They were rounding the corner on Mytna Street — an austere stretch of blocks lined by businesses and government buildings, including the Slovak National Bank and Slovak Radio — where Holmes was renting a studio apartment for the weekend. He was due to fly home in four hours.
“When I asked Alexander about buying ham, he said I shouldn’t buy food, because that would be the last time we ever saw one another,” says Holmes. “He didn’t want me to waste money on food that wouldn’t be eaten.”
Up until that point, Holmes — a citizen of Switzerland and the United Kingdom — had been traveling to Slovakia from his home in Douglas, Isle of Man, for bimonthly visits with Alexander, a trip entailing two flights and an overnight stay in either London or Liverpool in each direction. Holmes’s romantic relationship with Alexander’s Slovak-born mother, Zuzana Rychlikova, whom he met in Switzerland, had been brief, lasting about two months; she announced her pregnancy soon after their split. Rychlikova returned to Slovakia, and Holmes flew out to help prepare for their child’s birth.
“We agreed to sort things out amicably,” says Holmes.
But that agreement was short lived when, 40 minutes after Alexander was born, Holmes was informed that he was not registered as the father on his son’s Slovak birth certificate and, thus, forbidden from seeing him according to hospital policy. In February 2015, a DNA test confirmed Holmes’s paternity. But it was only a few months later that Rychlikova decided she didn’t want her son to see his father again.
Since then, Holmes has been entangled in an international custody battle that has cost him over $100,000 in legal fees and involved dozens of Slovak courtroom hearings, false criminal accusations, and arrest warrants. Despite zero evidence indicating any sign of abuse or misconduct — “I recorded all my time with my son, and submitted those tapes to court,” he says — Rychlikova has blocked all contact between Holmes and Alexander (who is a citizen of Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Slovakia). And the Slovak courts have complied — at least, in practice.
According to a series of witness statements filed with the investigating officers at the Central Bratislava Police Department on Sasinkova Street, between August 2015 and February 2016, Holmes made child support payments to Rychlikova through her PayPal account totaling over 16,000 Euros. This amount includes both the voluntary and court-ordered payments. It also includes the recent amounts when she closed that account. Meaning, he would send the amounts due for one month as well as the amount due for the previous month. If he owed 450 Euros for one month and that amount was returned, that next month he would send 900 Euros. And so on. But Rychlikova blocked the transfer of funds. Rychlikova then provided a bank account, opened under Alexander’s name. Katarina Skultetyova confirmed through Holmes’s attorney that wiring funds to Alexander’s bank account did not qualify as “child maintenance payments,” but as a gift. Child maintenance payments were still due. Holmes repeatedly asked Skultetyova to demand access to Rychlikova’s bank account, but she refused to issue an order.
Knowing that failure to pay child support is a crime in Slovakia punishable by imprisonment, Holmes continued to send monthly installments through Rychlikova’s PayPal account, all of which were returned after 30 days. Holmes sent a cash payment through his attorney, but this, too, was rejected.
On February 16, 2016, after 10 months of refusing to provide a valid bank account, Rychlikova reported Holmes to the Slovak police for non-payment of child support. On April 6 of that year, Holmes was notified of the charges via email. These claims have since lingered in the investigation stage — for over four years now — preventing Holmes from returning to Slovakia lest he’s arrested and detained. Swiss and UK embassies have likewise advised Holmes against traveling to Slovakia.
“Slovakia’s criminal law allows for a suspect to be detained for a year — extendible to two years — while the investigation is in progress,” notes Holmes. “The law states that being held pending investigation is only possible under certain circumstances, one of which is if there is a risk the suspect will leave Slovakia. As a foreigner who doesn’t live there and has family abroad, that was a given. The police even tried to issue a European Arrest Warrant for me for refusing to travel to Slovakia to answer questions. I have not been charged with any crime, yet I still can’t travel to Slovakia as a result.”
While, technically, no ruling was ever made awarding Rychlikova sole physical custody, on November 21, 2018, Bratislava judge Katarina Skultetyova issued a judgment of “no order on contact,” abrogating the court’s role in determining a binding custodial agreement. The court was essentially wiping its hands of the case. In January 2020, Skultetyova issued a second “no order on contact” ruling, effectively barring Holmes’s parents, both 76 years old, from contacting their grandson. Skultetyova also removed the order to enable Skype video calls between Holmes and Alexander. Since the calls were meant to help maintain a parental relationship in between in-person visits, as the visits were removed, Skultetyova affirmed, there was no further need for the calls.
