Air Force Staff Sergeant Fights for Return of Her U.S. Daughters From Italian Custody

A U.S. Air Force staff sergeant stationed in Italy is fighting to regain custody of her two children from Italian authorities after an official removed them from her home while she was on a military training mission.

A judge held off transferring custody of Leighlora Wylie, 7, and Lillian Ann Wylie, 5, from Italian social services to an American foster family earlier this month as authorities in northern Italy investigate their mother, 30-year-old Kris Wylie, on charges of maltreatment and abandonment, and Wylie's Italian fiance on charges of child abuse.

Under NATO agreement, Italian officials have the primary right of jurisdiction for offenses that take place in Italy. The Italians must follow the best interests of the child under the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Wylie and her Italian lawyer, Francesco Furlan, say the charges are unfounded.

The children were removed from the fiance's custody last month while Wylie was out of the country on a training mission with the 31st Fighter Wing, which is based in Aviano, Italy. Wylie's fiance had power of attorney over the girls, and a second family on the base was also given custody rights. Police removed the girls from the couple's off-base home while letting the fiance's 7-year-old son from a previous relationship remain there.

"We shouldn't forget that these two girls have an American passport," Furlan told "They cannot take the girls and take them to a secret location without informing the Embassy in Roma or the base commander in Aviano."

Officials took custody of the girls in October.

A neighbor called Italian police in mid-August to report that the fiance was beating Wylie's children. The girls were examined at a local hospital, Italian and American authorities investigated, and Italian police told Wylie and her fiance that they didn't think there was a problem, Wylie said.

"All the investigations led to nothing," Furlan said. "We have the official paper from the Aviano Base command saying there is absolutely, absolutely no case of child abuse."

But on Oct. 13, a police official in Pordenone, Italy, took the girls away while Wylie was on a mission abroad. On Oct. 17, Wylie was formally charged with maltreatment and abandonment, and her fiance was charged with three counts of child abuse.

"She's on a military mission here in Italy; her status is regulated by the North Atlantic Treaty," Furlan said. "I would say you know that because the local DA says that she's not a suitable mother because she abandons the girls quite often. I mean, of course. She's in the military. She's sent on missions or training in the States or whatever, they cannot interfere about this."

Furlan said that if the Italian authorities truly believed the girls were in grave danger, they would have removed them from Wylie's care in August.

"If you have the real and concrete suspicion that something's happening to the girls in August, you take them away from that environment in October?" he said. "This is silly."

He said the children's removal from their home was due to "a total and blamable lack of communication" on the part of the Italian authorities.

"I've been dealing with the base for years now," Furlan said. "Even [though] I'm Italian, I have to say that the attitude from the legal office of the base and the American authorities to the local court here has always been of extreme opening ... and I cannot say the same thing happens vice versa."

Wylie is allowed to speak to the children for 30 minutes each night, but conversations are recorded and must be conducted in Italian. She can see the girls for an hour each week during a supervised visit.

A judge in Trieste, Italy, temporarily dashed Wylie's hopes of being reunited with the children earlier this month, refusing to grant custody of the children to American foster families on the base pending an investigation into her fitness as a mother.

"We were hoping that the Italians would at least release our children to an American foster care family," Wylie said. "That way, at least, they would be on neutral ground."

Wylie's parents, who are from a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., have been in contact with federal officials regarding the situation. The State Department referred all questions about the case to Aviano Air Base officials, who in turn asked that inquiries be directed to Furlan. They have also appealed to Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., for help.

"Our office has been in contact with the family in Minnesota involved in this case and has made the appropriate authorities aware of their concerns," said LeRoy Coleman, press secretary for the senator. "Since this is an ongoing case, we cannot comment further on the efforts underway at this point.”

Wylie has served at Aviano for the last three years in the 31st Fighter Wing. Her younger daughter is fluent in Italian, and the elder daughter is bilingual. The girls' birth father lives in Wisconsin.

"We're a blended family," Wylie said. "We're not perfect people. We want to do everything that we possibly can to fix our situation — do what we have to do."

Communications have improved between Italian authorities and the Americans in recent weeks, Furlan said. Italian and American authorities met on Monday, and on Tuesday, a judge set a Dec. 12 examination of the children to see if they can be reunited with their mom.

"We strongly hope and we have been reassured the court that there is the possibility that the girls would be reunited to the mother and the family for Christmas," Furlan said.

Wylie, who still plans to marry her fiance, says she has no hard feelings toward Italy and its people.

"I still love Italy," she said. "I believe there needs to be more communication in the legal system between the Americans and the Italians, that's what I think this problem comes down to."