The day a San Tan Valley father thought might never come finally arrived when he was reunited with his 5-year-old daughter in Brazil on Wednesday, after not seeing her for 3 1/2 years, and worked out a custody agreement with her mother.
Emily Machado’s mother took her to her native country in the midst of a custody battle in 2008 when she was 2 1/2. She will turn 6 on Aug. 24.
Michael Sanchez, 25, arrived in Brazil on Monday to participate in a mediation process with his estranged girlfriend and Emily’s mother, Nigia Machado. Attorneys and a representative from the U.S. State Department and Brazilian Central Authority were present.
On Tuesday, after 15 hours of mediation and discussions, Sanchez and Machado reached an agreement involving the custody of Emily, and Sanchez said he finally got to see his daughter.
“I was nervous not knowing what she would think and not knowing if she knew who I was. But, as I got to see her, I soon realized that she still had memories of me.,” Sanchez said Thursday in emails sent to the Tribune from Brazil. “Emily was shy at first, but soon opened up. After she opened up, she showed me her room, her toys, and gave me a tour around the house.”
Then they got their first father-daughter outing: going out for pizza after a walk and watching dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Emily will show me her culture and the things they do,” Sanchez added.
In an email Sanchez sent Wednesday, he said, “I am excited to finally be reunited with my daughter. It’s been a long time coming. I thing that this will open the doors to a better relationship with Emily and her mother, Nigia. International abduction is a tragic that strikes thousands of families each year, but with during the last two days of mediation, it has opened both our eyes (Nigia and I) on the importance of raising a child together. I didn’t know what Emily looked like, and I didn’t know if she would remember me.”
According to the terms of their custody agreement:
• Emily will remain in Brazil until she turns 12 years old. Then, she will be allowed to come to the United States twice a year for a maximum 30-day visitation.
• Sanchez will be allowed to visit Emily twice a year in Brazil for up to 14 days each time and stay at the mother’s house.
• The website www.bringemilyhome.org will remain open for educational use on international parental abduction.
• Sanchez can communicate with Emily any time by phone, email, Skype or other means.
Sanchez said he was grateful so many organizations came together for the first-ever mediation of its kind for an international custody case in Brazil, including the Brazilian Central Authority, U.S State Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Committee for Missing children and Child Watch of North America.
Long road to reunion, petition for “Emily’s Law”
Sanchez’s road to reuniting with his daughter has been a long one and has been well chronicled on the Internet, mostly through social media and Brazilian newspapers. There are four Facebook pages providing details of Sanchez’s plight.
Emily’s whereabouts were first confirmed by Interpol in September 2010, when the State Department notified Sanchez by letter that authorities had located his estranged girlfriend and Emily in Brazil and conducted a welfare check on the child.
Sanchez did not get to see Emily the first time he flew to Brazil in October because the girl’s mother, Nigia Machado, said she was busy with school and could not bring Emily to meet him. When Machado took the girl in March 2008 the couple were in the midst of a custody battle and living in Illinois, and she said she feared that authorities in the U.S. would penalize her for living here illegally.
Even though he was reunited with his daughter, Sanchez is continuing to collect names on an online petition he hopes will become “Emily’s Law” that aims to prevent parents involved in custody agreements from wrongfully traveling with their children. The petition’s supporters are calling on legislators in Illinois to implement a law that would permit airport security personnel to search national crime files to see whether a parent is violating a custody order by leaving the state or country with a child. If a parent is known to have abducted a child and that violation is reported to authorities right away, it would show up in a database, and the child could be prevented from boarding the plane while law enforcement is contacted.
Since Sanchez began collecting names on the petition on July 21, 950 people have signed on and more than 1,000 have recommended it on Facebook.
The Hague Treaty
In Emily’s case, the State Department said Brazil was not taking steps to abide by the Hague Treaty, which requires countries to return a child to the country where they were born. Machado could be facing federal kidnapping and abduction charges. Emily is among 60 children living in Brazil who are not being returned to parents, among them about 20 American children, according to the State Department.
A spokesman at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington said there are about 70 Brazilian children in the U.S. under the same circumstances.
“It’s a universal problem,” said Fabio Fiederico, spokesman for the Brazilian Embassy. “The majority of these cases go through the judicial system to be adjudicated. Once the cases begin going through the courts, they take some time.”
Countries that are a party to the Hague Treaty have agreed that a child who is habitually a resident in one party country, and who has been illegally taken to or kept in another party country in violation of one parent’s custodial rights, shall be promptly returned for a custody hearing, according to Rosemary Macray, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Children’s Issues.
Sanchez was permitted by a court in Illinois, where he lived in 2008, to see his daughter every other weekend and two days a week. But when he arrived at Machado’s apartment in March 2008, he found it empty with a note from Machado saying she was leaving with Emily.
Emily’s disappearance was listed as a family abduction on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website. Sanchez’s ordeal also is chronicled on the website bringemilyhome.org, where the online petition can be found.
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