“Skultetyova stated that neither I nor my parents have shown interest in having contact with Alexander, that we were not interested in having a relationship with my child,” says Holmes, scoffing at the “nightmare Kafkaesque” absurdity of the claim. “Asking a court for those very rights is a strange way to express disinterest in your family, isn’t it?”
The total time Holmes has spent with Alexander since his birth: 30 hours.
“The only recent photo I have of my son is one posted [online] by his soccer club,” says Holmes. “I literally wouldn’t even know if he was alive or not, if it wasn’t for some of her friends, boyfriends, and family trying to update me. But they are all scared. I have a son, but I know less about him than you would know about someone from a baseball card. I have no photos, no school reports, no drawings, no calls — nothing.”
The average person in the United States knows very little about Slovakia. A member of the European Union since 2004, Slovakia (official name: Slovak Republic) has slipped by relatively unnoticed since it broke from the Czech Republic in 1993, an event known as the “Velvet Divorce.” While Prague has long been romanticized as a bastion of literary intellectualism and a haven for the backpacking bohemian wanderer with a dog-eared copy of The Metamorphosis, Slovakia is not a country that registers on the geographical radar of most Americans. Of course, this says as much about the United States as it does about Slovakia — likely, more so. But for art history aficionados and mountaineering enthusiasts, Slovakia is a bounty of aesthetic and architectural treasures, from the High Tatras, with its crystalline turquoise lakes, to Slovakia’s sprawling network of medieval churches, monasteries, and castles. Scattered across Slovakia’s mountainous landscape, fortresses and manors sit perched atop verdant, cone-shaped hills, fantastical and bewitching. Slovakia boasts the highest number in the world per capita of castles. Many are gloriously refurbished relics, spires shooting upright into the sky, like sentinels standing guard. Nearly a hundred more lay in dilapidated ruins, their stony remains spiking at sharp, craggy angles like something out of a Gothic fairy tale.
Spend time in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, and you’ll find a buzzy, easily navigable city with a bevy of quaint cafés and pale cobblestone walkways that glisten gold in bright daylight. Design-wise, it’s a city of sharp architectural contrast. In Bratislava’s Stare Mesto (“Old Town”), brick buildings are awash in pastel shades of mint green and ballet slipper pink. Beyond its historic center, vestigial eyesores borne of sterile communist-era architecture sprout up in grim gray columns. Cement walls of clothing shops are peppered with graffiti, patches of grass sneaking through the sidewalk cracks. Connecting Old Town with Bratislava’s right bank boroughs, bridges constructed of concrete and steel arc across the Danube River, muddy brown water sloshing below.
Annexed by Hungary in the 11th century, Bratislava — known then as Pozsony and, later, by its German name Pressburg — was never intended to be a capital city, and it wasn’t built as one. In many ways, Bratislava continues to live in the shadow of Vienna, its richer, glitzier neighboring capital due 50 miles west. (Throughout history, the Austrian Empire stole wealth from surrounding nations in order to prettify itself, and that plundering remains evident in Vienna’s plethora of grandiose monuments and ornate palaces.) But what it lacks in gilded grandeur, Bratislava makes up for in its understated urban chic that attracts some one million tourists each year.
And yet, beyond its myriad inherent charms, there’s a darker, more pressing reason to pay attention to Slovakia, and that reason is this: Slovakia has one of the highest rates in the world of parents abducting their own children.
When a marriage breaks, when a relationship ends, there’s a pattern of behavior in Slovakia — a crisis, an epidemic — of one parent kidnapping one’s own child, of absconding with that child, of then erecting a boundary, emotional and physical and all too often permanent, between that child and his other parent, of alienating that parent from his child with the singular pointed mission of preventing that parent from seeing his child, or children, ever again.
The result: A society with thousands of left-behind parents whose parental rights dangle at the mercy of the Slovak court system, notorious for its violations of international law and rampant displays of collusion and corruption. Like that of many young nations struggling in their collective quest for democracy, it’s a system wherein judges are bribed, false arrests made, and trials delayed indefinitely.
Natalia Blahova, civic activist and former member of Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity party, has been working to correct this humanitarian injustice for years. But with little to no effect.
