Sitting at the lawyers’ table before D.C. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush, Kalil Joshua Smith-Nuevelle looked at his father with a pained smirk. Wearing his little-boy sneakers and little-boy jeans and a big scratch on the smooth olive skin of his face, the 5-year-old had no warm hugs to give his dad. After all, Kendall Shafer Smith III, 30, was there to take Kalil away from his mother.
Kalil hadn’t seen Smith since the end of May. That was when his mother, Taylar Nuevelle, 29, denied Smith two five-day visits with his son, in violation of a legal custody agreement, according to court records. Nuevelle claimed that Kalil refused to go and that Smith was violent toward her. The hearing was the latest segment of Smith’s six-month legal battle for access to his only son—access that had already been guaranteed in court.
Judge Bush spared Kalil from viewing his parents’ tortured domestic battles, the daily drama of the family court, sending him to the courthouse child-care center for safekeeping. The hearing, on Smith’s request for immediate full custody, was predictably toxic. Both parents had come armed with savvy lawyers who aimed straight for the jugular.
Nuevelle was represented by Carl Messineo, a crusading lawyer who took Nuevelle as a client after she claimed to be a victim of domestic violence. Smith, meanwhile, had brought Alan Soschin, a well-known D.C. lawyer whose recent fame includes representing Nancy Akers, the romance novelist killed by her husband June 5.
It got ugly quickly. Smith produced tapes of Nuevelle telling Kalil on the phone that his father was a liar and screaming obscenities at her soon-to-be ex-husband. The judge was appalled, according to Smith. After going down the hall for a chat with Kalil, Bush chastised Nuevelle for her behavior. “I put mothers in jail,” she said, according to Messineo. Bush doled out the ultimate punishment: Kalil, she said, would go home with Smith, who would have full custody until a late-August trial could sort out the whole mess for good.
Bush refused Nuevelle’s request to take Kalil home first to pick out clothes and toys, telling Nuevelle that she could say goodbye to Kalil only at the child-care center—accompanied by her husband’s lawyer. According to the court records, Nuevelle became hysterical and said she was going to be sick. She ran from the courtroom before the proceedings were final.
After a pause, the judge had a premonition. “You don’t think she would go down the hall and take him, do you?” she asked the lawyers, according to Smith.
“Yes,” said Smith, who had been silent up to this point.
Smith had long alleged in court filings that Nuevelle had threatened to take Kalil away, underground—to the secret network of safe houses that hide children and women who claim the courts are unjust, fathers abusive, and the system evil.
The judge sent a clerk to check on Nuevelle. He said she had gone to the bathroom. Five minutes elapsed. Then 10. Bush sent a clerk to check the bathroom. By then, of course, Nuevelle was gone, and so was Kalil. Outside, a rainstorm drenched Indiana Avenue, but Smith ran toward the Metro anyway, hoping for a glimpse of the 3-foot-5 kid in the plaid shirt and sneakers. It was too late.
That was June 29.
When Nuevelle allegedly snatched Kalil, Smith thought the law would snap to his aid. The judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest, and the U.S. Marshal’s service made cursory visits to Nuevelle’s home and workplace. But that was it. Kalil and his mother had vanished. Nuevelle even had time to empty all $640 out of her bank account and to move half of her furniture from her house, according to Smith and a police source.
Although Kalil is the first child ever alleged to have been grabbed out of Superior Court, parental kidnapping is as common as custody proceedings are ugly. Nationwide, 1,000 kids are kidnapped every day by their parents, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Especially in places like D.C. with its overloaded police department, there’s little to discourage people on the losing end of custody disputes from taking their children and running.
Parental kidnapping can be a felony offense in D.C., but it took Smith—a physics Ph.D.—several days to even figure out which D.C. police department office handles such cases. When he filed a report with an officer at the police Youth and Family Services Division, the police never obtained a warrant for his wife’s arrest. Judge Bush had issued a bench warrant for contempt of court, but Smith needed a felony warrant to involve law enforcement outside the District.
Smith started working the phones. He called the mayor’s office, where aide John Fanning nudged Police Chief Charles Ramsey to get the wheels of justice turning. Finally, on Friday, July 23—almost a month after Kalil’s day in court—the police obtained a warrant to arrest Nuevelle on felony charges of parental kidnapping. According to Lt. John Alter, the warrant was the first of its kind in the District.
It didn’t help. The penalty for a noncustodial parent who absconds with a child outside the District is up to a year in jail, but the D.C. criminal code only makes arrest warrants valid outside the city if the penalty is more than one year. As a result, says Soschin, the FBI is reluctant to get involved in cases where extradition isn’t available, as it would in other states. “It’s really extremely hopeless at this point,” says Smith.
Smith’s experience isn’t uncommon, says Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. “It’s a big problem getting law enforcement to take parental kidnapping seriously,” says Davidson.
Kalil means “good friend” in Arabic. When the boy was born in California, Smith says, they liked the way the name sounded.
Kalil was an accidental child. Smith and Nuevelle had gone to the same college but didn’t know each other well. He was white; she was black. He was living in Indiana, she in D.C., when she got pregnant. Messineo says Smith was upset that Nuevelle had gotten pregnant and suggested an abortion. They were too young, and unmarried. She was 23. He was 24 and about to embark on years of studies for a doctorate in California. But Smith says he only raised the abortion issue when Nuevelle became seriously ill during the first months of pregnancy and was hospitalized.
But she wanted the child, and he says she wanted him to be a father to his child—and he did, too. So they improvised, moving to California together. The young couple tucked Kalil in between their spooned bodies and sheltered him in their own bed for his first year of life. After a couple of years of “co-parenting,” they developed a relationship and got married. Smith says his family never approved of the interracial marriage, but it didn’t stop them.
Smith studied physics at the University of California. Nuevelle became a stay-at-home mom, volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate for children. Smith says they raised Kalil to be a free spirit who loved music, art, and dancing. They had a foster child they were in the process of adopting; Nuevelle started a social group for parents and children of mixed marriages to ensure that their son’s acquaintances were diverse.
According to Smith, Nuevelle wanted to go to law school to be a children’s advocate, to have a job where she could battle the demons that still plagued her as a seriously abused child herself. She was a good mother, Smith says: “Things were so different.”
Somewhere along the way, when Kalil was little more than 3, he stopped being the bedbug in his parents’ bed and became a battleground as their marriage disintegrated. The couple filed for divorce in California last fall.
The ensuing legal wars over Kalil are a testament to the courts’ inadequacy at ever fully mediating emotionally charged, high-stakes domestic relations. Smith says Nuevelle became manipulative; when she wanted him to move out of their house, he says, or any time she needed money, she threatened to abscond with Kalil. Messineo says Smith was violent toward his wife. According to court filings and interviews, the domestic troubles—and ensuing police reports of domestic violence filed by both parents—prompted the police to take away the foster child, whom Kalil considered a sister.
A year ago, Nuevelle decided to move to D.C., where she had grown up. Smith came along to be close to his son. His thesis advisor had moved to Princeton, and he could finish his doctorate from here. Smith had asked the California court for full custody of his son, but when Nuevelle wanted to move, they worked out a joint custody arrangement between their lawyers. They agreed to draft a “co-parenting plan” to ensure Kalil plenty of parental involvement.
The agreement was a model of New Age sensitivity. It barred both parents from using corporal punishment, from disparaging the other in front of the child, from drinking or using drugs. The agreement required Smith to pay for Kalil to see a therapist to help him weather the bumps of divorce; it even barred Smith’s parents from seeing Kalil until they had completed at least six weeks of sensitivity training. When the ink dried, Smith says, he thought they had a decent agreement that kept Kalil’s interests at heart. But despite the agreement—and without help from a lawyer—Nuevelle filed for full custody almost as soon as she arrived in D.C.
Kalil enrolled in the Owl School on upper 16th Street NW. He got taller, made some friends, and charmed his teachers.
When Smith arrived in D.C. in January, though, Nuevelle prevented him from seeing Kalil for the better part of three months, according to court records. He contends she also monitored their phone calls, coaching Kalil on what to say. Messineo, on the other hand, says Kalil refused to go with his father, who he says was unaffectionate, and says Kalil thought the five-day mandatory visits were too long. A psychologist agreed that the visits might be too long for a little boy accustomed to spending time with his mother, according to court records.
Both sides agree that there were tantrums when Smith came to fetch Kalil for their time together. Messineo says Smith insisted that Nuevelle use corporal punishment to force Kalil into Smith’s hands when he refused to go. But Smith says the tantrums were the product of a campaign by Nuevelle to turn their child against him during the months they were apart. Once the tantrums passed, Smith says, Kalil would revel in visits to museums and other sights.
The conflicting stories left the court to sort out the splintered family’s lives. Mental evaluations were ordered for both parents—looking for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in Nuevelle. Smith was to be examined for tendencies toward domestic violence, according to court records.
The police became Kalil’s third parent. Smith says he summoned the police frequently to enforce his visitation rights. One time, according to court records, Smith called in the law when Nuevelle allegedly attacked him as he pulled up to his apartment building in a cab with Kalil, screaming at the cabdriver that Smith was trying to kidnap her son, according to his allegations in court papers. The police came and, according to court records, did nothing but tell the couple to behave themselves or Kalil would end up in foster care.
