduction laws because interference with custody is already a felony in Wyoming, and state judges can apply civil or criminal contempt of court penalties.
He said it is puzzling, however, that prosecutors aren’t often charging runaway parents with interference with custody.
Oakley, who also is a prosecutor in Fremont County, said the interference with custody law is daunting because it’s a five-year felony and there are always two sides to every story, especially in family law.
“You can bring the two people’s sides and I promise you, you will get different stories,” said Oakley. “It is emotional, it is as personal as it gets when you’re dealing with children.”
Oakley also discouraged her fellow committee members from thinking of criminal law as speeding up courts’ handling of parental disputes. A “speedy trial,” she said, can happen in as many as six months.
Committee members said they also want to hear from other prosecutors on why the charge isn’t applied often.
Lance noted that defendants in interference cases can defend themselves by saying they took the children to keep them from harm. People who take children older than 14 at the child’s request and without intending to commit any criminal acts against them also can use those factors as an affirmative defense under the law.
Some committee members noted that could make for sticky cases in court.
Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, raised the same concern as the Sheridan County Republican Party’s chairman, Bryan Miller.
That is, prosecutors and judges likely worry about violating parental rights guaranteed as fundamental and enshrined in state statute.
“If I were a judge I’d be concerned about, if I infringe on those (rights) and move into criminal (charges), is that an infringement on that parental right?” said Provenza. “Maybe we have some case law that can help point us in that direction.”
Miller shared her concern.
He said the Snelsons’ story “is a sad one,” but legislators still should be careful not to over-legislate.
“I’d caution you to tread on parental rights lightly,” said Miller.
Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, said he’d like to start with a bill draft, study the issue more and continue to work on it.
Clair McFarland can be reached at: Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com