On a sunny, cold day in February 2019, I meet with Blahova in Bratislava’s parliamentary building, located just downhill of the massive, four-winged Bratislava Castle, the city’s centerpiece landmark. In a white-walled cafeteria, over cups of piping hot tea, Blahova launches into an impassioned discourse on the plight of parents fighting to obtain fair and equal custody of their kidnapped children, and the innocent children caught in the crosshairs.
“It’s systemic problem,” Blahova tells me. “The courts are slow. And while there are laws, there’s no enforcement.”
According to statistics procured from Slovakia’s Ministry of Justice, of the 571 valid custody cases reported to the Slovak courts in 2016, only 38 were enforced. In 2017, only 44 were enforced. Per Blahova, approximately 700 court custody cases are transferred from year to year, so the cases are not resolved. And they continuously pile up.
“What this means is that the total number of cases is much larger — it’s in the thousands.”
While Slovakia is a member nation of The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty that ensures the swift return of internationally abducted children, there is no guaranteed compliance. Cases in which The Hague has ordered the return of children from Slovakia to such countries as Ecuador and the United States, have gone ignored by the Slovak government.
“The Hague Convention process for the return of abducted children does not always work as efficiently as one might hope,” notes Jad Greifer, managing partner of Cohen Clair Lans Greifer Thorpe & Rottenstreich LLP, a prominent matrimonial boutique in Manhattan. “It is critical to have local counsel in the foreign jurisdiction to guard against the return process getting sidetracked and to make sure that everything remains on the up-and-up.”
J. Augusto Frisancho, a research associate at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has been fighting for over a decade to get back his three American-born children abducted by their mother from Baltimore to Slovakia in August 2010. When a return order from The Hague proved ineffectual in reuniting him with his children — the Slovak courts failed to carry out the enforcement order — Frisancho appealed to the United States Congress in 2017 for help in getting them back. But his children have yet to be returned.
The last time Frisancho saw or spoke with his children was December 31, 2010. His wife has since kidnapped the children, again, this time from Slovakia to Hungary.
“Every time I have to bring up again this issue [it] is emotional pain,” Frisancho emails. “I have compartmentalized it so that I can live. I never know when I can have the strength to deal with this issue. I give myself plenty of time, I pray, I do lots of volunteering work, participate in lots of church events, and spend a lot of time in my gym. All that helps and when I feel fit, then I open the box where I have placed my children’s story of abuse. It’s extremely hard to the point that it weakens my immune system and I get sick for a couple of days. Then by the grace of God, I get up again and continue walking for my children.”
In early 2019, Marica Pirosikova, then-director of the Slovak Ministry of Justice, Slovakia’s agent to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) — she has since stepped down from her position — penned an amendment revising the procedural rules on international custody disputes. Under the new law, a parent can reopen a case after a decision has been deemed final by the courts in which the case was initially tried. In practical terms, what this means is that if a return order for a child has been processed, the second parent can initiate court proceedings to begin all over again, citing “new evidence.” In many cases, these proceedings drag on for years, eating up the whole of a minor’s childhood. And the parent who was initially awarded custody never realizes that custody. The law was initially vetoed by then-president Andrej Kiska. It returned to Parliament for a second vote and in May 2019 passed by a wide-sweeping margin of 90 to 30, with 12 members abstaining. The law has been in effect since September 10, 2019.
While in Slovakia, I make several attempts to reach Pirosikova through Justice Ministry State Secretary Edita Pfundtner, emailing a detailed list of questions regarding the key root causes of Slovakia’s systemic injustices. Eventually, I receive a reply from Slovak Ministry of Justice spokesperson Zuzana Drobova, responding with an historical log of Slovak custody case decisions, paragraphs cut and pasted from preexisting sources pell-mell. (She also asks to read this article for “authorization” prior to publication.)
“As to the notion of custody, we would like to clarify that when we refer to the term ‘custody’ in the context of the Slovak legislation, its meaning is slightly different in comparison to the understanding of this term in some other countries (including the USA),” writes Drobova. “When Slovak courts are deciding on custody, they are usually deciding only regarding the physical custody/personal care/residence. There is a possibility in Slovakia to deprive a parent of his parental rights and responsibilities by a judicial decision.”
Drobova continues, “It is important to underline that the Ministry of Justice of the Slovak Republic has no power to intervene in the decision-making process of general courts, which are independent when deciding.”
