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Supreme Court says Army dad must be heard in custody battle for daughter

  • ErisJeff.jpg

    In this undated photo, U.S. army sergeant Jeffrey Chafin poses with daughter Eris.Courtesy of Jeffrey Chafin

  • chafin comp.jpg

    Courtesy of Jeffrey Chafin

An Army dad whose wife left him and took their daughter to Scotland gained new hope when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the American courts can assert themselves in international custody battles.

In a 9-0 vote that overturned an appeals court decision denying Sgt. Jeffrey Chafin's bid to get daughter Eris back, the high court rejected the idea that Chafin’s appeal was “moot” because the six-year-old girl had been in Scotland for more than a year. The justices sent the case back to the Florida-based 11th Circuit court, telling the judges there to rule on the merits.

“Such return does not render this case moot; there is a live dispute between the parties over where their child will be raised, and there is a possibility of effectual relief for the prevailing parent,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the written ruling. “The courts below therefore continue to have jurisdiction to adjudicate the merits of the parties’ respective claims.”

“When you have been done wrong and you’ve been screaming and finally someone hears you. It’s a very good feeling.”

- Jeffrey Chafin

An ecstatic Chafin, who met Lynn Chafin while he was stationed in Germany, but later saw their marriage sour back in the U.S., said he is ready to resume the fight for custody of Eris.

“I’m still in the cloud,” Jeffrey Chafin told FoxNews.com. “When you have been done wrong and you’ve been screaming and finally someone hears you. It’s a very good feeling.

“Now we have a fighting chance.”

Chafin and his attorney said it was frustrating to not get the chance to make their case before the lower court.

“We didn’t have a day in court," attorney Michael Manely said. "Now the 11th circuit will have to look at the facts of this case. I think the appeals court will look at the facts and see that something doesn’t match up here. This soldier needs the opportunity to have his case heard.”

Roberts said U.S. courts have a role to play, even if Lynn Chafin refuses to cooperate. 

“Even if Scotland were to ignore a U.S. re-return order, or decline to assist in enforcing it, this case would not be moot,” he said. “The U.S. courts continue to have personal jurisdiction over Ms. Chafin, may command her to take action even outside the United States, and may back up any such command with sanctions ... Enforcement of the order may be uncertain if Ms. Chafin chooses to defy it, but such uncertainty does not typically render cases moot.”

The couple married in 2006 and Eris was born a year later. They were living in Germany where Jeffrey was stationed until he was deployed to Afghanistan. Lynne and their daughter had moved to Scotland until Jeffrey was transferred to Alabama in 2009. He was joined by his family the following year, but the couple divorced in 2010 and Lynne was deported a year later.

Chafin’s case is the latest high-profile custody battle involving a U.S. father and a mother who whisked their child away overseas.

  • In 2008, Iraq War veteran Michael Elias was separated from his 4-year-old daughter, Jade, and 2-year-old son, Michael, when his wife illegally took the children from their New Jersey home back to her native Japan. Elias lost all rights to see his children or have them return stateside due to Japan’s government not signing and abiding by the Hague Convention, which includes regulations on the civil aspects of international child abduction.
  • In 2004, then 4-year-old Sean Goldman of New Jersey, went with his mother Bruna Bianchi back to her native Brazil for a two-week-vacation. When she did not return , a custody battle began between Bianchi and Sean’s father David Goldman. Bianchi remarried in Brazil in 2007, but died a year later while giving birth. Her new husband was granted a custody order by the Brazilian court, but Goldman won custody of the boy in December 2009.
  • New York City photographer Michael McCarty has fought since 2007 for custody of his son Liam, after his ex-wife took the boy to her native Italy. Despite Liam's mother, Manuela Antonelli, being declared unfit to care for her child and McCarty having been given full legal custody, child services officials in Italy have refused to give McCarty his son back.