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April 27th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Unlike in California, it turns out that, in West Virginia, child abduction is a crime.  Moreover, it’s one the criminal courts take seriously.  Read about it here (Tyler Star News, 4/25/12).

That’s the lesson Jessica Seckman will have at least a year to think about behind bars.  Judge David Hummel sentenced her to serve at least one year and as many as five for her abduction of her two children back in September, 2011.

It seems that a family court had just stripped Seckman of custody and the local child welfare agency was asking questions about her fitness as a parent.  So, she and her current husband packed up the children and headed out for parts unknown.  They were known to be inveterate campers, so they could more easily avoid detection by staying in parks instead of hotels.  The linked-to article doesn’t mention it, but they managed to evade law enforcement for a month before being nabbed in Arizona.

The Seckmans were the target of a nationwide manhunt which prompted law enforcement searches up and down the east coast and ended with the arrest in Arizona. The children were taken into the custody of child protective services and later returned to the custody of family members.

At Seckman’s sentencing, the father of one of the children, Thomas Howard had this to say to Judge Hummel:

He was visibly upset as he spoke of his fear and anguish during the ordeal, saying, “A child’s trust is precious, and the ability to trust a parent is the basis of all trust. My daughter’s trust was broken when her mother took her away from her home.”

Howard told the court the Seckmans were under investigation by Child Protective Services at the time of the incident.

“On the day I got the phone call from school, I knew the thing I had been dreading had finally happened,” said Mr. Howard. “My daughter was gone, and I had no idea where she was, or if she was all right.”

“The next 30 days were a blur. I couldn’t sleep. Our family worried and prayed for my daughter’s safety,” he continued. “Even though she was eventually returned safely to us, my daughter is still trying to recover from this. I fear her struggle will be lifelong. She has lost the ability to trust anyone.”

The judge was obviously sympathetic.

In pronouncing sentence, the court denied the request for probation and sentenced Seckman to not less than one nor more than five years in prison according to the statute, with credit for time served. Seckman was also ordered to pay restitution to the county for extradition costs, as well as one hundred percent of costs for counseling, should her child require treatment. Seckman received the maximum sentence for the crime.

“I can’t think of a greater nightmare than having a child taken away by such a selfish act,” said Judge Hummel. “This was a reprehensible, selfish act on your part,” Hummel told Seckman, “one that can not be over-stated. You did not call, did not advise anyone of the child’s safety, which compounded the seriousness of the act.”

The prosecuting attorney, Luke Furbee added:

“I hope this prosecution serves notice that the orders and rulings of family courts are not a game,” added Furbee. “Too often, parties there seem to feel free to flaunt parenting orders and use them as weapons for purely selfish reasons. The family courts do a good job sorting it out, but when one absconds with children in violation of an order, that is a crime. That’s what Mrs. Seckman did, and the fear and doubting Mr. Howard suffered is unimaginable.”

“It’s a crime, and it will be prosecuted,” Furbee concluded.

We see it time and again.  What family courts wink at, criminal courts take seriously.  The same was true in the Jeff Ruggiero case.  There, had it been up to the family court, his ex-wife Kristen would have gotten away with perjury and made off with his daughter besides.  But she also lied to a criminal court and went niside for up to 12 years for her trouble.  She later committed suicide in prison.

Both Ruggiero and the Seckman cases graphically demonstrate what I’ve said for years – family courts can enforce their orders if they want to, just as criminal courts can.  Of course no family court could have stopped Jessica Seckman from abducting her children, but the refusal by family judges to enforce visitation orders is legendary.  My guess is that a little punishment would go a long way toward leveling the playing field between mothers and fathers.  But family courts refuse to impose penalties for flouting their orders, with the unsurprising result that mothers keep on disobeying them.  Why would it be otherwise?

Right now, the State of California has a child abductor sitting pretty in San Mateo County.  There’s no doubt that Grant Cossey’s wife abducted their two sons and no doubt that she’s lied to the court claiming Cossey abused his kids.  But as far as the family judge goes, that’s all perfectly alright.  He should take a lesson from the folks in West Virginia and punish Cossey’s wife for her multiple violations of criminal law and court orders.  Maybe, if he did, she wouldn’t do it anymore.  Think of that.

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