What this means: If a custody decision is meted out in the Slovak courts, and said decision strips either the petitioner or the defendant of his or her rights — or the rights of any additional party involved — there is nothing the Ministry of Justice can, or will, do.
In the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), published by the organization Transparency International, Slovakia ranks 59th out of 198 countries, falling two places compared with 2018. The other five EU countries who score worse: Hungary, Greece, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria. For contrast, the United States ranks 23.
According to a 2018 scorecard published by the World Economic Forum, Slovak Republic ranks 119 out of 137 countries in terms of judicial independence. The United States ranks 25th.
Both the United States and Slovakia are considered flawed democracies, just at various points on the spectrum. It takes but one look at the docket of court cases in the historical annals of the United States to know that its own judicial system is far from perfect.
Often — quite tragically — the American courts get it just as wrong as the Slovak ones.
But as I research this story, that I am an American citizen muddling through my own divorce in the state of California, negotiating a relatively straightforward, legally enforceable custody schedule with my soon-to-be ex-husband, is not lost on me. Divorce may be a special kind of hell, but there has never been a scenario in which I have risked losing my two children. Conversely, in my four weeks on the ground in Slovakia — broken up over two two-week visits — and in nearly 100 phone interviews throughout the course of a year-and-a-half-long period, I speak with countless decent, loving, heartsick mothers and fathers for whom securing any sort of parenting rights is Sisyphean. There is a grief that runs through each meeting, parents plotting out their children’s walking routes to and from school, angling for even a glimpse, parents whose children are living not even a mile away, but who are sealed off from them as if by a plunging chasm of cracked earth.
Roman Kozak, a Bratislava-based father, hasn’t seen Arthur, his five-and-half year-old son, since August 26, 2018. We meet at an Old Town pub that brews its own beer and sells souvenir T-shirts with a brassiere logo and BRATISLAVA decaled across the front. When asked where Arthur lives, Kozak points to a location just beyond a row of low-rise, cement-brick buildings. “Just right over there,” he tells me, sketching a map of the street on the back of a paper menu. “He doesn’t remember he has a father; he’s being raised by my ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend. He’s not even two kilometers away, but she has made sure through the courts that I cannot see him.”
Out of sheer desperation, and looking to others that have done the same, Kozak runs a support group for left behind parents called Black and White Hearts. They meet for coffee, to unpack the results of trials and meetings with their attorneys. He spends hours on the phone with left-behind parents all around the world. Kozak has spearheaded protest gatherings and launched a petition lobbying for change within the Slovak court system. So far, he says, he’s collected 6,500 signatures.
“We teach people how to deal with authorities, not to make mistakes with lawyers, and how to effectively defend the rights of children,” he tells me.
Despite these efforts, Kozak has still not seen his son in over two years.
While parental alienation in Slovakia knows no formal gender bias, fathers are more often denied access to their children, says Blahova. This in part, she explains, is a vestigial byproduct of communist culture, wherein a paternal presence is not considered as integral to the rearing and nurturing of a child as a maternal one. In Slovakia, stripping fathers of their right to parent is common practice.
According to the Slovak Ministry of Justice, in 2014, only 9.13 percent of parents were awarded joint custody of their children in Slovakia. Also in 2014, 79.75 percent of Slovak mothers obtained custody, whereas the numbers of fathers securing custody was much lower — 11.12 percent.
“Within the country if there’s a kidnapping, it’s tolerated and even supported when it’s the mother that has kidnapped a child from the father,” says Blahova. “The conditions are created and exist to allow it. The courts don’t enforce their decisions.”
What’s important to remember, stresses Blahova, is that this act of erasing a parent not only deprives a parent of his child, but deprives a child of his parents. Essentially, what the Slovak system does is make orphans out of children who, in fact, have two parents.
Igor Kovacik, founder and chairman of Dohovar Slovakia, an organization that advocates on behalf of left-behind parents and their children, has worked tirelessly to challenge Slovak family law. Kovacik went 15 months without seeing his two abducted children — Samuel, 15, and Hana, age 10. A court granted him 50/50 shared custody, but now, he says, he sees his children at most 16 hours a month.
“We are the only country in Europe wherein a father who, for whatever reason, cannot secure work, can be criminalized,” says Kovacik. “I would estimate that we have some 15,000 parents in Slovakia who get zero hours per year with their children. They are completely deleted.”
Punishing the foreign-born parent is also common, Blahova notes.
