September 21, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
After years of reporting on the deeds and misdeeds of family courts, it’s tempting to believe you’ve seen everything. But the truth is that there’s always something knew to learn. That’s the case here (Clarion-Ledger, 9/14/15).
At first blush the case looks like just another example of a hard-fought custody battle that one parent fears losing, so, in the middle of the battle, that parent kidnaps the child to a foreign country. We’ve seen that before. But first, you can’t tell the players without a program, so here they are:
Blake Cleveland – the child, age 16;
Danny Cleveland – his dad;
Amanda Spencer – Danny’s attorney;
Jennifer Houff – Blake’s mom;
John Colette – Jennifer’s attorney;
Monti Bishop – GAL for Blake;
Erich Jerscheid – Blake’s attorney (maybe);
John Grant – Judge of the Rankin County (MS) Chancery Court who’s hearing the case (or not).
Back in 1012, Danny Cleveland and Jennifer Houff were in the middle of a custody battle over their son, Blake. Houff had been given primary custody, but Danny was contesting the matter. So Houff absconded with Blake to Egypt. She chose Egypt because it’s not a signatory nation to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and it has no extradition treaty with the United States.
In due course, primary custody was changed to Danny and a federal criminal warrant was issued for Houff for international child kidnapping.
Over three years later, as Blake grew toward adulthood, Houff decided it was time to return to the United States so he could “have a life.”
[A]s her son grew older, and the FBI began contacting her, Houff said she chose to come back to the United States. Blake Cleveland, Houff said, has dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.
“We came back for him to have a life,” Houff said. “And that’s being stripped from him.”
(As a side note, that’s an interesting take on the situation. On one hand, Houff admits that her son didn’t “have a life” in Egypt, which is easy to understand. I’m sure he was very much a fish out of water there. Since she went there solely to avoid being returned to the U.S., it seems likely that they had few if any contacts in Egypt, so it’s easy to understand that an adolescent boy found little to like about life there. A fair summary of Houff’s statement is “I took him to a place where he wouldn’t have a life and now I’m complaining that, back in the United States, he doesn’t have a life.” Apparently taking responsibility for her own actions isn’t Houff’s long suit.)
Why does Houff think her son doesn’t have a life here in the U.S.? Because the court has shanghaied Blake into foster care, that’s why.
[W]hen Cleveland returned to Mississippi in June after spending three-and-a-half years in Egypt with his mother, Jennifer Houff, he was immediately taken to Hope Haven, a residential facility for children receiving counseling…
Houff said she agreed to let her son go to Hope Haven for two weeks after their return, where he would receive a psychiatric evaluation. She said she did not agree for him to be sent to Baptist Children’s Village Dickerson Place Campus, in Brookhaven, where he is currently living.
Now, a psychiatric evaluation is probably a good idea. That’s because Houff took advantage of her abduction of her son to alienate him from his father.
Now, the court cites “parental alienation” as justification for Blake Cleveland to be separated from his parents. Houff, the court suggests, has steered her son away from a loving relationship with his father.
“As a family we’re all very concerned,” Danny Cleveland said. “We pray for a speedy recovery.”
Mistress of understatement, Clarion-Ledger writer Anna Wolfe tells us that the court “suggests” that Houff “has steered her son away from a loving relationship with his father.” Yes, taking a twelve-year-old to a foreign country and refusing him any contact with his father for almost four years could be described that way. So having the kid see a mental health provider seems like a good idea. Just how alienated he is and what will it take to return him to a normal relationship with his father are both questions the court needs answered.
One problem though is that there’s no indication that any actual psychological work is being done. If Blake has been evaluated, no one seems to know about it. There’s likewise no evidence of any plan to work through his alienation. So, for the time being, Blake is in a group home mostly incommunicado.
It’s been nearly three months, and the 16-year-old hasn’t been able to visit with family members. He also hasn’t been able to speak with Erich Jerscheid, who said he is representing the teenager.
All of that is strange and abusive enough, but here’s where the story really gets bad. As the cast of characters indicates, there are plenty of lawyers involved in this case and, unsurprisingly, they’re trying to get the matter heard by Judge Grant. But Judge Grant refuses to do so. Why?
It seems Houff owes GAL Monti Bishop over $8,000 from back in 2012 and, until she pays up, Judge Grant won’t hold a hearing.
In June, Houff’s attorney, John Colette, put forth an emergency motion to reconsider Cleveland’s custody and determine where he will be living. A July 15 email from Bishop to Colette states that Rankin County Chancery Court Judge John Grant won’t hold a trial that had been set for Aug. 26 until Bishop’s attorney’s fees, which total $8,291.50, are paid. Those fees were accrued by March 2012, and Houff said she has not received any further bills from Bishop.
Colette relayed this information to Houff, saying the trial was off until the judge “hears from us on payment of the (attorney Bishop’s) fees.” No trial date has been set.
Now, anyone who’s seen the excellent documentary, “Divorce Corp.” will know that family courts routinely act as unlicensed collection agencies for attorneys practicing before them. The extend the same service to mental health professionals and others who have a part in custody cases.
By doing the same thing, Judge Grant has handed the power to Jennifer Houff – an apparent parental alienator and federal felon – to hold Blake in foster care away from his father indefinitely. Yes, the woman who decided, in violation of state and federal laws and at least one court order, to kidnap her son to a foreign country so that he couldn’t see his father, is now empowered by the Chancery Court to continue doing just that. As long as she refuses to pay, Judge Grant won’t hold a hearing, Blake remains in foster care and Danny Cleveland can’t see his son.
It’s a form of evil genius, I suppose. But someone might point out that, by acting as a collection agency for the GAL, Judge Grant is endorsing and furthering the kidnapping and alienation of Blake Cleveland. Houff took him to Egypt and now he’s in foster care. Each is equally inaccessible to his father.
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