Monday, November 30, 2009

Abusive dad kidnaps children, flees with them to South Korea (Corvallis, Oregon)

Does everybody remembers the American dad whose ex-wife, the custodial mother, "abducted" his children and took them to Japan? Sure you do. The Tennesee courts automatically gave him sole custody they were so irate, and his case was splashed all over Fox, CNN, and all the big-boy media outlets. He was made into the Great American Hero. Only later were some less flattering details leaked to the press (such as the fact that the Great American Hero had dropped his American citizenship), but the details arrived too late to attract much press attention.

Have you heard of mother Hee Son, whose children were abducted by their non-custodial father SHIWOO LEE and taken to South Korea? Didn't think so. A bit of a double standard media-wise?

In this case, the father is clearly abusive--just as the Japanese mother clearly wasn't. In fact, he has a long, documented history of domestic violence and child abuse, and he has warned the mother that if she searched for the children, he would make sure she never saw them again. This mother is impoverished with long-term health problems related to the abuse, which makes it very difficult for her to launch a media campaign or major international custody fight.

A mother's nightmare
Story Discussion By Rachel Beck, Corvallis Gazette-Times Posted: Saturday, November 28, 2009 11:45 pm

To help
Hee Son’s efforts to get her children back will involve going to South Korea, hiring a Korean attorney and much more. A fund to help with expenses has been set up at attorney Lorena Reynolds’ office. Donations may be made to the Client Trust Account at the Reynolds Law Firm, 225 S.W. Fourth St., Corvallis, OR 97333.
Hee Son keeps asking questions.

Why are her children in South Korea with their father, who doesn’t have custody of them?

Why is Son in debt for the foreseeable future?

Why, instead of pursuing a nursing degree at Linn-Benton Community College, is she spending much of her time meeting with an attorney, trying to figure out how she can get her kids back?

But for all the “why” questions Son has, the most important question is a “will”:

Will she ever see her children again?

Son’s attorney, Lorena Reynolds, doesn’t have many answers.

What is known is that on Nov. 7, Son’s ex-husband, Shiwoo Lee, took their two boys for an overnight visit.

Son and Lee were in the middle of a divorce, and until then Lee had been limited to short visits only. Reynolds and Son had fought to limit Lee’s visits with the kids to eight hours and had gotten him to relinquish his passport due to a fear that he would take the children to South Korea.

On Nov. 8, Lee called Son to tell her he’d done just that.

Numerous attempts to reach Lee by phone and e-mail for this story were unsuccessful. His attorney declined to comment.

Not only has Lee violated a court order, he’s left a pile of bills and virtually no way for Son to pay them. Any efforts Son makes to get her sons back will be extremely expensive, time-consuming, complicated and stressful: In the Nov. 8 call, Lee warned Son that if she tried to find her sons, he would make sure she never saw them again.

For Son, it is the latest excruciating development in a nightmare that has been going on for years.

An arranged match

Son, 35, moved to Corvallis about four years ago with her husband, Lee, 40. The couple have two boys: Andrew Jisoo, 6, is a quiet boy and a talented and gifted student who always wants to know how things work. Alex Jiho, 4, is athletic, sweet and easygoing with a cute baby face.

Son and Lee were wed in 2002 in their native South Korea. It was an arranged marriage, and people thought it was a good one.

They soon moved to Boston, where Lee, who has a Ph.D. in engineering from Penn State, took a job at a university.

That was where the abuse started, Son said.

Twice police were called because Lee was being violent toward her, Son said, but Lee was never arrested.

After a few years, Lee, Son and Andrew moved to Chicago, where Lee had another job at a university.

The abuse resumed, Son said: At one point, he hit her in the face and choked her, forcing a visit to an emergency room. She got a temporary restraining order against him and moved with Andrew to a shelter for a few weeks.

Lee begged her to come back.

“He was very afraid to go to the jail,” Son said. “He said that he would be nice.”

Members of the couple’s church also urged Son not to pursue criminal charges, saying it would be wrong to ruin Lee’s reputation after he had worked so hard.

At the same time, they knew he was hurting her and said they would help keep her safe.

When they found out the family was moving, Son said, they were worried for her.

A move to Corvallis

In July 2005, Alex was born. One month later, the family moved to a nice house in northwest Corvallis. Lee took a job at Oregon State University as an assistant professor.

About a month after they moved, Lee went into a rage, Son said, punching her and knocking her down. He dragged her to the master bedroom, where Son says he hit her until her two front teeth came out.

Andrew, who was about 18 months old at the time, saw it all.

Lee put them both in the closet, where they stayed for hours. In the evening, they climbed out the bedroom window and went to a neighbor’s house. Son asked for help, but also told the residents not to call the police — she didn’t want to make Lee angrier.

Lee followed them. When he showed up, he told the neighbors it was all a misunderstanding and persuaded Son to come back to the house with him.

“He didn’t hit me anymore on that day,” she said.

The next day, one of the neighbors came over to check on Son. Lee told Son, whose face was now visibly bruised, to stay in the bedroom. She called out that she was fine.

About a week later, Lee took her to a dentist. He told them her injuries were the result of an accident.

In the summer of 2006, Lee pushed Son and knocked her to the floor. A worker fixing siding on the house called police.

Lee told the cops Son had fallen and he was helping her up. He wasn’t arrested, but Son and the boys went to the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence shelter.

In 2007, Lee was arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants. His driver’s license was temporarily suspended, so he finally allowed Son to get a license.

The last time Lee hit her was on March 30, 2008, Son said. That day, the family went to McDonald’s. The boys were on the play structure and Andrew was afraid to walk across the swinging rope bridge, though Alex seemed to love it.

This angered Lee and he forced Andrew across several times, Son said.

When the family got home, Lee’s anger continued. He began yelling at Son. Then, she said, he pushed, choked and threw things at her.

He kept her from getting to a phone to call the police, she said. But a few hours later, he calmed down and went upstairs to his computer. Son got the phone and called the police from the bathroom.

The police report says Son did not complain of injuries and Lee told officers there had been “mutual” shoving during an argument. Lee denied hitting Son and said she often got angry without reason.

Lee didn’t go to jail, but Son and her children again went to the CARDV shelter.

No arrests

Son and Reynolds wonder why Lee was never arrested for assault.

Police are required to make an arrest if there is probable cause to believe that an assault or a menacing has occurred, said Capt. Jon Sassaman of the Corvallis Police Department, but when officers respond hours after an incident, it’s sometimes hard to make that determination. In those cases, officers need evidence such as a visible injury or an independent witness. According to police reports, those weren’t available when officers responded to Son’s house.

“If there’s no markings, there’s nothing that would indicate or be consistent with the fact that someone was struck, it doesn’t work so well,” Sassaman said. “Those are very difficult cases.”

He said officers may refer people to CARDV even if they don’t think there’s enough proof to arrest the perpetrator.

“Just because evidence doesn’t present itself strong enough for an officer to make an arrest truly doesn’t mean something didn’t happen,” Sassaman said.

Pattern of abuse

When Son talks about her husband, the word she uses most to describe him is “strange.”

He told her what television programs she could watch, where she could go, who she could talk to, how much money she could spend.

While Son was pregnant with Andrew, she met a Korean woman with a similar due date. The woman invited Son to go shopping. Lee followed them the entire time.

Son has a bachelor’s degree in French but says she began to lose her language skills in both English and French simply because she never had anyone to talk to.

“I never had a personal friend before I separated from him,” Son said. “I know that it’s hard to believe and hard to understand.”

But Son’s story is not that unusual, said Nancy O’Mara, executive director of CARDV.

While most people think of domestic violence as just physical assault, O’Mara said abusers have other ways of hurting a victim: Isolation from friends and family. Forbidding the victim to have a job. Sexual assault.

“It’s just that constant, constant controlling, demeaning behavior that is meant to crush someone’s spirit,” O’Mara said.

Everything is compounded when there are children involved.

“It’s horrifying and terrifying enough to know that you yourself are the target of someone’s threats of harm (and) degrading, cruel behavior,” O’Mara said. “It’s even more horrifying when you’re needing to protect your children from that.”

Abusers often use the threat of taking the children away as another means of controlling the victim.

“Of the thousands of women I’ve worked with over 28 years, it is a threat that is made in the vast majority of cases,” O’Mara said.

And leaving an abuser with children is harder than leaving alone.

“It just makes it that much more fraught with consequences and terror,” O’Mara said.

For Son, the worst part of it all is the effect the abuse has had on her children.

They’ve started to accept it, she said, especially her oldest child, Andrew.

Her voice cracking, Son said the boy just saw too much violence.

“He doesn’t think that it’s so serious,” she said.

A new life

Despite having no legal recourse against Lee for the abuse, Son left him and filed for divorce shortly after the March 2008 incident. She lived in the CARDV shelter for a month and then moved into an apartment.

The divorce proceedings dragged on, complicated by constant custody battles, but Son, Andrew and Alex forged ahead.

Andrew’s teacher reported improvements in the boy.

“I believe that because Mom is much happier, kids are much better,” Son said.

Son enrolled at Linn-Benton Community College. She planned to enter the nursing program after she finished her prerequisites.

But things were not going well for Lee.

He frequently violated the court order on visitation or “parenting” time, Reynolds said. Son would call the police when Lee didn’t return the boys on time, but they said it was a civil issue.

Sassaman said custody cases present unique challenges for law enforcement. Generally, a custody complaint is considered a civil matter.

A parent who isn’t following the court-ordered arrangement has to have “an intent to permanently violate that custody arrangement or violate it for a protracted period of time” for it to be considered criminal, Sassaman said.

