Harris Todd and Lee Barnett’s Custody Case

November 29, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

It turns out that, way back in 1994, Children of the Underground assisted Dorothy Lee Barnett in her abduction of her and Harris Todd’s 11-month-old daughter, Savanna. It also turns out that the investigative team reporting on Children of the Underground and its founder, Faye Yager, did an extensive piece on that abduction in 1998. Given the fact that Barnett had decamped to parts unknown, the piece, unlike so many articles about fathers and their kidnapped children, was mostly about Todd. Here it is (Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma). The case has returned to the public’s attention because Barnett was finally run to ground in Australia, 19 years after her initial abduction of Savanna, who’s now 20 and named Samantha.

Faye Yager has always claimed that she only assists mothers who have solid proof that the man whose child they’re kidnapping is an abuser. Put simply, that is not true. Harris Todd’s case proves that Yager’s claim is a lie. In the first place, Barnett never once claimed he’d abused their daughter. In the second place, the trial of their custody case lasted an astonishing 12 days, plenty of time for Barnett to produce any evidence she could to damn Todd. Finally, the trial was before a notoriously pro-mother judge who nevertheless found Barnett so emotionally unsound as to give Todd sole custody of Savanna. In short, when Faye Yager and the Children of the Underground decided to help take a loving father out of a little girl’s life, they had no justification for doing so. If anyone believes that’s the only time that’s happened, I have a well-known bridge to sell them.

As Harris Todd tells it, Lee Barnett was a dangerous person from the start, and her courtroom demeanor bears him out.

Benjamin Harris Todd III is, at 45, the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale, Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat…

In the gossipy, sophisticated town of Charleston, Harris Todd has a reputation — as a ladies’ man, a great dancer, a gourmet cook. He claims he is also "still friends with all my ex-girlfriends — except one." The one who became his wife…

Barnett was, Todd says, also "extremely volatile, prone to dramatic mood swings," so much so that Todd felt ambivalent about their future. Finally, Barnett presented him with a marriage license and suggested they treat an upcoming Bahamas vacation as a honeymoon. At age 39, Todd assented…

But to hear Todd tell it, the marriage was a spur-of-the-moment decision, made in haste and regretted soon afterwards, when Barnett began to become violent toward him.

He would later testify in court about her behavior: how she wouldn’t sleep for seven or eight days at a stretch; how she would beat her head against a wall for what seemed like hours. One night, he awoke to find her lying in a fetal position on the floor, staring at nothing, rocking back and forth.

Or while he was driving their car, she would turn to him during an argument and start pummeling the side of his head.

"I’ve never hit a woman in my life," Todd says. "And I can’t explain why I let myself be hit."

In February 1993, after two years together, they separated and Todd moved out. She claimed desertion; Todd, in filing for divorce the following month, claimed physical cruelty.

By then, Barnett was pregnant with Savanna.

He went into hiding, to escape what he called her endless tirades and threats. Sometimes, he slept in his car.

"I was on the run from her, hiding out at friends’ houses. She’d drive around all night, looking for me, and sometimes she’d find me. She’d stand outside the house and scream that she was going to kill herself."…

"She has, what I was told, a treatable illness" — manic depression. "It could be controlled with drugs," Todd says. When she refused to get treatment, he began custody proceedings. 

But his custody case landed in the court of Judge Robert Mallard.

His case was heard before a judge who had a reputation for making custody decisions under the traditional "tender years doctrine," which presumes that a young child is better off with its mother.

It was a messy trial, full of recriminations and conflicting testimony. His psychiatrists said she was manic-depressive; hers said she was of sound mind. His detectives had gathered extensive evidence of her affairs and drinking with other men — "six in the space of just a few weeks. There was enormous alcoholic consumption when she was supposed to be breastfeeding."

And while the judge, Robert Mallard, normally might favor a mother’s custody rights, he also "has a strong belief in marital fidelity. He does not like adulteresses," recalls Barnett’s attorney, Mendell Rivers.

But what hurt Barnett most, Rivers says, was her demeanor in the courtroom. "Lee demonstrated a tragic lack of self-control, and it made the judge believe the things said about her might be true."

Barnett was an excellent mother, Rivers insists, and Savanna was strongly bonded to her. But "she couldn’t handle the stress of a trial."

