For nearly five years, Luba Shipman waited for her little girl to come home.
Shipman remained in her Liverpool apartment, holding onto the hope that her daughter Deonna’s non-custodial father Jeffery Shipman, Luba’s ex-husband, would slip up, that the FBI, Interpol, a concerned citizen, someone would find him. The two had shared custody of the little girl since their divorce in 2004. While Luba had physical custody, Jeffrey was allowed visitation. Both parents filed petitions seeking to modify the order in July of 2007 in Onondaga County Family Court. Deonna went to her father’s for her scheduled court-ordered visitation on Wednesday, July 11, 2007. She was supposed to return by 5 p.m. Thursday July 12.
Instead, Jeffery took Deonna, then 3, and fled the country.
This past January, Luba started to take steps to rebuild her broken life. According to Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh, she left behind her Liverpool apartment and returned to Eastern Europe, where she’d lived before moving to the United States and marrying Jeffery. She started nursing school. She held onto the hope that her baby girl would come back to her, surely, but she had to stop waiting, living in stasis.
Mere weeks after she left, the moment Luba Shipman had so long awaited finally came.
On Feb. 24, Jeffrey Shipman, 51, turned himself into the American Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. Jeffery was arrested in Bangkok by the FBI on a federal warrant for international parental kidnapping charges and arraigned in Los Angeles, Calif. Jeffery Shipman is currently in the custody of the United States marshals and will eventually be returned to Onondaga County for further court appearances.
Deonna Shipman has been returned to Onondaga County and is healthy. The FBI has tracked her mother down in Russia; she is currently returning from Russia to be reunited with her daughter.
What would possess a Department of Transportation office worker with no criminal history to take his 3-year-old daughter and leave the country, violating not only a family court order but international law?
In an interview at the time of her daughter’s disappearance, Luba Shipman told Eagle Newspapers that her ex-husband was unstable and possibly suicidal. “He has a long history of chronic advanced depression and bipolar disorder,” she said. “If he doesn’t take his medications for a long time, he makes irrational decisions.”
Since the Shipmans divorced, Deonna had regular visitation with her father. The visitation was uneventful, Luba said, until June 3.
“She revealed some things about what was going on at her father’s,” she said. “I called Child Protective Services and they started an investigation.”
CPS investigated the matter and decided the accusation was unfounded; by law, the agency does not discuss unfounded accusations. But Luba thinks the reason it was unfounded was because her daughter would not repeat the allegations to the CPS worker.
“The system is overworked,” she said. “They don’t know how to really get through and make it clear to a 4-year-old. There are so many holes.”
The next step, Luba said, was to have Deonna evaluated by a psychiatric professional. First, however, Luba filed a petition with Onondaga County Family Court to modify the existing custody order and provide for supervised visits between Deonna and her father. Jeffrey Shipman filed a counter-petition asking for sole custody of the girl. At the family’s last court appearance, Jeffrey told Luba, “If I can’t have her, no one will.”
“I took it lightly,” she said. “I thought he was just angry.”
At that appearance, the judge refused to grant either request. Visitation was to go on as scheduled. Luba said she risked losing custody of her daughter if she failed to comply with the existing order, so she sent her daughter off on July 11.
Luba said she had made an appointment with a child psychiatrist for Deonna. She said she thought the prospect of the truth coming out drove her ex-husband to take the child and run.
But Jeffery Shipman’s family denies Luba’s allegations. They insist that he took his daughter out of the country because he feared Luba was planning to take Deonna back to her native Ukraine or Russia.
“He reiterated the fact and I do recall myself, her threatening to take her to Russia before he actually did take off,” said Shipman’s sister Cynthia Bennett.
Shipman’s brother Michael said anything Jeffery did was done in Deonna’s best interest.
“I think he felt he had to do what he had to do to protect her,” he said. “I hope the people who are in charge, the authorities, look at every aspect of this case so that there is a fair outcome.”
Family abduction: A common problem
Deonna Shipman is hardly the first child to be caught in this situation.
According to David O’Brien, chief counsel for Missing Children’s Services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, VA, some 797,500 children are reported missing each year, some 2,185 every day. Of those, 203,900 are family abductions, meaning the child is taken by a family member. In order to address those cases, the NCMEC has units that deal specifically with family abduction cases, both domestic and international. According to the U.S. Department of State, about 1,000 children are taken abroad by non-custodial parents every year.
Though he couldn’t speak specifically to the Shipman case, O’Brien said the center had dealt with numerous similar cases over the years and he could speak in generalities.
