On February 7, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the MD of Florida ordered two minor children returned to their habitual residence of Canada pursuant to the Hague Abduction Convention. Their father, Mr. Romanov and their mother, Ms. Soto, were divorced in Canada, and shared joint custody, with Mr. Romanov having access to the children each week. Ms. Soto remarried, and she sought Mr. Romanov’s permission to travel with her new wife and children to Florida in early 2021 for a few months. The father agreed, but after a dispute that caused Ms. Soto to stop Mr. Romanov’s access and cut off communication with him, she removed the children to Florida early, without telling him. Mr. Romanov learned of their trip to Florida from their oldest child, VR, after they were already in Florida. The trip to which Mr. Romanov agreed was scheduled to last only until March 10, 2021. Ms. Soto had filed a petition in the Canadian custody proceeding requesting sole custody on December 22, 2020. On May 28, 2021, she amended that petition to request a permanent change of the children’s primary residence to the United States. The father filed an Affidavit, in the Canadian custody suit, opposing the relocation. He filed his Verified Petition for return on August 11, 2021 in Florida. Ten days after he filed, the Mother, Stepmother and children moved to San Diego, California. The case proceeded in Florida.
Ms. Soto made two arguments against returning the children. The first, that the Father acquiesced in their retention because he failed to cooperate in renewing their passports when asked in July 2021, was rejected by the court, particularly because the Father had vehemently opposed their relocation in formal court documents in Canada. The second argument was that the two children, ages 9 and 13, objected to returning to Toronto. The court conducted in camera interviews with each child, a court reporter, law clerk, and Hana, the children’s golden retriever. The court also had a psychologist interview the children. The court concluded that the younger child, MR, had no particularized objection to returning to Canada, although her preference seemed to be to remain in California. The court concluded that the older child, VR, did object to returning and was mature and not unduly influenced by her mother. But, the objections were based on her preference for friends, school, and home in California, a location where she had only been living for a few months at the time of trial. The court, acknowledging it was a close call as to whether VR objected in a particularized way sufficient to make out the exception, instead focused on its discretion under Article 18, and the fact that it was mandated to return MR, and that separating the siblings would be something both children would not want, and that both parents argued against (although the Mother argued that, in order to avoid separating them, the youngest should remain in California). On that basis, not wanting to provide a vehicle for the children to get more settled in California, and recognizing that the Canadian courts were well equipped to address their custody, the court ordered both children returned.