“When there is a kidnapping carried out by a Slovak national from a foreign-born parent, it’s considered acceptable,” she says.
The provided social services in Slovakia are not only useless but counterproductive, Blahova further points out.
“The social services workers won’t even ask the parents to mediate,” she explains. “People here don’t even know that they can and should make an agreement between themselves before they go to court; the lawyers make a business of it for themselves. All the supervisory elements — there’s an ombudsman for children, the human rights organizations, the various levels of formal support for the child — these things actually make things worse for the child, because they give the impression that the country is working to fix the system. But, in fact — it is not.”
Alojz Baranik, a Bratislava-based attorney and member of Slovak Parliament and vice president of its Judicial Committee, “hopes that change is on the horizon.” A controversial figure in Slovak politics, Baranik is known for his dogged attempts to challenge the status quo and uproot systemic corruption. In July 2018, Baranik, then-member of Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity Party, an opposition group within Parliament, was fined 200,000 Euros for allegedly slandering Judge Aysa Pruzinec Erenova. It’s a tactic he calls “pure intimidation.”
We meet to discuss the issue of systemic corruption at Urban House, a hipster coffee shop and eatery on the main drag of Old Town. Outside on the patio, a university student with pink-tipped hair punches texts into her iPhone. At an adjacent table, a trio of towheaded tweens slurp soda through straws, ravenously tearing apart a giant cheese pizza.
Slovakia’s upcoming presidential election is still one month away — anti-corruption candidate Zuzana Caputova is elected in March 2019, the first women to hold the position — and while Baranik is cautiously optimistic, he’s also a strident realist. The presidency in Slovakia, while not exactly a figurehead position, is not as powerful a role as the prime ministership. (Those elections will come later, in February 2020.)
“The ultimate goal of the mafia has been achieved in this country — capturing the state,” Baranik tells me, sipping his coffee. As we speak, his pale blue eyes dart skittishly around the restaurant.
“It’s all the mafia,” he says. “It sounds like an exaggeration, I admit. But you have to realize that on the surface it all looks as it should look for a country that is a member of the European Union. There are very strict and clear rules about how a country should be governed and, formally, Slovakia meets these criteria. But, in fact, it’s all just organized crime. They have total control of the judiciary and now the constitutional court. Here, the court equals the government. It’s a state totally captured by organized crime.”
And yet, international custody battles are no new thing. Gossip Girl actress Kelly Rutherford made headlines for her protracted high-conflict divorce from ex-husband Daniel Giersch, a German businessman, and the ensuing custody battle that ended in 2015 with Rutherford losing legal and physical custody of both children. And there are countless others, including the infamous Sean Goldman case which captivated global audiences and led to the establishment of the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act.
“Child custody disputes can be quite complicated and fraught even when the parents live around the corner from each other,” says Greifer. “Add in a few thousand miles, cultural differences, and two different legal systems and the potential for escalation is enormous.”
But in Slovakia, every one of two people with whom I speak have had some experience — personal or through a friend or relative — dealing with a child being abducted by a parent.
Jozef Tinka, founder and head of the Council for Children’s Rights and one of Slovakia’s leading experts on parental alienation, has spent the past decade working to guide and support left-behind parents. He estimates that hundreds of anguished parents have slogged through his Bratislava office — frustrated, forlorn, and grasping for any single flicker of hope that they will be reunited with their children.
This idea, proffers Tinka, that a child belongs to solely one parent versus the other is cruel and catastrophic in terms of its collective long-term effect on both children and parents. Any mother who rips away a child from his father, and vice versa, cannot possibly truly love that child. That’s not love — that’s possession.
“The kind of parents that are manipulating children — I don’t think it’s possible to change their thinking on that,” says Tinka. “The only way to stop them is through systems, through courts and through institutions. It’s not possible to change their mind, because their mind is something they bring from their childhood. Their kind of love — it’s proprietary love. They want to own the children. It’s about love that is not giving, it’s love that is about having them as property.”
Beata Janockova, a left-behind parent who works in Slovakia’s Ministry of Labor of Social Affairs and Family, has not seen her now five-year-old son for over two years.
“I don’t feel well,” she tells me. “I still don’t have my son.”