“With international cases, there are additional legal complications,” O’Brien said. “You have an additional layer of government and bureaucracy to cut through. Fortunately, thanks to the Hague Convention, we have agreements with other nations so that, if found, the children will be returned to the U.S. and to their custodial parent.”
O’Brien said that the typical image of a kidnapping — that a child is taken by a stranger for some nefarious purpose — is far more unlikely than the media portrays it. According to a 2002 release from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), most children who are reported missing either ran away (48 percent) or were reported missing because of a benign misunderstanding about where the child was supposed to be (28 percent). About 15 percent become injured or lost, preventing or delaying their return home. Nine percent are abducted by family members, and just 3 percent are taken by strangers.
But custodial interference or family abduction cases can be just as dangerous to a child.
“The problem of child abduction by family members is a serious one in the United States,” said Ernest Allen, former president and COO of the NCMEC in his paper, “The Kid Is With A Parent, How Bad Can It Be: The Crisis of Family Abductions,” which was published in 1991. The paper revealed that numerous victims of family abductions suffer devastating consequences, including severe mental harm, physical harm and physical and sexual abuse. Allen suggested that these are especially common in cases of custodial interference, like the Shipman case.
“People don’t tend to think of it as an abduction,” O’Brien said. “They think if a child is with a parent, they must be safe. But, unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are cases in which the parent does intend to harm the child.”
Even if there is no physical harm done to the abducted child, the psychological damage can be irreparable.
“It’s a highly charged emotional situation,” O’Brien said. “The psychological impact on the child in that situation is tremendous. They’re deprived of the other parent, and often the abducting parent tells them outright lies about the left-behind parent — that they’re dead or they didn’t want the child anymore.”
Impact on relationships
Indeed, parental kidnappings can have a lasting effect on a child and his or her relationship with both parents. Robert Kohlbrenner, PhD., a child and family psychologist with a practice in Fayetteville, offered his expert opinion on the possible impact an experience like this could have on a child. Again, he could not speak to the specifics of the Shipman case, but instead spoke in general terms.
“A lot depends on the circumstances,” Kohlbrenner said. “For example, the age of the child when he or she was abducted.”
Kohlbrenner said if the child was younger, 1 or 2 years old, the impact on a child would be different than if he or she were older.
“If the child was a young child, and by young I mean 1 or 2 years old, then over a period of time, the child is going to completely forget the other parent,” Kohlbrenner said. “Over an extended period of time, the child is going to be raised by the parent that abducted the child and become acculturated into that person’s value systems and that person’s culture, those kinds of things. So that once the child has been returned, it’s going to be a brand-new experience for the child, because the child is going to be coming into a different culture than he or she is used to. It could be a problem of being reintroduced to an environment that is alien to them. Plus, the parent who did not have the child, the child is going to have to go through the entire process of reestablishing a relationship, getting used to a new culture and moving ahead like that. These kinds of issues could be traumatic for the child, depending on the child, and how it’s handled by the individuals in the child’s life.”
Meanwhile, if the child were a toddler or older when taken by a parent, in addition to those acculturation issues, he or she would also have to deal with grief over the loss of the parent left behind. Upon his or her return to the U.S., he or she would also have to grapple with another possibly identity-challenging issue.
“An issue is going to be the explanation that was provided to the child when the child was abducted in terms of why the other parent is no longer in their life, and there could be the potential for issues related to disparaging remarks, parental alienation or the development of a picture of this absent parent being someone who is not good or this evil person or something like that,” Kohlbrenner said. “Then you come back and those types of issues need to be addressed with the child. The child is going to have a sense of insecurity, a sense of going back and forth between cultures and maybe a little bit of trouble reestablishing a relationship with someone they really don’t remember or someone who they have been told is not a good person, so it can be a complex process.”
But Kohlbrenner said it is still possible for a child who undergoes this kind of trauma to develop into a healthy, functional adult.
“If it’s handled appropriately, and the child has access to individuals who are caring and sensitive and help the child identify his or her feelings and not be embarrassed by them, and feel comfortable with them and work through them, then I think the child can have the opportunity to develop healthily and normally,” he said. “A lot depends on what the child is going to come back to when he or she returns to the States. Children can be very adaptable, and can accommodate a lot of situations. What creates the biggest difficulty for children is when the adults in their lives are not flexible or accommodating or sensitive to the child’s needs, and that’s where the problem comes in. Certainly, there are going to be issues… But those are issues that will need to be addressed — the child’s feelings and how the child is adjusting. The child has to be put first.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.