Trial Court Properly Recognized & Enforced a Foreign Court’s Custody Order

Family Law Case Review

Case: Maimouna Coulibaly v. Eric Stevance
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Indiana trial court properly recognized and enforced a Malian court’s custody order, over Mother’s objection that the order was unenforceable under the UCCJEA because Mali’s child custody laws violate fundamental humanrights.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY: Mother and Father are both dual citizens of France and Mali. In 2001, they married in Mali and later had two children together.  Father filed for divorce in Mali in 2008. At a hearing there, Mother testified that she wished to move away from Mali, and that Father had been abusive to her. Father denied the abuse claim, and expressed concern that Mother might kidnap the children. Both parties requested custody. Before the Malian court could rule, Mother took the children and moved to France. The Malian court subsequently issued an order granting custody of the children to Father.

Mother never returned the children to Father, and after unsuccessfully contesting the custody order in Mali and France, Mother moved to Indiana, where she continued to challenge the order. At a trial in Indiana, Mother presented evidence of corruption in Mali and of widespread female genital mutilation (“FGM”), which Mother feared the daughter would be subjected to. The Indiana trial court ultimately concluded that that Malian child custody order was entitled to enforcement and that the Indiana court lacked jurisdiction to modify it. Further, Mother was ordered to return the children to Father. That order was stayed pending Mother’s appeal.

Indiana’s adoption of the UCCJEA includes a provision that essentially allows an Indiana court to disregard a foreign custody order, “if the child custody law of a foreign country violates the fundamental principles of human rights.” The interpretation of this so-called “escape clause” was a matter of first impression in this case.  Mother’s arguments that Malian law violated principles of human rights included that its laws favor men over women. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Malian law treats men and women in different ways, but their custody laws ultimately provide for a “best interests of the children” standard. As to the application of gender differences, “we simply cannot say that they are so utterly shocking to the conscience or egregious as to rise to the level of a violation of fundamental principles of human rights.”

The Court of Appeals also rejected Mother’s arguments based upon the FGM issue: Under the UCCJEA “our scrutiny is limited to Mali’s child custody law and not on other aspects of its legal system, including the law (or absence of law) concerning FGM.” Failing to prove that Mali’s custody laws violate fundamental principles of human law, the trial court properly ordered that the Malian custody decree should not be disturbed by the Indiana court.

The trial court’s order was affirmed.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Maimouna Coulibaly v. Eric Stevance

 

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James A. Reed and Michael R. Kohlhaas of Bingham Greenebaum Doll represent clients in a wide spectrum of relationship transition and wealth planning matters, including premarital agreements, estate planning, cohabitation, separation, divorce (especially involving high net worth individuals and/or complex asset issues), custody, parenting arrangements, adoption, and domestic partnerships. Bingham Greenebaum Doll, a multidisciplinary law firm serving regional, national, and international clients, is the fourth-largest law firm in Indiana. The firm’s main practices include corporate, property, litigation, labor, government law, and personal services law. Visit the firm’s website at www.bgdlegal.com.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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