Since she moved to Utah and left her home country of Brazil last April to fight for the return of her five-year-old son, Cíntia Pereira has experienced the limits of strength and distress. Her son’s American father smuggled him out of Brazil to Provo nearly a year ago and still hasn’t been returned.

“It’s the hardest thing that has ever happened to me,” she says.

On December 16th, Cintia was in São Paulo waiting for her son J.J. to come home after spending a few days with his dad, Gary Heaton, but J.J. and Heaton never showed up. Panicked, Cintia called Heaton several times but didn’t get through. She checked Facebook to send him a message but noticed he had deleted his account. She then ran over to his Sao Paulo apartment only to be told that Heaton hadn’t lived there for weeks.

“That’s when I entered my despair,” she says

The Brazilian government registers an international parental abduction every 3 days, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Justice. Of the 287 cases of child abduction concerning Brazil in the last two years, 44 percent are cases like Cintia’s where a Brazilian is fighting to bring their child back home. Many times the “left-behind parents” face linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as financial, legal and geographic ones when fighting for the return of their child. Cintia, like many others, is facing all of them.

Heaton and Cintia met in church in Sao Paulo. She was a local with a nutrition practice and he was on vacation. After a short relationship in Brazil, they moved to Utah where they got married. But the economic crisis weighed on them and eventually lead them back to Brazil in 2009. That’s where they had J.J. and their relationship started to crumble.

Heaton went back to U.S. on his own and stopped replying to Cintia’s emails. She remembers thinking “my son will just be one of those kids who doesn’t have a dad.” But in 2013 Heaton returned to Sao Paulo asking for J.J.

They were soon entangled in a messy divorce and custody battle in Sao Paulo that spurred accusations of abuse. Heaton accused Cintia of physically and sexually abusing J.J. which lead to an investigation that separated Cintia and J.J. for the first time. Ultimately the judge ruled against the accusations and granted Cintia custody and Heaton visitation rights.

J.J. spent nights at Heaton’s Sao Paulo apartment regularly. And though Cintia and Heaton’s relationship was frosty, she didn’t suspect that when J.J went to Heaton’s apartment that would be the last time she would see him in Brazil.

Days before he was supposed to meet Cintia, Heaton had fled with J.J. on a bus to Paraguay, where he could fly to the U.S. without prompting questions from officials. If he had flown directly from Brazil, officials would have noticed he didn’t have full custody.

Five months later, Cintia tracked him down after she called Heaton’s parents. She felt they were too calm about J.J.’s disappearance and directed her search efforts to Utah where she finally found him. Soon after, she sold her car, left her eldest son with family and moved to Provo to retrieve J.J.

Cintia arrived by herself on a tourist visa and couldn’t speak a word of English. After stints at comfortable hotel rooms she moved on to cheap and lonely, roadside lodging. The kind with long views of Utah’s rural landscape and truck stops. She thought about J.J. Heaton and the abduction.

“Maybe I was a little naive,” she says, sometimes wonders trying to untangle what happened. “But I never imagined he would do this.”

As members of the Hague Convention treaty, both Brazil and the U.S., are encouraged to promptly return abducted children to their country of habitual residence and respect original custody rulings. But court cases can take a long time and treaties aren’t always easy to enforce.

In the U.S., international abduction cases are tried in federal or state courts by judges who are usually dealing with tricky international law for the first time. “It is usually essential for the lawyers to help the court to an unusual extent,”says Jeremy Morley, a New York-based international family lawyer, in his article published by the American Bar Association.

Yet time is of the essence. “In practice, the longer a child is in a new place the more likely it is that a court will be reluctant to send the child away,” explains Morley.

Cintia’s case has been in the Utah judicial system for nine months and shows no signs of ending soon. Most recently, the court mandated months of therapy for all family members, prolonging any final decisions until January at the earliest.

“My grandfather died and I wasn’t there,” Cintia says. “My son turned 13 and I couldn’t be there.”

Cintia has drawn the support of Utah’s Brazilian community who have rallied to supply cold-weather clothing and homes to stay. “Every month I am in a different place,” she explains.

Cintia can’t work in Utah because she is still on a tourist visa. And while she won’t leave her child behind, she can’t leave the country legally anyway. The judge has confiscated both parent’s passports to prevent either of them from running away with J.J.

J.J. and his half-brother in Brazil before the abduction. Facebook/Cintía Pereira

While she stays in Utah fighting for J.J. she is separated from her oldest son from a previous marriage. Despite daily Skype conversations and messages, Cintia will have to make up for lost time with the son she left behind in Brazil, the way she is now doing with J.J.

After being separated from J.J. for five months she is starting to reconnect. At first she was granted supervised visits at a clinic but now she is entitled to evening visits three times a week. When she picks up J.J. after school, he jumps on her, nestles his head on her shoulder and wraps his legs around her. “He acts like he is a baby again,” she explains.

They don’t talk about what happened often, because she wants him to have a normal life and feel safe.

“To be honest I can’t define him now” she says of J.J. “He used to be a calm boy, but now he seems to be tense and afraid of things.”

The psychological impact of child abductions can vary greatly from child to child depending on circumstances such as the relationship with the parent abducting or the child’s new environment says Geoffrey Grief, author of “When Parents Kidnap”,

Regression is a common side-effect and can include bedwetting, anxiety, fears of strangers and generalized unwillingness to attach to people, “Regression can go on for years or might just last time of the abduction,” explains Grief.

Lack of certainty is one of the few constants in Cintia’s new life.

Like every Monday afternoon, Cintia will drive to J.J’s school, with Provo’s snow-capped mountains in the distance, and wait for him to run into her arms. They will play together with his legos and Skype with his older brother in Brazil, but other than everyday plans, Cintia struggles to look ahead.

Not only is her life with her son still uncertain, but she has yet to recover from the vortex that swallowed her life and stability.

“I honestly can’t get myself to make plans for the future,” Cintia says. “But the love people have shown me keeps me going.”

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