How a Texas legal aid lawyer is bringing kidnapped children home from Mexico

The World
Pamela Brown and Mariano Nuñez at a Hague conference on private international law. They've been working on cross-border child abduction cases together for 15 years.

Five years ago on Valentine’s Day, Carmen Avendaño’s husband told her he was taking their three kids to the mall to get her son some sneakers. Instead he drove them across the bridge to Mexico, about a half-hour away from their home in La Joya, Texas.

Avendaño says her husband had been abusive, even violent, for years. But it was only at this point that she called the police. Avendaño was undocumented at the time, and she feared contacting the police for help. But when she did, they told her they couldn't help her.  

“They told me, he’s the father, he can take them wherever he wants. They couldn’t do anything.”

So she went to the Mexican Consulate, and she says they told her there wasn't anything they could do either. They told her it would be better if she just returned to Mexico and did something about it there.

Then Carmen sought out Pamela Brown, an attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Weslaco, Texas. Most of Brown’s clients were domestic violence victims, undocumented from Mexico. Brown says she learned that some abusers use the border as a weapon.

“The real blow is taking the children,” Brown says. “That’s worse than any of the bruising and pain, the perpetrators know that. And so at that instance, that’s when the person goes to the police and then doesn’t find help. And that’s — that’s a tragedy.”

Brown had her first brush with this in 2001, when a new client came to her for help: Her husband had taken their daughter to Mexico.

There was a name for these clients — “left behind parents” — but no straightforward solution. So Brown did some research and discovered a treaty that had rarely been invoked in Texas: the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

“The treaty is very basic. One parent cannot take children across borders without the consent of the other parent with the intention of changing the residence of the child to the other country,” she says.

Both Mexico and the US were signatories to the convention, but no one in Texas really knew how to use it. So Brown brought together lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials from both sides of the border; a representative from The Hague even flew in to help.  

Invoking the treaty was meant to be as simple as filling out a form and providing some basic documentation. Brown figured she could handle the cases on her own, from her side of the border. But Mariano Nuñez Arreola, a Mexican attorney from the city of Monterrey who attended the conference, told her “good luck” with that.  

“I remember telling Pam, ‘Look Pam, you’re going to need a Mexican attorney to do this because, I mean this is not going to work if you don’t have one.’ ” 

Brown and Nuñez have now been working together for 15 years, including on Carmen Avendaño’s case. Her husband took the children to Monterrey, where he tried to establish custody. He went to court in Mexico, claiming the family had been living there all along, and he said his wife was the one who had left them for the US.

But the judge, who knew about the Hague Convention on child abduction from hearing some of Brown’s previous cases, asked to speak with Carmen’s kids. After she heard from them, she quickly declared it a Hague Convention case and ruled in the mother’s favor.

All of this took time, though. While they were waiting for the hearing, Avendaño’s youngest children had to spend two months in a government shelter. She says it was harrowing — for everyone.

“When I didn’t have my children, I felt like I was no one. … I just wasn’t there, because all my life, I had never separated from them,” she says. “So when I got them back, I knew I had to re-dedicate myself to them.”

The day that Carmen Avendaño was reunited with her children, after their long drive back to the US. She's surrounded by her attorneys: Maria Jose Vallejo Manzur (far right), Pamela Brown (right), and Mariano Nuñez Arreola (in back).
The day that Carmen Avendaño was reunited with her children, after their long drive back to the US. She's surrounded by her attorneys: Maria Jose Vallejo Manzur (far right), Pamela Brown (right), and Mariano Nuñez Arreola (in back).Courtesy of Carmen Avendaño 

Five years later, the family is moving on, but Avendaño says it has been difficult. It’s been hardest on her oldest son. Before his father took him to Mexico, she says, he was a straight-A student. Now it’s a struggle to keep him in school.

Her daughter, though, is getting ready for college. She wants to study engineering. And her younger son is enjoying XBox and basketball and other 9-year old stuff.

And last month, Avendaño finally got her green card, a process Pamela Brown helped set in motion.

Brown and Nuñez have now helped return more than 60 children to their homes on both sides of the border, and other states are turning to Brown for help invoking the convention. You could almost call it a mini-Hague in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley.

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