Smith accused Nuevelle of breaking a window in his apartment in a rage, according to court records. She sent e-mails to his advisor at Princeton, accusing Smith of beating her, according to court records, and told Owl School personnel not to allow Smith access to Kalil.
At the end of March, Nuevelle asked the court to deny Smith overnight visits with his son, on the grounds that Smith had been a pothead throughout their marriage, and that while under the influence of marijuana he had abused her. She filed a motion asking the court to require that Smith undergo weekly drug tests. When he learned of the motion, Smith took a drug test on the spot and passed, according to court records.
As a result, on April 12, the court issued a temporary order mandating Smith’s visits with Kalil. According to a motion filed by Smith’s lawyer, the court “admonished the defendant that simply because she was the mother did not mean that she should have more than fifty percent of the time with Kalil.”
Shortly afterward, Nuevelle fired her attorney and enlisted pro bono assistance from Messineo, who is with the Partnership for Civil Justice, a public interest firm that specializes in representing domestic violence victims. On April 28, Messineo filed a motion asking the court to modify the earlier visitation order to limit Smith’s overnight visits with Kalil and prevent him from taking his son out of town.
In the motion, Messineo argued that Smith had been physically and emotionally abusive to Nuevelle during their marriage. He cited an incident from June 1998 in California, when Smith allegedly attacked Nuevelle, restrained her wrists, pinned her to the bed, and while straddling her so she could not move ripped the phone out of the wall and said, “I can do anything I want to you, Taylar. I can fuck you if I want. I can kill you if I want. Are you afraid?” Nuevelle, according to the court document, broke free and used a cell phone to call friends for help.
Smith admits pushing Nuevelle down and pinning her wrists briefly during a fight, but says her account is exaggerated and that he was upset enough by the incident to seek counseling afterward.
Nuevelle eventually lost the motion to limit Smith’s visits, but Smith still struggled to spend time with his son. Then, on June 1, Nuevelle used the earlier allegations of domestic violence to obtain a temporary restraining order against Smith. Despite the abuse allegations, which were not documented with police reports or hospital records, and the temporary restraining order, Nuevelle couldn’t sway Judge Bush on the custody dispute. Superior Court abolished gender preferences in custody disputes more than 20 years ago and has a presumption of joint custody in all cases unless there are serious extenuating circumstances.
Superior Court has also never been a good place to try undocumented allegations of abuse as a wedge in custody proceedings. This is, after all, the same court that in 1987 jailed Dr. Elizabeth Morgan for more than two years after she refused to disclose the location of her daughter, whom she had snatched away from estranged husband Eric Foretich—who had visitation rights to see his daughter—after accusing him of grotesque but undocumented child sexual abuse.
Messineo says the system—everyone from the police to the court’s domestic violence intake center—has been biased against Nuevelle and failed to act on her allegations of abuse. He has recently filed a motion asking the judge to recuse herself from the case for, among other things, showing “hostility” toward Nuevelle, refusing to consider evidence of domestic violence before awarding custody to Smith, and improperly issuing a warrant for Nuevelle’s arrest.
Messineo says he does not condone any violation of any law. But speaking generally, he says women who kidnap their own children are usually looking out for the best interest of their children in the face of a system that often fails to take into account the effect of domestic violence on small children. “Women don’t take this kind of action unless they perceive a legitimate threat,” he says.
D.C. police have now declared Kalil a “critical missing person,” which means they are actively pursuing the case. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has posted a photo of Kalil on its Web site and assigned an investigator to help search for him. But there are very few leads. The police know that Nuevelle is not using credit cards—which would make her easier to track. They don’t think she has left the country, because they have blocked her passport. But Alter says the police are concerned for the welfare of the child, because Nuevelle has no money and no obvious resources to care for him.
Geoffrey Greif, assistant dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of When Parents Kidnap, says that generally, most parental kidnapping cases are resolved within a week. Those that go longer only increase the trauma to young children, who he says often suffer from regression, bed-wetting, depression, anxiety, and thumb-sucking. While not commenting specifically on Kalil, Greif says that his research shows that parental kidnapping often leaves children with an unhealthy disregard for authority figures, which hampers their development—as does the trauma of watching fugitive parents being thrown in the slammer when they get caught.
As he has wondered about Kalil’s life on the run, Smith has gone through two private detective agencies and has chased dead-end leads as far as North Carolina. A newcomer to D.C., he’s learning the ropes of city politics quickly, lobbying D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil to introduce emergency legislation to fix the legal loophole that keeps him from getting federal help. But the wheels of politics churn slower than the rate at which small children grow up. The legislative session won’t resume until mid-September. By then, Kalil will have turned 6, and maybe even entered first grade, as someone else. CP