When Motherhood Gets You Jail Time
How long must a mother be jailed to force her to give up her child? April Griffin has been in a Milwaukee County jail cell since May and is likely to be there through the holidays and beyond.
Unwed and on welfare, Griffin, 28, walked into a Wisconsin court last May with one goal: She wanted to keep the man she says beat her throughout her pregnancy from winning joint custody of their son. Unwilling to listen to her own attorney, Griffin conducted her own clumsy, meandering cross-examination of the child’s father, Ugandan citizen Matthew Sebuliba, and failed to convince the judge that the abuse had really occurred. Instead, she tried the patience of Judge Michael D. Guolee, who chided her for spurning Sebuliba, whom he called a good catch. “We are going to force the mother to allow the father to be a father,” he said. “Period. And if she doesn’t, I will take the child away from you and give it to the father unless you totally cooperate.”
Griffin didn’t cooperate and her defiance has come at a price. “I don’t want to hear anymore,” Goulee said. “I made my ruling. It’s ten minutes after five. I made my ruling. You don’t want to hear it. You’ll either cooperate or you won’t cooperate. You don’t want to cooperate, if you don’t, you will be in jail.”
And for seven months now, that’s exactly where April Griffin has stayed — behind bars. Her son Jesse is in hiding, and her continued confinement doesn’t seem to have moved Griffin any closer to revealing his whereabouts. “All I want, all I ever wanted, is to protect my son,” she told TIME, weeping, in a phone interview from her jail cell. “I never did anything wrong. I’ve never been in jail before, and now I am just so scared. I don’t think I am ever going to get out of here.”
Sebuliba, meanwhile, is left wondering whether his son is safe. The Milwaukee nurse and legal resident of the U.S. told TIME he never beat Griffin. And while he concedes he was away in Africa during the child’s birth, he now wants to help raise his son. “I don’t want to see April in jail,” Sebuliba told TIME. “I just want to have the opportunity to be a father to my child, and I would want April to have the opportunity to be his mother.”
But before that can happen, somebody has to produce Jesse, a little boy whose first birthday was spent on the lam. Guolee, who has called Griffin her “own worst enemy,” has tried to find the baby. Since jailing Griffin, he has issued a bench warrant for the baby, and threatened Griffin’s family members with prosecution if they are helping hide him. Griffin’s mother told TIME that officers, acting on a court order to search the house, kicked her door in earlier this summer. April’s sister said officers came to her house and, thinking her own son was Jesse, drew weapons before realizing their mistake.
But so far, none of that has worked. The baby remains missing, though Griffin says he is safe. Griffin is still in jail and Sebuliba’s desire to be a father still frustrated. She repeated to TIME over the weekend what she told Judge Goulee over and over again in court, that her son Jesse would be in danger if he went to live with Sebuliba, “I am not going to give my child to a man that beat me when I was pregnant.”
April Griffin is hardly the first woman in America to refuse to comply with a judge’s order to share custody of a child she believes — with or without proof — is at risk. And she isn’t the first one to go to jail, or to go into hiding, as a result. Last year, an Oklahoma mother spent several months in jail on contempt charges when she sent her daughter into hiding in Texas. She was found, and the mother was released. Perhaps the most famous case took place in Washington, D.C. where plastic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Morgan spent 25 months in jail while her daughter was in hiding with her parents, both elderly psychologists. Dr. Morgan maintained that her ex-husband had sexually abused the girl and refused to share custody, despite a court order that she do so. A special act of Congress forced her release in 1989. (It was later declared unconstitutional because it was specifically tailored for Morgan’s case.) It was several more months before her daughter was found, after 31 months of hiding.
Matthew Sebuliba (left) holds the child he fathered with April Griffin (right)
The road to jail for April Griffin began soon after her son Jesse was born, though she would have never guessed it at the time. Because she had sought state aide for medical coverage for the child, the state brought suit to determine paternity. She said she signed the petition because she was told she had to, though she said she had not wanted child support from the boy’s biological father.
That’s routine, says Professor Robert Stenger of the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. “Things are different when you are poor,” he said, noting that most states will press child support claims on behalf of mothers who are on welfare. Had she not been on aid and not sought child support, the issue of Matthew Sebuliba’s paternity probably would not have been raised, Stenger said.
But it was, and once he was in court, Sebuliba began pressing for the rights that come with the responsibilities of being a father. Griffin was ordered to bring Jesse to a clinic where Sebuliba could have supervised visits with his son, but the child welfare workers would later testify that Griffin was notably clingy, uncooperative, and nearly hysterical during at least one such visit.
By the time the case reached Judge Michael Guolee on May 14, the judge would note early in the hearing that Griffin “was her own worst enemy.” And when Griffin had finished cross-examining Sebuliba and other witnesses herself, she had only succeeded in convincing the judge to support Sebuliba. “I think he is a good father,” he said. “He would be a good man. He is not going to hurt that baby.”
Maybe, the judge said, Sebuliba’s lack of involvement during her pregnancy was Griffin’s fault. Said Goulee: “And you say, ‘It is his fault, his fault. He is not seeing me when I am having a baby…’ On the other hand, you may be denying him or pushing him away. I say to myself, what came first? Your pushing him away? Is that why [he] didn’t have a relationship with the child?”
As the hearing ended, the judge also agreed to the father’s request to change the baby’s name from Jesse Moses Peter Emmanuel Griffin to Jesse Moses Griffin-Sebuliba. Griffin objected. “He already has a name,” she said. “Too many names. I’m sorry. Too many names,” Guolee replied.
Professor Judith McMullen of Marquette Law School said judges are often forced to rely on gut instincts about who is telling the truth in custody cases involving allegations — but little proof — of domestic violence. “It’s a credibility issue, and judges often simply go with their intuition about who is telling the truth,” McMullen told TIME. “These are very sad cases. People usually want to say well, for example, the mother is lying and the father is an innocent victim. But that is not usually the case. Even if there was no abuse, the mother often truly believes there was.”
Until relatively recently, she added, judges routinely considered allegations of wife abuse as a separate issue not relevant to the question of child custody. “That has changed and the courts have come a long way in the past 20 years,” she said. “But it still often comes down to he said, she said.”
Milwaukee lawyer Narciso Aleman, who took over Griffin’s case shortly after she had been incarcerated, has sought Guolee’s removal from the case. In a written statement to TIME, he said Guolee “has condemned the entire Griffin family for aiding and abetting the victimization of the father, the child, and wreaking havoc on the judicial system of Wisconsin and therefore fostering anarchy. He has repeatedly pontificated that he stands in defense of the judicial system and the law order required to withstand anarchy. In addition, he has repeatedly called for Ms. Griffin to be examined because there has to be something wrong with any individual who defies his judgment and orders.”
Whether there is something wrong with her — or with the system — Griffin says she’s not going to change her mind. Meanwhile, the judge’s words from May ring as true today as they did seven months ago. “This child isn’t getting any younger…. It should learn the name daddy. I love my daddy. I want to be with my daddy. I love my mother. I want to be with my mother. [He] should learn those things.”