Four years after his daughters moved thousands of miles away with their mother, Henderson resident Shane Peterson has been granted sole custody of the two girls.
But there’s a catch.
The June court order is from a Nevada judge — and is not recognized in Sweden, where the girls live with their mom, Cecilia Laible.
Bringing his daughters back would be considered child abduction in Sweden. Even with the new judgment in hand, Peterson is in legal limbo. He now seeks sole custody in the Swedish courts.
“I can continue to keep fighting to be in their lives, or give up,” he said. “I’m not going to do that.”
In 2013, another Nevada judge allowed Laible, Peterson’s ex-wife, to bring the two children to Sweden. A year later, the state Supreme Court affirmed the judge’s decision.
“The day that the mother sets her foot on Swedish ground, she might not follow their American orders,” said Peterson’s Swedish attorney, Ia Sveger. “That’s why the American court shouldn’t have given her the right to leave in the first place.”
The Swedish courts usually assume jurisdiction after children have lived in the country for more than a year, Sveger said. Once a child moves with a parent to Sweden, the attorney said, it’s rare that Swedish courts will allow the child to return to the other parent in the United States.
She said Sweden would honor the rulings of a foreign court only if the initial jurisdiction were in the European Union, in accordance with the union’s Brussels II Regulation on divorce, child custody and international child abduction.
The custody battle in Sweden
The United States has not ratified Hague Convention 1996, which aims to avoid orders about children’s property and welfare being made in any country other than the one in which the children live.
It also allows orders made in the children’s country of residence to be registered and enforceable in other countries that have ratified the convention.
“This means that the legal procedures the father is doing in the U.S. court (do) not have any legal effect in the Swedish court,” Jessica Sandberg, the Swedish attorney for Laible, said in an email.
The recent judgment in the Nevada court “does not make sense at all,” she wrote, and any decision about the children he receives “can’t be enforced in Sweden.”
“It is only making the parties conflict about the children worse by running a complete unnecessary litigation in a foreign court where the children do not live any more,” she wrote.
She also contended that in the first Swedish court decision in December 2016, Peterson agreed to withdraw his request to have sole custody of the children.
Peterson, 39, said he never agreed that the girls should stay in Sweden, and he added that both parties withdrew their request for sole custody in that hearing.
“That’s never been my position,” he said. “I wasn’t adequately represented in that hearing. And that’s not what’s going on now.”
In Sweden, Peterson has joint custody with Laible. In order to see the girls, he must request scheduled visitation on Swedish soil.
“It becomes like a Catch-22 for Shane,” Sveger said. “The Swedish court, they protect their own citizens. The United States does the same. The losers are, of course, the children.”
New Nevada judge weighs in
Laible did not appear at the June 2 hearing in Las Vegas, either virtually or in person. She declined to comment for this story.
Peterson’s current wife, Rachel Lipman, testified about meeting the girls, now 11 and 7, at his Henderson house in 2013. They showed her their gymnastics tricks, drew pictures, played mermaid games in the pool and took their cat to the park.
In the summer of 2015, the older daughter had five cavities from not flossing or brushing her teeth regularly, Peterson testified in June. She had an abscess and needed a root canal. The dentist advised her not to fly, because the condition could cause pain and discomfort.
Peterson and Laible did not agree. She claimed that he was abducting the girls by keeping them in the States. The Swedish and U.S. courts disagreed.
“She wanted to take the kids back as soon as possible,” Peterson said. The girls flew back to Sweden four days later, after receiving a doctor’s approval.
During the June custody hearing, Tina Howard, of the Sylvan Learning Center in Henderson, testified that in summer 2015, Peterson’s older daughter was reading slightly below her grade level. In summer 2016, she was a year behind her current fourth-grade level. Her Swedish school had noted her struggles.
On the day the girls were supposed to come back to the States in December 2016, Peterson received an email from his ex-wife: “Shane, the children aren’t on the plane.”
They haven’t been back since the summer of 2016.
Sandberg said the mother wants sole custody, wants her daughters to have Swedish passports and wants court proceedings in Nevada to end before allowing visitation, “due to the high risk of child abduction.”
Peterson’s Las Vegas attorney, Patricia Marr, said the court should have given the foreign relocation order a higher level of scrutiny in 2013.
Judges already differentiate between requests by parents who want to move to a nearby state and parents who want to move to a state on the other side of the country, she said. She argued that the same should be done for international cases, like Peterson’s.
Peterson said he just wants what’s best for the girls, their health and their academics in their formative years.
“I think it’s important that both parents are involved in the kids’ lives to the extent they can,” he told District Judge Linda Marquis in June. “But I’m not convinced that she is able to provide competent care for the kids anymore.”
The judge agreed.
Until last year, the girls usually spent two weeks in the winter and about nine weeks in the summer with Peterson.
Their belongings, tutoring records and medical records in Nevada are evidence that court proceedings should remain in the United States, Marquis said.
She overturned the 2013 custody ruling because of the new evidence displayed at the hearing: five cavities in the older girl’s adult teeth, an abscess involving a root canal at such a young age, the declining academic scores, the girls’ increasingly shy behavior with their dad, and Laible’s failure to allow two specific court-ordered visitations.
“Mom is unlikely to follow the orders of this court,” the judge said at the June hearing. “And for that matter, the orders of any court in any other country.”
2013 ruling allowed move
Less than a year after Peterson and Laible divorced, in November 2013, then-Family Court Judge William Gonzalez granted Laible’s request to relocate with the girls to Sweden.
They left on Christmas Eve.
In his decision, Gonzalez cited a prior Nevada case, stating that relocating the children demonstrated an “actual advantage” and that Laible’s decision to leave the United States was in “good faith.”
The couple had married in Sweden, one of their daughters was born there, both girls spoke the language and both parents had dual citizenship, he noted. Gonzalez, now a family lawyer, declined to comment for this story.
Peterson’s appeal, with the help of attorney Bruce Shapiro, was denied in September 2014.
Peterson met Laible in 1999 when he was studying abroad at Purdue University in Indiana. In 2001, he moved to Sweden. They married in 2005, and their first daughter was born in Sweden in August 2006. They moved to Southern Nevada the following year.
As the years went by, their marriage began to falter, and Peterson decided to ask for a divorce.
A month after moving out of the home, in April 2013, he heard of Laible’s plans to relocate to Balsta, Sweden, where she now lives with the girls.
After spending the last few years paying half of his take-home pay every month for child support, Peterson flies to Sweden at least twice a year for visitation.
“This is their childhood,” he said. “That’s really the tragedy of it all.”
The next custody hearing in Sweden is in February. Peterson will attend and said he hopes the judge will decide to grant him sole custody of the girls.
“I just want to see a good outcome for the kids,” he said, “whether they’re here or there.”
Contact Briana Erickson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.