ANTIOCH - An East Bay man’s two-year child custody battle took a troubling turn earlier this year when his ex-wife moved to Africa with their 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
For months the father, Gaya Viaan, has been working to get his children back home. He even obtained a court order granting him custody of the kids and authorities are investigating the mom. But he’s losing faith he’ll one day see them again.
"This is a true nightmare," Viaan told KTVU in a recent interview. "I told my son, no matter what I will fight for you and I will take care of you."
While the situation is concerning for the father, the case is not unusual. It underscores a plight faced by thousands of parents every year around the nation. Such cases are challenging for the courts and law enforcement to intervene on, and when so-called parental abductions cross international borders, they become even more sticky, experts say.
It began when Viaan said his ex-wife, Ayesha Jackson, talked of moving out of the Bay Area in 2020 with the kids.
But in April he learned that Jackson and the kids had moved to Ghana. He said his ex-wife forged his signature on travel documents. In an interview with KTVU from Ghana, Jackson said Viaan was aware of her plans to move.
"The first thing that went through my mind was how did this happen? How can I get them back? What’s the necessary steps? Who can I contact?" Viaan said.
He contacted the Contra Costa County Superior Court judge and obtained an emergency order granting him temporary full custody of the kids, along with a "locate, serve and recover" order from the district attorney.
But since Jackson and the kids are in another country, the documents have little value, he found.
While stranger abductions get much deserved attention and often make headlines in the news, nearly all child abductions are perpetrated by family members -- and many are dismissed by authorities as messy family situations.
David Finkelhor is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He wasn’t aware of Viaan’s case but said that most cases of child abduction involve custody disputes that escalate.
"Family abduction is much more common that stranger abduction," he said. "It’s the predominant kind of abduction."
According to the Justice Department, around 156,000 children are victims of serious parental abductions each year, but only 30,000 generate police reports and only 9,000 case are opened by prosecutors.
"Those kind of family situations are very toxic for children," Finkelhor said.
Viaan’s case is one of the outliers. Antioch police took a report and the district attorney’s office is investigating, and according to an internal report, charges are pending.
But because his kids are in Africa – it’s even more complicated.
Viaan said he even flew to Ghana this summer hoping to get his kids back, but authorities there said he didn’t have enough documentation for them to get involved.
"The sad part was coming back to the states with my kids clothes that I was going to have them wear when they got back," he said.
In a phone interview with KTVU from Ghana, Jackson denied abducting her children and said she hopes to resolve the dispute.
"I in no way, shape, or form kidnapped my children," she said. "I was not served papers, so I could show up in court to defend myself or my children. Unfortunately, this is a situation Mr. Viaan has vindictively blown out of proportion."
Finkelhor said the best course of action in these situations is for the parents to figure out a resolution.
"International family child abductions are particularly difficult to resolve," he said. "It’s often is difficult to get the support of the justice system to a resolution."
In the meantime, Viaan hopes things will work out so he can see his kids again.
"Something needs to happen better to not allow this to happen to any other parent," he said.
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky