A Minnesota couple is worried about their American granddaughters after Italian authorities placed the children in foster care while their mother, an Air Force staff sergeant, was on a mission last week.
On Oct. 13, police in Pordenone, Italy, took away Staff Sgt. Kris Wylie's daughters — Leighlora, 7, and Lillian Ann, 5 — from the custody of her Italian fiance at their off-base home while Wylie was on a mission outside of Italy. They were put in the Italian version of Child Protective Services.
"You think of the children themselves in a strange place with strangers," said Bob Benson, of White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul. "Fortunately they can speak the language, but they aren't with their parents; they were just ripped away, no reasons given, no paperwork, no nothing."
Italian authorities have charged Wylie, 28, with three counts connected to the maltreatment of children, according to Tech. Sgt. Michael O'Connor at the Aviano Air Force Base in Aviano, Italy.
"Her squadron leadership is in full support of her and believe the allegations to not be true," O'Connor said.
Benson and his wife, Marcia, learned of their grandchildren's plight from their daughter on Wednesday. "All we know is that our grandchildren are missing and our daughter is telling us that she’s been charged with abandonment," Bob Benson said.
O'Connor said previous reports of the abandonment charges were not true. A court date has not been set.
Wylie, a seven-year veteran of the Air Force, has served at Aviano for the last three years and serves in the 31st Fighter Wing. Her youngest child is fluent in Italian and her eldest is bilingual, Bob Benson said. Their birth father lives in Wisconsin.
She had given power of attorney to her fiance so that he could legally take care of her daughters while she was away for work, the Bensons said.
The Bensons contacted the office of Sen. Norm Coleman, R.-Minn., who put them in touch with the State Department and a judge advocate at Aviano. They went to the local media earlier in the week in a plea to help their grandchildren.
But, Bob Benson said his daughter didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the case.
"Her main concern is that this is Italian law, it's not American law, and we need to be very careful in what we say and do because we do not want to give the Italians a black eye," Bob Benson said.
The Bensons — who visited Wylie, her fiance and their granddaughters last year in Italy — offered to take in their granddaughters, but the Italian authorities will not allow them to leave the country while the investigation is ongoing.
"There’s nothing more important to us than our grandchildren," Bob Benson said.
Officials at Aviano are working with Italian authorities to have the girls placed in an American home during the course of the investigation, O'Connor said.
"Because the charges are filed in here in Italy by the Italian authorities, [Wylie's] being represented by an Italian attorney," O'Connor said. "The base is working right now to have the children placed with a U.S. family."
The U.S. government is paying for Wylie's Italian lawyer, O'Connor said.
"Given the serious nature of this incident, speculation prior to the completion of our investigation would be inappropriate," he said. "Our primary focus remains on the children and ensuring their safety. We have every reason to believe that the children are safe and will be returned."