EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Robert Rivera has been looking for his daughter for the past six months after she was not returned following a visit to her mother, with whom he shares custody.
Melanny Rivera, 5, has been entered into a database for the National Center for Missing and Exploited children after failure to be returned back to her father on Aug. 1, 2020.
“We were supposed to meet at the Pebble Hills station and I just walked inside and I made the report,” said Rivera, explaining what happened on the day his daughter Melanny went missing.
Rivera and his now-ex-wife had been separated for three years. During that time, they had a temporary custody agreement stating Melanny would spend alternating weeks with her mother and then be returned to Rivera.
“She would take her for months at a time and deny me visitations and this went on for three years,” Rivera said, adding that even then he started noticing the same behavior when it came to visitations.
The day Melanny went missing in August, he was given an emergency court hearing on Aug. 7. That same day, the judge finalized his divorce.
“I had no problems with [joint custody] except for the fact, which I had presented to the court, that [my ex-wife] had already taken [Melanny] out of the country so many times that I was afraid that she would do it again,” Rivera said.
Court documents show that Rivera had requested his daughter not to be taken outside of El Paso, especially to Mexico. But he believes his ex-wife has taken his daughter to live with her in Mexico, as she is a Mexican citizen.
Since her disappearance, Rivera was able to contact his daughter’s grandparents and uncle. He said they live in Mexico and have been posting recent pictures of his daughter, but he says he still cannot legally retrieve her from Mexico himself.
After his emergency hearing on Aug. 7, he was advised to present his case to the El Paso District Attorney’s Office. His case was deemed as interference with child custody, which is not a criminal charge.
Even though his daughter was entered into a database as a missing child, Rivera’s case was not ruled as International Parental Child Abduction.
“Mexico is one of the principal destinations for international parental child abductions, regardless of the nationality of those parents,” said 383rd Family Court Judge Lyda Ness-Garcia.
According to the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act, anyone who removes or attempts to remove a child from the United States by wanting to obstruct their parental rights can be imprisoned for up to three years.
However, Rivera’s hands are tied when it comes to retrieving his daughter. He said he was advised by the District Attorney’s office that his case can be changed into abduction only if they had the mother in custody.
Rivera says if the mother is in Mexico, getting her in custody and retrieving his daughter by the U.S. authorities is impossible, as they have no jurisdiction in another country.
“I don’t know who to contact, I’m always hitting dead ends,” said Rivera, explaining the frustration he is encountering on a daily basis.
As a part of his effort to find his daughter, he went to the Mexican Consulate. That’s where he found out that his ex-wife allegedly took out a Mexican birth certificate for his daughter so that she could become a citizen.
The El Paso Police Department said these cases are reported as custody interference, but abduction is investigated by the U.S. Department of State and Federal Investigation Bureau, so Rivera contacted both of these agencies with the help of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. My daughter is a missing child and there are pictures of her with her uncle and her grandpa. Why can’t we ask the grandpa, ask the uncle where she is?” Rivera asked.
The way to solve these cases is through an international treaty called the Hague Convention. Both Mexico and the United States are a part of the treaty, which is meant to return children who have been removed outside of their habitual residence — in this case, the United States.
Through the treaty, U.S. and Mexican Central Authorities work together to retrieve the victims of International Parental Child Abduction and provide a trial for custody of the child.
The Central Authority for the Hague Convention in the U.S. is the Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues. This office coordinates with the Congress, law enforcement, social services agencies attorneys and other relevant organizations.
Patricia Martinez, a family court judge in Juarez, Mexico, said that parents who believe their child has been taken to Mexico can directly contact the court and report the location they believe their child is at. The court then cooperates with local law enforcement who search for the child.
According to a 2019 State Department report, 96 inquiries were received from parents who believe their child was abducted to Mexico, however, none of them submitted the Convention application.
“People don’t bring them to court because they are extraordinarily expensive. To get a lawyer here, to get a lawyer in Mexico, to get people involved can be a long and very distressing process,” Ness-Garcia said.
Another challenge is the inconsistency in applying international treaty laws. She said many smaller districts lack experience in these cases.
“Even the authorities don’t know what to do,” Martinez said. She has been working on a program to educate law enforcement in Mexico on how to process child abductions.
But she said the efforts must come from the U.S. part of the border as well.
“We are here in the Borderland. Why don’t we take advantage of that? We have to work in this together and send information faster,” Martinez said.
Rivera is still calling persistently to look for updates on his daughter. He said he even suggested her location in Mexico but has not yet heard any updates.
He hopes he will see her soon, but until then, he will not give up.