Cesar Quintana agonized for weeks that his 2-year-old son wouldn't make it out of the battered Ukrainian coastal port Mariupol as Russian troops encircled the city.
Thankfully, he did.
But Alexander and his mother are now in Russia, where Quintana, who has full legal custody of the boy in California, is no closer to seeing him again.
Quintana has been trying to bring his son back to the U.S. since his estranged wife took the child to Ukraine without Quintana’s permission in 2020. He was working to get the boy returned through a Ukrainian court when the war broke out, and he lost communication with them.
Last month, he finally learned that, unlike the millions of Ukrainians who fled to Poland or Moldova, the family and others from Mariupol escaped across the closest international border to Russia.
Russia, however, is not a partner of the United States under an international treaty that governs the return of children abducted overseas by one of their parents, though Ukraine is. That has Quintana hoping the Ukrainian court will take his case back up and he can get Russian authorities to enforce any ruling in his favor. He said he’s also trying to persuade his estranged Ukrainian-American wife, Antonina Aslanova, to return to California on her own.
“I’m not giving up, and my son’s not going to grow up in Russia,” Quintana said.
A WhatsApp message sent to Aslanova seeking comment was not returned.
International parental child abduction cases are complex, and advocates say relatively few children taken from their countries of residence are promptly returned. More than 2,000 applications were filed in 2015 under the international treaty that puts in place a process for resolving these cases, and about 45% resulted in the children being returned, according to a report by the Hague Conference on Private International Law.
Many countries have signed the treaty, but it isn't in effect between the United States and Russia, which makes getting a child returned very difficult, said Melissa Kucinski, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in these cases.
"With the child now sitting in Russia, my expectation is the father's California custody order will probably mean very little,” Kucinski said.
Quintana, 35, has been trying for more than a year to get his son back through the treaty process with Ukraine, since a California judge ordered that the boy should be returned to him. Quintana traveled to Ukraine, hired a lawyer and said he got Aslanova to agree to let him bring the boy to California. But he said her mother opposed and filed a complaint with police, which stopped him from doing so.
Then, a critical court hearing in February was delayed to March and put off again because of the war.
Since then, Ukraine has said it won't be able to uphold its treaty commitments during the war, according to the U.S. State Department's website. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv is closed, though the State Department said it can assist Americans with consular services once they reach another country.
In Russia, the U.S. government’s ability to provide routine or emergency services to U.S. citizens is “severely limited,” a department official said.
The war drove Quintana to desperation. He sent money to Aslanova when the invasion began, but communication was cut off as the city of Mariupol fell under siege. When he couldn't reach his son, Quintana asked Ukrainian officials for permission to travel to the war-torn country to find him. He was planning to buy a plane ticket to Europe when he said the State Department confirmed the boy, Aslanova and her family had escaped to Russia.
Quintana said he spoke with Aslanova after she got out of Mariupol. He said she was considering coming back to California but was reluctant because she faces criminal charges for child abduction and also for driving under the influence in a case that prompted Quintana to seek the custody order in 2020.
“She is worried about jail,” he said. “Why does my son have to suffer because of her?”
Noelle Hunter, co-founder of the iStand Parent Network, said a voluntary agreement is typically the best option in these cases. She said Quintana has asked the district attorney’s office to drop the abduction charge if Aslanova returns, but prosecutors have not committed to doing so. State Department officials have offered to expedite documents should Aslanova leave Russia and take the child to another country, she said.
“We can’t just kind of sit on our hands,” said Hunter, whose organization supports parents whose children were taken overseas. “We have to be ready.”
The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to discuss the case.
Quintana and Aslanova were in the process of divorcing when she was arrested for investigation of driving under the influence, according to a letter from Orange County prosecutors to Ukrainian officials.
Quintana was granted a custody order and allowed Aslanova to visit the boy at his home in December 2020. While he was sleeping, she took him to the airport and boarded a flight to Turkey then another to Ukraine, he said.