So startling were Barnett’s outbursts, Todd says, that the judge ordered that an armed bailiff be present, and the child’s court-appointed advocate hired a lawyer to protect herself from Barnett’s claims that she was biased…

Finally, after a 12-day trial, it was time for Mallard’s decision.

And in a complete departure from his "pro-mother" reputation, the judge ordered that Todd be given sole custody of Savanna. Barnett would be allowed two supervised weekend visits a month, he ruled.

Savanna lived in her father’s home for two months, until she was 11 months old — "the most joyous time of my life," Todd says. Then, while on a weekend visit with Barnett, she disappeared.

Since then, Todd has virtually bankrupted himself, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in his desperate pursuit of his daughter. At the time the Dart article was written, he still maintained a room for Savanna, ready for her should she return. But he kept the door closed, emotionally unable to look inside and see her things.

This is the man whom Lee Barnett, Faye Yager and their ilk decided should be deprived of ever seeing his child. This is the man whom Samantha would never know because a clearly unbalanced mother and her enablers among Children of the Underground decreed that it should be so. Savanna has spent her life with Lee Barnett, on the run most of the time, hiding out from the law. Lee Barnett seems to have a pretty severe personality disorder that the stress of life as a fugitive from justice can’t have helped.

By contrast, Harris Todd is the very picture of stability and has a clear love for his daughter. A staunchly pro-mother judge found Barnett to be so dangerous to her child as to allow her only supervised visitation with her. Her own attorney admitted that she was too unstable to control herself in court. The judge kept an armed bailiff to protect everyone from her.

So who would you call the “protective” parent in this case? Faye Yager, with literally nothing to back her up, decided it was Barnett and 19 tragic years followed. When confronted by the entire absence of evidence that Todd had ever abused anyone, Yager tried to justify her behavior by resort to what looks like a regular, if despicable, excuse. She claimed Todd is gay. He’s not, but when you’re Faye Yager, you’re never wrong, at least not according to you. When you’re Faye Yager, false slurs against a fine father are just part of everyday life. After all, if you’re willing to steal his child, why cavil at overt homophobia?

To give an idea of just how highly Yager thinks of herself, consider this: Todd went to her house to try to get her to convince Barnett to bring Savanna back, to which Yager responded, “"Well, we offered him a chance to get his child back and he wouldn’t agree to the conditions — which were just to leave this lady be and not try to take her child from her or put her in jail — and he wouldn’t agree to that."’

Amazing. Here’s a lady who thinks she’s God. Yes, a court had awarded him sole custody; yes, Barnett and Yager were both in violation of numerous state, federal and international laws; and yes, what Yager was “offering” Todd was nothing whatsoever – no access to his child, no punishment for Barnett and no recompense for all his heartache and wasted money. No, according to Yager, Todd should be happy to leave his daughter in the “care” of a plainly abusive mother and just let it go at that. And if he refused (as of course he did), well, to Yager, everything that followed was his own fault.

Faye Yager has never gone to prison, although it’s been a near thing at least once. In 1992, she transferred all her assets to her well-to-do husband, and filed for personal bankruptcy. That way, her victims can sue her till they’re blue in the face and never collect a dime. She drives to court in her husband’s Rolls Royce.

The Children of the Underground is an organization consisting of people who, though few have Yager’s flamboyant style, have much in common with her. They are happy to lie; they’re content to break the law; they seriously believe that condemning children to lives running from the law, never knowing their fathers, never knowing their grandparents, never going to the same school for longer than a few months, never forming long-term friendships, living with strangers, living in cars, always looking out for the police is anything but child abuse; they’re happy to do all that on the thinnest of evidence (the mother’s say-so) or none at all (as in Harris Todd’s case) that the father is an abuser; they assume from the start that family courts care nothing about a mother’s claims of abuse and routinely hand over children to harmful fathers, a claim for which there is essentially no evidence.

If such an organization were doing the same things on behalf of fathers and against mothers, everyone in it would have been behind bars years ago, and rightly so. But because mothers are the ones being helped to deprive children of their fathers, well, that seems to pass muster with all and sundry.

The simple truth is that Children of the Underground and everyone who participates in its illegal, immoral and abusive behavior is part of a criminal conspiracy and needs to go to prison.

Will Lee Barnett’s capture, extradition and trial be a catalyst for that? We’ll see.

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.


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