(WOMENSENEWS)–After spending two years on the FBI’s wanted list for parental kidnapping, Jennifer Siefke, along with her mother Margaret Cholewinski, was recently arrested in Livingston, Mont.
“I just wanted my son to have as many years as possible so that he could have a voice,” Siefke said in a telephone interview. The older her son became, she explained, the better able he would be to tell authorities what he experienced.
Siefke, who is now 24, and her mother, who is 58, have been released from jail on their own recognizance and are awaiting extradition to Oregon to face charges of custodial interference and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Her son, now 6 years old, and his half-sister are with Montana Child and Family Services.
Siefke was found through a tip to the Web site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She may be just another sore loser in a custody battle. Or, as she claims, she may be one of many women who take drastic measures to keep their children away from alleged abuse.
She and her mother appear to typify hundreds of women who go into hiding with their children, claiming they are doing it to protect their own lives, the lives of their children or both. At the core of many of these women’s claims is that they were not believed when they alleged during custody battles that their children’s fathers were abusive. A second common explanation given by mothers on the run is that they failed to report the abuse, because they feared they lacked credibility and worried about violent repercussions. Many courts, law enforcement officers, child protective agencies and family lawyers consider these scenarios the most vexing issue they confront. The bottom line, many say, is that some women do lie for revenge and no sure fire way exists to determine who is lying.
Now that Siefke has been arrested by federal authorities, some advocates for mothers on the run express concern that law enforcement is increasing the penalties for ignoring child custody court orders.
“The legal system is trying to stop this phenomenon of mothers going underground,” says Alan Rosenfeld, a Colorado attorney who often represents mothers in custody cases. “In 15 years working in the field, repercussions keep escalating, from a slap on the wrist to starting to try to put these women in prison.” He adds, “In every custody case, someone is unhappy, but something has to be drastically wrong to go into hiding.”
Nearly 50,000 Children Abducted Each Year by Mothers
1n 1999 alone, nearly 204,000 children were abducted by family members, out of a total 1.3 million abductions. In those cases, 25 percent of the abductors are mothers, while 53 percent are fathers, according to a report released on Oct. 2 by Temple University in conjunction with a White House conference on missing children.
For fiscal year 2001-2002, the FBI reported 48 parental kidnappers, although the FBI will not release the number of women among them, a spokesperson said. Of the 16 parental kidnappers featured this month on the FBI’s “wanted” Web page, 10 are women.
Specific data for mothers on the run are not available, however, because most cases involve local authorities and no centralized information source is known to exist. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tracks each parental kidnapping, but relies on local law enforcement to provide information on each case. In short, no one knows how many of the mothers who abduct their children claim to be battered women or protective parents.
She Was 16 When They Met; He was 29
Siefke met Amer Mohammed Noman in Eugene, Ore., when she was 16. Noman, 29, was a native of Yemen. They soon began a relationship, and two years later, in 1996, they had a son.
“He was a charmer, and always made her feel perfect and pretty,” says AnnaMarie Linneweber, executive director of the Livingston-based Tri-County Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a spokesperson for Siefke and Cholewinski.
In subsequent years, Siefke alleges that Noman would physically, emotionally and sexually abuse her. He gained legal custody of their son after a family court declared him the more stable parent. Siefke established a cyclical pattern of living with Noman and then moving out. Siefke claims she would leave amid threats that he would take their son back to Yemen and prevent her from ever seeing him again.
Siefke also alleges that during this time Noman was physically and sexually abusing their son and that she found child pornography on his home computer, according to Linneweber. Siefke contends that her brother and mother can verify her accounts that her son often had bruises on his arms and legs, Linneweber added.
Noman and his lawyer were not returning phone calls from the media at the time of this writing.
No Abuse Claims Recorded
A spokesperson for the Eugene Police Department says that abuse was never admitted as evidence in custody proceedings and Siefke never contacted local authorities about abuse in the home.
“In all the court proceedings, the issue of abuse was never raised,” says Pam Olschanski, spokesperson for the police department.
But Linneberger says that if Siefke did not report the abuse, it was out of fear that Noman would take their son to Yemen. “I have no doubt that power control issues of domestic violence were in the relationship,” she says.
On June 24, 2000, Noman called Siefke to arrange to pick up their son from an overnight stay at her house. Her brother answered the phone and notified Noman that she and her mother, Cholewinksi, had fled with the boy and had no plans to return, according to the FBI.
The two women, along with the boy and Siefke’s daughter from another relationship, traveled throughout the Western states over the next two years. Siefke made jewelry and sold it for gas and food money and got by thanks to soup kitchens, food banks, shelters and the occasional part-time job. Full-time work or putting down roots was impossible because it would link them to a specific location through their social security numbers.
“They just started driving,” Linneweber says. “They had no real direction, they were just driving.”
The fact that her mother accompanied her makes the case extraordinary–although another mother on the run listed by the FBI’s Web site is accompanied by her brother–however, the case otherwise appears to be fairly typical.
“The problem is that these mothers who are trying to do the right thing get mixed in with the mothers who are truly crazy and whose kids are not in danger,” says Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University in San Bernardino, who specializes in the psychology of victims. “It becomes hard for courts to know who to believe.”
Studies Indicate Abusive Fathers Likely to Seek Custody
Studies suggest that men with a history of abusing their spouses are twice as likely to seek custody as non-abusive fathers and they are just as likely to get custody, Stahly and other legal experts say. For many battered women who do not have jobs, are not homeowners and have fewer resources for legal representation, losing custody battles is becoming increasingly common.
“I don’t think parents understand the ramifications when they ride off into the sunset with their children,” says Pickett from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We need to find other ways to deal with the issues that happen in relationships rather than using children as pawns.”
Others would add that the need for different solutions, such as counseling, community outreach and an overhaul of family law courts, is becoming more urgent as each day passes.
“How many years were Catholic priests abusing kids before anyone believed something like that could happen?” Stahly says. “It took a critical mass for it to explode into our collective consciousness. As kids get older and start talking about it, the same will be true for custody cases.”
Linneberger says that Siefke’s greatest fear is that her son will be returned to his father. However, she sees this as an opportunity for the state of Montana to interview her son and find out if abuse did take place at the hands of his father.
Whatever the outcome of Siefke’s case, other women will keep running.
“Almost all are mothers who believe their children have been abused,” Rosenfeld says. “And those mothers do not want to be found. Stiffer penalties aren’t ever going to work,” he adds. “Mothers are so desperate, they’ll take that chance.”
Rebecca Vesely is a frequent contributor to Women’s Enews
For more information:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
FBI Most Wanted Parental Kidnappings: