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Chapter of international custody dispute written in Tampa

TAMPA — A man. A woman. Bleary eyes and heated words.

The scene was typical, if not cliche, for the halls of Hillsborough family court — except this one Tuesday needed subtitles.

He was sorry, he told her in Italian, that it had come to this.

But it had to come to this.

The following morning, he would board a plane with their two children for the northeastern Italian province of Vicenza.

She would stay in Tampa to face a federal charge of international parental kidnapping.

And a chapter would close in a trans-Atlantic child custody saga that spanned eight months, three countries and captured headlines in the Italian press.

Every story has two sides. The woman's is silenced by the Fifth Amendment. The man's is summarized in this thought:

"I've been in hell."

For seven years, Alberto Fracaro and his ex-wife, Reina Yanez-Hernandez, shared custody of their 13-year-old son, Massimo, and 10-year-old daughter, Claudia. Before all of this, Fracaro says, he and his ex-wife got along better after their 2004 split than when they were together.

Then came August 2010. What happened — according to Fracaro, Italian government sources and the U.S. Justice Department's attache in Rome — is detailed in an federal affidavit.

She told him she was taking the kids on a one-week vacation to the Red Sea. Instead, she took them to Hidalgo County, Texas.

She had family there. And her current husband, Giovanni Poianella, had sold their house in Italy and moved too.

The day after they arrived, she allowed her son to contact his father to advise him that they were in Texas. During the conversation, she told Fracaro she expected to return by September, in time for the Italian school year. But she enrolled the kids at a Texas school and had her attorney in Italy apply for a modification to their divorce granting her custody during the school year.

The Italian court denied her request. And after the father approached the court, a civil judge in Vicenza ordered her to return the children to Italy.

Fracaro spent Christmas without his children.

He hired an attorney in Texas to get the U.S. court to enforce the Italian order, but when the mother and her husband were given notice on the proceeding, the affidavit says, they withdrew the kids from school, fled to Mexico and ended up in Tampa.

They enrolled Massimo in Memorial Middle School and Claudia in Oak Grove Elementary, and lived in a home with her relatives near Egypt Lake.

Italian authorities found them by tracing IP addresses from e-mails the children sent their father and by monitoring their mother's credit card charges. An Italian judge ordered their capture, and U.S. marshals delivered.

Poianella remains in jail here.

Yanez-Hernandez was granted bail for two reasons: She has to care for their 5-year-old child, and she's almost eight months into a high-risk pregnancy.

A judge doesn't think she would flee without her husband.

Italy wants them extradited.

Fracaro, with the help of the Italian consulate, traveled to Tampa and shared a tearful reunion with his children last week. They have spent the past few days catching up at the zoo, the aquarium and Ybor City.

Dario Diaz, an attorney for the mother, said the father knew of the planned move to Texas, and at first agreed but then changed his mind. He said the legal action in Italy happened after she left, and that the mother did not get to defend herself there.

Nor could she testify in a Hillsborough courtroom Tuesday, out of fear of incriminating herself.

So family court Judge Catherine Catlin ruled that the Italian court had jurisdiction over the child custody case.

And Fracaro got permission to take his son and daughter home.

His attorney, Benjamin C. Older, sees family law cases all the time, some contained in Tampa, others spanning the globe. "You know how expensive it is to fight a custody case in your back yard? Imagine trying to fight one between two continents."

But the gut-wrenching separation, the heightened emotions, the heated hallway exchanges — that, he says, is universal.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Chapter of international custody dispute written in Tampa 04/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 12:23am]
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