The Director of the Belize Family Court, Magistrate Dale Cayetano, ordered the Department of Human Services to return two-year-old Nina Perez to Guatemala in a ruling on Friday, February 12. Nina had been the subject of an international custody battle since November – she is our very own Elian Gonzalez. Two parents, one Belizean and the other Guatemalan, locked in a legal battle over who gets custody and guardianship of the child.
The child’s Belizean mother, Ana Liz Perez Gutierrez, ran away from Guatemala with the child in October of 2015, allegedly escaping domestic abuse. She went to live with her family in Orange Walk but that refuge was short lived. Nina’s Guatemalan father, Ernesto Barrera, reported to authorities in his country that the baby was taken across the border without his permission. As a result, an international complaint went in to the Human Services Department and the child was removed from the mother’s care on Friday, November 13. Under a provision for “Emergency Care” in the Families and Children Act, the Department of Human Services took temporary custody of the child’s guardianship. Under this law, the Department has two days to approach the court to confirm the legality of this emergency protective care. That was done on Monday, November 16, and the Family Court granted the Department interim custody of the toddler under the substantive issue until rightful guardianship could be determined.
The child remained in foster care until Magistrate Cayetano’s ruling on Friday. It was a tough couple months for the parents who had to spend Christmas and bring in the New Year without their infant child. Gutierrez had limited visitation rights while the child was in foster care and she espressed publicly how traumatic it was to only have a few hours a week with her baby under heavy supervision. Gutierrez was hoping for a happy ending on Friday but this was not to be. The morning started with heavy police presence on Bishop Street. Word had reached Special Branch that well wishers would make it out to demonstrate in support of Gutierrez. Therefore, police set up barricades on both ends of the street. This proved to be unnecessary as no protest materialized throughout the day.
As is the case with almost all Family Court cases, the hearing was closed to the public. Inside the courtroom was Magistrate Dale Cayetano, Gutierrez and her attorney Marcel Cardona, Berrera and his attorney Kevin Arthurs, and representatives of the Human Services Department. When the case concluded late on Friday evening, Ana Liz Perez Gutierrez walked out and delivered what, for her, was very sad news. Gutierrez read out the decision verbatim, “Take note that the above case for declaration of wrongful removal/return of the child was concluded on the twelfth day of February 2016 where the following order was made. The child, Nina Charlotte Alexandra Barrera Perez, born twenty-third October 2013 was wrongfully removed from Guatemala. It is hereby ordered that the child be returned to Guatemala immediately; pursuant to Chapter 177 of the International Child Adoption Act Revised Edition 2000 and the subsequent articles of the convention.”
After spending one hour with her mother, baby Nina was handed over to the Guatemalan Embassy by the Human Services Department. She will be returned to Guatemala and handed over to the child care services agency in that country. It is likely that Nina will be put into a foster home while a custody battle takes place in Guatemalan courts. Gutierrez said after Cayetano’s ruling, “At this point, I’ve spoken to Nina’s father and we are trying to do things now in good grounds for the best thing for Nina.” Gutierrez’s only option is to return to Guatemala to fight for custody. Unfortunately, removing the baby from the country illegally may have her in conflict with Guatemalan authorities. She said, “Apparently there’s some pending cases for me at courts in Guatemala. Besides the fact that we have to go back to family court, there’s other stuff that was applied or reported.”
People close to Gutierrez say there is legitimate danger in Guatemala for her, both from the authorities and Barrera’s family, if she chooses to return to fight for Nina. Gutierrez seems to be undeterred however. She said, “Right now I am not fearful. If my daughter has to go to Guatemala, I’m gonna follow her to Guatemala.” For the time being, Gutierrez has said that she is trying to keep the matter as privately as possible and would no longer comment on her course of action.