A court decision awarded full custody to the boy’s father, Janockova’s ex-partner, Daniel Kvocera, allowing Janockova twice-monthly visitations. But Kvocera has allegedly blocked all contact. “I have a lawful decision of the court but there is just the paper,” says Janockova. Kvocera has also filed numerous criminal complaints against Janockova for defamation and forbidding contact with their son — even though she has not seen their son in 24 months. The cases have since been thrown out of court, but she’s still not been able to speak to or see her young son.
“Trust the father — the mother does not exist,” says Janockova of the court’s decision.
But the ruling came as no surprise to Janockova. For starters, Kvocera’s attorney is Andrej Gara, a Bratislava-based lawyer whose clientele includes wealthy Slovak politicians and who is widely known to represent the abductors in child custody disputes. (Gara also represents Richard Holmes’s ex, Rychlikova.) Gara’s firm also benefits from close ties with Pirosikova, who, during her tenure as Slovak’s agent to the ECHR, lobbied extensively on the behalf of Slovak parental abductors. Gara represented Pirosikova in her own divorce proceedings, a stark conflict of interest that has, thus far, gone unchecked. An alleged recording of Gara asking for 72,000 Euros in exchange for promising to “influence” the judge in a custody case, has recently surfaced in the Slovak press. (As of August 2020, Gara is under criminal investigation.)
Ever more disturbing, says Janockova, is the fact that the presiding judge in the case, Zdenka Mattielighova, was the hire of David Lindtner, former president of the Bratislava III District Court. Lindtner resigned after he was revealed to have engaged in direct communication with Marian Kocner, the scandal-ridden businessman and long-alleged mafia conspirator who was charged with and tried for ordering the February 2019 murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. In February 2020, Kocner was convicted of forgery and sentenced to 19 years in prison. But this past September, in a bombshell verdict that stunned the nation, Kocner was acquitted of murder charges.
“In Slovakia, contacts and money win,” says Janockova. “The law only benefits parents who have a good lawyer, which means having a lot of money. It’s pay to play. But who is speaking about the children? Who cares about them? It is just the game for lawyers and judges. Every child has two parents. They need to see them both — regularly.”
To raise awareness of this social crisis in Slovakia, in June 2019, Janockova launched an online initiative called “Deleted Parents,” which features photos of hundreds of left-behind parents holding the names of their children and the hashtag #deletedparents. The movement has also gained momentum in Czech Republic.
“This initiative brings together parents who, despite a final court ruling, cannot reach their children,” says Janockova. “The main goal is to spread it to people’s awareness through media coverage, because the society in which we live has not yet been confronted with the fact that parents and their entire families are completely erased. It is necessary to change the legislation and implement criminal liability against individuals who have made our children a profitable business. We asked the [former] Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini to cooperate directly with the government, and the Minister of Justice Gábor Gál. But the meeting did not take place. Pellegrini ignored my request for a meeting. Our children have not received any help.”
Xenia Makarova, an investigative journalist and head of Slovakia’s Stop Corruption Foundation, an organization working to keep governmental institutions in check by exposing incidences of bribery, cronyism, and the like — she was one of the first to circulate the bribery allegations against Gara — refers to what she calls “holes in the Slovak court system.” Makarova also cites Pirosikova’s amended law on international custody disputes as a formidable roadblock for left-behind parents.
“The legislation, as it is written, is okay,” she maintains. “But there are holes, imperfections, and in some cases you can block the other parent from getting in touch with the child. The biggest problem is that these cases can often be ongoing for years, and the conflict between the parents increases, higher and higher, and this makes finding the best solution for the child all the more difficult. In the situation where there’s a decision in the case, and the court rules that the child just be returned to a parent living abroad, the Slovak parent can ask the judge to open the case again, starting from scratch, from the beginning of the entire legal process. And then everything must be done over again and again. The case is forever postponed. Meanwhile, the child remains in Slovakia.”
Ragnar Hafsteinsson, an Icelandic citizen, spent “two grueling years” fighting for custody of his son, Adam. Hafsteinsson and his then-girlfriend, a Slovak national, met in Reykjavík, where Adam was born and where they lived together as a family. But in 2012, the relationship dissolved and neither parent could agree on a parental custodial arrangement. After a contentious dispute, an Icelandic court granted Hafsteinsson full custody of his then five-year-old son. Hafsteinsson remained in Iceland, his ex-girlfriend returned to Slovakia, and Adam shuffled back and forth, spending the school year with his father and vacations and summers with his mother.
In May 2015, Hafsteinsson moved to a small town just outside Stavanger, in southwestern Norway. That October, the day before Adam was to fly back following a week-long visit with his mother in Ivanka pri Dunaji, a village in western Slovakia, Hafsteinsson was told Adam was “too sick” to speak via Skype. Hafsteinsson was subsequently cut off by his ex-girlfriend and her entire family from every line of communication — Skype, phones, social media.
“I went to the police, I went to the Foreign Ministries department in Norway and in Iceland,” recounts Hafsteinsson. “In Iceland, they refused to help me because I lived in Norway, even though my son and I are both Icelandic citizens. And in Norway, the system is very slow. So I contacted a lawyer, an expert in cases such as this one, and he said I had three choices: I can go to court in Slovakia, where I will never win. I can forget about my son. Or I can go get him. It’s really just that simple, he said.”
Within two weeks, Hafsteinsson assembled a team of security and extraction specialists whom he’d met during his tour of duty working for ICRU, Iceland Crisis Response Unit, in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Chaghcharan, Ghor Province, between 2004–’06.
Hafsteinsson and his team descended upon Ivanka pri Dunaji, and, disguised as local police officers, abducted Adam back, a move that Hafsteinsson said he felt forced to take, controversial as they might be.
“The consequences of not going in would be not to get my son back,” says Hafsteinsson. “It’s that simple. The consequences of going in, trying to get him back, and failing to do so would, at worst, result in jail time and, at best, lead me to be escorted out of the country. [It was] a chance I was more than willing to take.”
Per Hafsteinsson, he was “wanted by Interpol” for about three days following the abduction, but after the Slovak police were informed that it was his ex-girlfriend who initiated the original kidnapping, the charges were dropped. “There are no criminal charges pending,” he claims.
“Adam is now 11 years old, and I have been forced to be very honest with him the whole time,” says Hafsteinsson. “I’ve been partly criticized for it and I’ve been partly praised for it. But ever since day one, he knows exactly what has been going on. Adam has always had contact with his mother via Skype. It’s physical contact that has not been a possibility. Of course, it weighs on my mind that he does not get to experience his mother the way he is supposed to. However, I cannot let myself be focused on that as this is not a situation that I created. It never had to be like this and it’s the last thing I ever wanted. I am well aware that a child needs both parents, but we all know that situations can occur where that is not always easy. Adam knows why he can’t go to Slovakia. He knows he will go to Slovakia one day if he wants to — when he’s older.”
When asked if he’s condoning vigilantism in the face of custodial dispute, which can only lead to mass chaos, or if he was privy to any sort of financial “leverage,” Hafsteinsson balks at the suggestion. He “nearly went bankrupt” trying to get back his son, and insists that while “[we] may make more money in Norway than Slovakia,” the cost of living is infinitely steeper. It was his ex-girlfriend, he says, that the “Slovak authorities assisted.”
Abducting his son back, he asserts, was never something he “wanted” to do. And he would never suggest that someone else do the same. The risks are far too high.
“Do I regret this happening? Of course I do. The cost is what my son has to pay — first and foremost.”
But the alternative, says Hafsteinsson, is that he would most likely have never seen his son again.
“I was, and am, very aware of how the Slovak system works,” he says. “I did my due diligence back in 2012 when we were in court. I could go to court again, where I would lose — or win, without getting him back. You can win, but unless she actually delivers him back, you have to go to court again and again. So, I didn’t exhaust any other options because there were none, other than fighting the losing battle. It would have been impossible to get my son back unless [she] suddenly had a change of heart, something I knew [she] would not have. The judicial system in Slovakia is extremely prejudiced against fathers, especially foreign ones. Case in point: Tommy Hoholm, a Norwegian whose case is exactly like mine. His wife went on vacation with their two children and never came back. Eight years passed until he saw them again, despite going to court again and again. In the end, he took Slovakia to the European Court of Human Rights. Tommy won that case by a landslide. And yet, it changed nothing. So yes, I did what I had to. And I wasted no time.”
In February 2020, Igor Matovic, who campaigns on an anti-corruption platform, is elected prime minister of Slovak Republic. He assumes office in March. Also in March, a series of anti-corruption raids sweep Slovakia, with 13 judges and five private citizens linked to the murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova detained and charged with corruption and obstruction of justice. And in June, another scandal erupts when Viera Tomanova, Slovak commissioner for children, is accused of turning her office into a “family business,” hiring family members and eating up the office’s allotted funds not for the children it’s intended to protect, but for placing relatives on the payroll and expensing trips abroad.
(And if this sounds even vaguely akin to Trump’s presidency, it ought to prompt Americans to do some serious internal soul searching as to whom we collectively elected as our leader. Because things can get worse.)
The Stop Corruption Foundation, under Makarova, has called on Tomanova to resign and the National Council of the Slovak Republic has launched an investigation into the matter. The Stop Corruption Foundation has also helped launch within the Slovak family law system a pilot program of the Cochem model. Developed in Germany’s court system in 1992, the Cochem model encourages interdisciplinary cooperation between divorcing parents sorting out the custody of their children.
“It’s still in its very early stages, but this system will be very helpful,” says Makarova. “It will shorten the length of these custody trials, and we have the attention of our new Ministry of Justice, which is very good news.”
“Things are changing,” she adds. “The police raid has helped to get rid of judges with illegal connections, judges whom I’m assuming got money for decisions, judges who got where they were through bribery. We have a new prime minister and, while I’m not sure yet if he’s the right person, there have already been positive changes. President Capatova, while she doesn’t have the power of the prime minister, is very active and making anti-corruption statements. So, while changes may take several years, there are some good signs.”
However, while Makarova is confident these changes can and will forge a new pathway toward implementing systemic justice, many remain skeptical. As Janockova notes, the elections may be a positive sign, but, thus far, no further headway has been made in establishing equitable child custody laws that recognize the rights of both parents and children.
“After the election, I sent my new requests for meeting with the prime minister and to the Ministry of Justice and the president,” she says. “I asked the president twice. There is still no answer. We are still waiting for when our children will be a priority in society.”
Richard Holmes continues to struggle with his own relentless grief. He is engaged, and he and his fiancée, Charlotte, have a son, Edward, born in March 2018. The joy of raising Edward quells in some part the pain and loss of being denied access to his other son, Alexander, but it also pries open other searing wounds, ones that will likely never heal.
“I am not even sure Alexander knows he has a baby brother,” says Holmes. “I only know that Alexander is alive through friends and ex-friends of Zuzana who keep me informed.”
From his home in Douglas, Isle of Man, Holmes lobbies for the rights of alienated parents and their children through the organization that he co-founded, International Child Abduction Slovakia, based in Naples, Italy.
“A parent who cannot love unconditionally and ensure that a child has a strong relationship with both parents, cultures and families is, frankly, not worth having,” says Holmes. “In Slovakia though, that is the parent that ‘wins.’ You could call it an industry, where everyone apart from the lawyers and authorities end up a victim. The abducted children never have a normal childhood. They can’t love — they can’t even call their father ‘daddy.’ The left behind parent goes through emotional hell. The outcome is always bad for all. This is why I fight very hard for our son and for other parents, both Slovak and foreign. It gives parents strength to know that someone notices, someone cares. That is why the parents stick together and help each other.”
Others have given up hope entirely. The alienation cuts too deep. After years of separation, the children become lost to the parents, strangers.
Laco Durkovic, a Slovak-based journalist, hasn’t seen his now-15-year-old son since 2016, when his ex-girlfriend abducted him. Durkovic is a founding member of the League of Fathers, an advocacy group for left-behind parents, and he’s pleaded his case to the Slovak Ministry of Justice. But to no avail.
When we meet, in February 2019 at a protest in Bratislava condemning the murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova, Durkovic is jovial and upbeat, a picture of radical acceptance in the face of devastating loss. At one point, he pulls out his wallet from the pocket of his black leather jacket, and shows me a picture of his son, which he carries with him everywhere, pressed firmly against the left side of his torso.
“The court just told me that you must accept [the abduction] as if he died, and I cried — it was brutal,” he tells me, anguish radiating across his face. “So now I just pretend he is dead.”
Malina Saval is features editor at Variety, where she covers the human interest and entertainment beats. She is also the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens. Her writing and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, Jerusalem Post, Forward, Tablet, and various other publications. She has won two L.A. Press Club awards and is a board member of the L.A. Press Club.
Featured image: "City of Bratislava,Slovakia in 2019" by CAPTAIN RAJU is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been altered from original.
Banner image: "Bratislava Panorama 01 crop" by Stano Novak is licensed under CC BY 2.5. Image has been cropped and darkened.