California father Cesar Quintana hopes to get his son back from Russia
As Russian troops gathered near the Ukrainian border in December, Quintana, who had traveled to Mariupol to visit his son, tried to bring the child back to California, where Alexander was born. But the attempt failed as police intercepted Quintana and her son at a kyiv airport and forced him to bring the toddler back to Aslanova, who had accused Quintana of abducting Alexander.
Then the war broke out. As Aslanova and Alexander rushed from basement to basement as the bombs hit Mariupol, Quintana was back in Southern California, largely helpless, glued to the news.
Quintana hatched a plan to go into the fray to find the boy, believing her son to be in a refugee camp in eastern Ukraine. But now the situation has become even more complicated.
Aslanova, 35, told the Post this week that she fled to Russia with Alexander and his parents. She declined to say specifically where she is staying in Russia for fear that Quintana might find them. In an interview, Aslanova expressed optimism that the custody situation will be resolved one day.
“I still hope we can make peace with him,” Aslanova said, referring to Quintana, “for the baby.”
International abduction cases and their legal proceedings are often complex and lengthy cases. They can take months to resolve, and parents sometimes resort to illegal tactics to get their children back. But what happens when a custody battle is complicated by a literal war?
“It’s a very, very unique circumstance,” said Melissa Kucinski, a family law attorney and adjunct professor at George Washington University who specializes in international abduction cases.
Normally, when a child is abducted by a parent and taken to another country, the left-behind parent can initiate proceedings under a 1980 international treaty called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, explained Kucinski. It allows two countries to organize the return of an abducted child with an agreed set of procedures. Some 80 countriesincluding Ukraine, are working with the United States under the treaty.
Quintana had brought proceedings from The Hague to Ukraine after Aslanova took Alexander there. But on March 9, about two weeks after the invasion, the Ukrainian government notified Officials in The Hague say Ukraine may not be able to meet its obligations under the treaty because of the war. This meant that the procedure for kidnapping Alexander had been suspended.
So, in early March, Quintana planned to enter Ukraine via Poland as an aid worker, find Alexander and possibly “make a deal” with Aslanova to bring the child back to California, he told The Post. But the plan failed after Aslanova took Alexander to Russia.
Although Russia participates in the Hague Abduction Treaty, Washington and Moscow have have not agreed to work together under it – meaning the chances of Quintana convincing a Russian court that he has sole custody of Alexander are “slim”, said Stephen Cullen, a lawyer who specializes in international abduction cases.
Although Quintana has a California court order granting him custody, “Russia will not pay any attention to this order,” Cullen said.
“It was a long way before the war,” he added. “And it’s an even longer plan now.”
The saga began in California. Prosecutors say Aslanova took Alexander on Dec. 16, 2020, during a scheduled visit to Quintana’s home in Aliso Viejo, according to a Sept. 8 letter from the Orange County, Calif., district attorney’s office. to Ukrainian officials.
At that time, a judge temporarily granted Quintana sole custody of Alexander due to Aslanova’s alleged struggles with alcohol abuse, the letter states. Quintana had allowed Aslanova to visit the then 18-month-old Alexander while Quintana was recovering from gallbladder surgery.
But after taking a nap, Quintana woke up to find Aslanova and Alexander gone. According to the district attorney’s letter, Aslanova had traveled to Los Angeles International Airport with Alexander and boarded the first of two flights to Ukraine, having purchased the tickets a day earlier.
Aslanova told the Post that Quintana gave her permission to take Alexander. “He kept saying that if I wanted to live in Ukraine with the baby, I could do that,” she said, adding that permission was given “verbally and by text message,” although she refused to show these text messages to The Post. . Quintana denies giving Aslanova permission to take Alexander to Ukraine.
Two days after the alleged kidnapping, a judge awarded Quintana full custody of Alexander, according to court records. In May, Quintana filed a request in The Hague for Alexander’s return. He also traveled to Ukraine, staying first in kyiv, then in a hotel in Mariupol, where Aslanova and her parents lived.
As custody proceedings unfolded in Ukrainian court, Quintana and Aslanova managed to arrange visits with Alexander, and the arrangement lasted about four months. Aslanova described the period as relatively happy, with the three together, making outings to playgrounds and the zoo.
“I thought he was going to stay for a while so we could work through the issues,” Aslanova said. “I thought he was sincere about that decision.”
Quintana said his intentions are still to bring Alexander back to California. His memory of the time was not so rosy, he said, noting that he had always felt at the mercy of Aslanova. If he was too possessive of Alexandre, Quintana said, “I wouldn’t see my son.”
In November, Aslanova was hospitalized and Quintana saw his opportunity. Aslanova’s mother brought Alexander to Quintana’s hotel room to be alone with him for several hours. And, having already called his lawyer at the hotel, “we just got in the car and left Mariupol,” Quintana said.
Quintana insists he did nothing illegal because there was no Ukrainian court order granting Aslanova custody of Alexander at the time, he told the Post. .
But legal experts and the US State Department advise against such actions.
In a Feb. 15 letter to Rep. Luis J. Correa (D-California), April Conway of the State Department’s Bureau of Children’s Issues wrote that she had learned of Quintana’s attempts to deport Alexander from Ukraine. Conway said a California court order “may not be valid and enforceable” in another country and that such an attempt could endanger the child, hinder future legal efforts and result in an arrest or incarceration.
Cullen, the family’s attorney, told the Post that such a move is a “failure.”
“If you engage in self-help, then you’re not just violating family law, you’re most likely violating the criminal law of this country,” he said. “So it’s a very dangerous proposition.”
On the way to kyiv, Quintana and her son were intercepted twice by police officers who had received information from Aslanova’s mother that Quintana and his lawyer had abducted the child. They were released both times, Quintana said, but the second time officers confiscated Quintana and Alexander’s passports.
This meant that Quintana and her son were stuck in Kyiv until Quintana could get new passports. A month later they did. But just as Quintana and Alexander were about to fly away, they were again intercepted by the police. Officers provided a document accusing Quintana of taking Aslanova’s child without permission and demanded an investigation into whether Alexander could be legally taken out of the country, according to the Associated Presswho translated the document.
“I just thought, you know, this isn’t the hill to die in,” said Quintana, who returned the child to Aslanova’s mother.
Quintana eventually returned home to Southern California. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.
In the following weeks, Mariupol would descend into crisis. With its roads closed, food and other supplies have dwindled. Continuous shelling by Russian forces has destroyed civilian areas. Thousands of people died there, the AP reportedand mass graves were dug for the children.
Aslanova told the Post that she and Alexander took refuge in friends’ basements as Russian troops shelled the town. During times of relative calm, she and Alexander stayed above ground at a friend’s house. There was a fireplace, a clean water pipe and enough food, she said.
Two weeks ago, she says, she was faced with a decision: to flee to another part of Ukraine – or Russia. “I chose Russia because I was safe,” she said, explaining that she feared putting herself and her son in danger if they fled to another region of Ukraine.
Around this time, Quintana, unsure of Alexander’s whereabouts, told several news outlets that he intended to enter Ukraine and find his son. But in recent days, the State Department informed Quintana that Aslanova and Alexander had emigrated to Russia, Quintana told the Post. Aslanova only said she was staying with a friend, declining to specify her location.
Cullen, the kidnapping lawyer, said Quintana might have had a better chance of retrieving Alexander from war-torn Ukraine, as Hague bonds appear to be hanging there and Quintana could argue that he was picking up Alexander out of fear for his safety. .
But now that Alexander is in Russia, the way forward is uncertain.
“Obviously I’m devastated,” Quintana said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to give up.”