Child custody hearings are almost never easy for couples going through a divorce. Emotions run high and it can feel like nobody ends up winning. But most parents don't find themselves in jail as a result of their custody demands.
Time magazine tells the story of April Griffin, a 28-year-old single Wisconsin woman who has been in prison since May, 2007 because of the decision she made during the custody hearings for her one-year-old son, Jesse.
Jesse's father, Michael Sebuliba, is a Ugandan citizen, according to sources. Though he's employed as a nurse in Milwaukee and has legal residency in the United States, he was in Africa when Jesse was born. During custody hearings, Griffin reportedly accused Sebuliba of beating her during her pregnancy.
Unfortunately, Griffin chose to ignore her lawyer's advice and question witnesses-including Sebuliba-herself, without her lawyer's guidance. Her efforts at legal questioning, which were described by Time as "meandering" and "clumsy," failed to convince the judge that any abuse had taken place.
Sources indicate that the judge awarded joint custody to the two parents, and threatened Griffin with jail when she refused to cooperate.
Like many parents, Griffin placed her son's safety above all else, and held her ground: she would not let her son spend time with the man who allegedly beat her during pregnancy. She sent her son into hiding, where he has remained since last spring. As a result, Griffin has spent the last seven months behind bars.
The judge involved has reportedly issued a bench warrant for the child, and has warned Griffin's family members that they could face prosecution if they assist in Jesse's concealment. So far, Jesse's whereabouts remain unknown.
This case presents several interesting issues.
Domestic violence cases are often difficult to decide in court, when little or no evidence can be presented, and sources suggest that judges frequently have to rely on their gut instincts in cases like this one. Apparently, Griffin's judge intuited that Sebuliba would make an adequate parent.
Another interesting issue is Griffin's decision to cross-examine witnesses without help from her lawyer. Many people not trained in legal procedure simply don't know how difficult courtroom procedures can be. When the judge called Griffin "her own worst enemy," he may have been on to something.
Often, people don't realize how detrimental refusing an attorney's help can be to their cases. But without applying the proper legal framework to intense emotions and concerns, even the most legitimate case can appear "meandering" or legally inadequate.
April Griffin's case is concerning but it is not unique. Visit Total Divorce later this week for Part Two of this report, in which we'll address previous instances in which parents have opted to spend time in jail in order to protect their children from guardians they believed to be dangerous.