After a 2-year struggle, father and daughter are reunited

Dad, a former Napan, worked with local prosecutors to bring stolen
daughter home

Monday, July 4, 2005

Register City Editor

After more than two years of worry, Ruben Codda has his daughter back.
She can only speak French and she isn’t quite sure what to make of
America, but the former Napa residents couldn’t be happier.

“I wasn’t sure I would get her back or not. But I had a good feeling,”
said Codda, 30, who lived here for 12 years. “She definitely recognized
me, before and after I stopped crying. She ran over to me and gave me a
big hug.”

The reunion in Paris last weekend was the end of more than two years of
court trials, negotiations and heartache for Codda, who now lives in Port
Townsend, Wash. In 2003, Codda’s ex-wife stole their 18-month-old
daughter away from Napa to Paris, despite a local court’s ruling that the
child belonged in Codda’s custody.

Codda said he knew what had happened. “I was in absolute shock, but I had
a feeling something like this would happen. After the shock, I called the
police. They put me in touch with the D.A.’s office.”

The Napa County District Attorney’s Child Abduction Unit worked through
the Hague Convention — an international agreement that helps resolve
custody disputes — and took the matter to court in Paris. Codda and Napa
County won their first hearing and an appeal. But Codda said the French
prosecutor wouldn’t enforce the ruling, thus allowing Codda’s ex-wife to
keep the child.

“I was totally angry about the way they were allowed to go against their
own decisions,” Codda said of the French courts. “The prosecutor in
France was only stalling for some sort of personal political gain.”

With help from the State Department and the National Center for Missing
and Exploited Children, Clark and Codda worked outside of the French
courts and secured an agreement with the mother of the child. The mother
would not be prosecuted if she returned to the United States, per the
agreement, allowing her to visit her daughter.

“For my situation, it’s very important that my daughter has contact with
her mother,” Codda said. “I want her to be a part of my daughter’s life.”

Last weekend, Codda and Gina Clark, an assistant with the county’s Child
Abduction Unit, flew to Paris and met with the girl for the first time in
more than two years.

“For us, this is a wonderful day,” said Lee Philipson, a Napa County
assistant district attorney. “I couldn’t be more proud or happy. When you
have a really feel-good story, it’s exciting. The local authorities there
would not give up the child.”

State law demands that counties enforce child custody laws, and go after
parents who take their children unlawfully. According to Philipson,
several other California counties have dropped their child recovery
units, because the state has been withholding funding. Philipson praised
the Napa County Board of Supervisors for keeping the program running
despite the lack of state support.

“The state owes us, but isn’t paying,” he said. “Gina Clark and our
county government should be proud today.”

Clark, tired from her flight to France and back, said she worked on the
case for two years and four months. The girl, now 4, was surprisingly
calm when her father showed up to reclaim her, Clark said.

“Her eyes just kind of lit up (when she saw her father),” she said. “She
smiled. She was a normal, shy 4-year-old girl.”

Clark said the mother was cooperative, though sad to see her daughter

“She was a very good mother. She did what was best for her daughter. She
prepared her for leaving with her father,” Clark said. “I talked to the
father (Wednesday) night, and they’re doing quite well. She’s on the same
routine her mother had her on.”

The case was a solid victory for Napa County’s Child Abduction Unit,
which has recovered children from 18 states and six countries: Mexico,
Scotland, Jordan, Costa Rica, Panama and France.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The D.A. was absolutely invaluable
to the situation. They went up and over to get my daughter back,” Codda
said. “(Child abductions) are an epidemic and it’s getting worse. I
couldn’t imagine other parents going through what I’ve gone through. I
can’t imagine why they’re cutting funding.”


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