Criminal charges

On April 1, 2008, the case took a criminal turn. On that day, Son and her sons went to the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. When they went back to their car, parked in the underground lot, Lee confronted them.

A friend of Lee’s got Andrew into the back of his car. Son screamed at him and tried to get Andrew out as the car started to drive off.

Bystanders called police to report an attempted kidnapping. When police arrived, they saw Son, carrying Alex, running away from the garage. A car with Andrew in the back was trying to drive away.

According to a police report of the incident, “several bystanders witnessed the incident and were alarmed and disturbed by Lee’s actions.”

Lee was arrested; he also was served with the restraining order Son had filed against him.

Charges of second-degree disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer were dismissed after he completed a diversion program, including 40 hours of community service and an anger-management course.

More than a year later, on July 4, 2009, Lee was arrested in Polk County after he checked into a hotel room at Spirit Mountain Casino with the boys. At the time, Lee had been ordered by the court not to take the children out of Benton County.


In October the court said Lee, who generally had been limited to eight-hour visits with his children, could have an overnight visit. He picked them up at 9 a.m. Nov. 7. At about 4:40 p.m. Nov. 8, he called Son to tell her they were in South Korea. His tenure-track appointment at OSU had ended in June.

Police accompanied Son to Lee’s house. All of the furniture was gone. Debris was strewn throughout. One piece of paper found there was shocking: instead of listing the house for sale, as he had agreed to do (Son and Lee were to split the money from the sale), Lee had taken out a second mortgage.

The next day, an emergency order was made granting Son sole custody of Alex and Andrew. It was little consolation.

On Nov. 18, Judge David Connell issued a judgment on the divorce. He ordered the marriage dissolved immediately and granted Son sole custody of the children.

The order states that Son has suffered “severe and sustained” abuse from Lee, causing “extreme distress and physical injury,” that “the children are in immediate danger of abuse and irreparable emotional harm while in (Lee’s) care” and that Lee is “emotionally unstable and presents a credible threat of harm” to Son, Andrew and Alex.

The same week, Lee’s attorney, Jason Castanza, filed a motion to withdraw as Lee’s lawyer. The request was denied.

Castanza declined to comment for this story.

Reynolds has been frustrated by how the kidnapping has been treated by law enforcement. Her understanding is that the Benton County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI weren’t involved until Nov. 9, the day after the children were reported missing.

Reynolds said that even for a period of time that day, there was hope the children might not have left the country, despite Lee’s call.

“If it had not been true, if he had made that call from Seattle or he had made that call from the road, it could’ve made a huge difference,” Reynolds said.

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said he couldn’t disclose specifics of the case due to the ongoing investigation.

“We have committed intense resources into this case in order to be responsive in a timely fashion,” he said.

South Korea

Getting children back when they’ve been taken out of the country is always difficult. The complications increase dramatically when the country in question is not part of the Hague Convention.

The Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is a treaty signed in 1980 that is meant to help return children who have been abducted to another country. Nations that have signed the treaty agree children should be returned to the country they were taken from and have mechanisms in place to make that happen. Nations that have not signed do not recognize court orders or custody arrangements made in other countries.

Son and Reynolds plan to hire a Korean lawyer. Son will go to Korea.

“I’m trying to do my best to get custody legally,” Son said.

But it will still be quite a process.

“The chance of recovering the kids is very small, and without substantial amounts of money it’s virtually impossible to do,” Reynolds said.

Her office has set up a fund for Son. Hopefully, the house will sell soon.

Even with money, Son faces an uphill battle.

Bob Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said getting kids back from a country like South Korea is particularly difficult because the nation doesn’t even recognize parental abduction as a crime.

“We work with federal authorities for warrants for criminal abduction, and then we get the State Department involved. It’s a complicated task with a lot of red tape.”

The center also works with law enforcement to charge noncustodial parents in the United States in case they are brought back.

South Korea may not think it’s a crime, Lowery said, but courts determine custody for a reason.

“People seem to dismiss parental abductions as not important,” he said. “We take these cases very seriously.”

A Christmas wish

Son is trying to hold up, but the circumstances are trying.

“She’s very, very poor, she’s lost weight, she hasn’t had money to eat sometimes,” Reynolds said. “This is an absolutely devastating case.”

Nevertheless, Son has had some hopeful moments.

Last weekend a crew of people, many of them from Reynolds’ office, showed up to help clean the house, for which Son is extremely grateful. She also feels she’s gotten excellent care from CARDV staff members and her dentist.

Son hopes that Alex and Andrew aren’t aware how serious the situation is. She’d rather they think they’re just on vacation.

She also hopes, for their safety, that they are not alone with Lee. If other people are around, she thinks he will control his temper.

Her dream right now is to be reunited with Alex and Andrew.

“I just want to get back my children,” she said. “I want to spend my Christmas with my family and my children in Korea.”

And then, she said, she’d like to return to Corvallis and not be afraid.

“If I can come back with my kids (and) he cannot do anything to me and my children? That’s what I want.”