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A Globe-Spanning Parental Abduction Case, 23 Years in the Making

Posted by Tom Holland | Mar 17, 2021 | 0 Comments

A Globe-Spanning Parental Abduction Case, 23 Years in the Making

It used to be automatically assumed that, upon a divorce, the children would live with the mother and have visitation with their father. This premise, called the “tender years” doctrine, is no longer the standard, because children fare best when both parents are active participants in their lives and upbringing.

Still, child custody can be a real bone of contention for many divorcing couples. There is a difference, however, between fighting over a custody order behind the scenes, and conflict so severe that it captures global headlines after two decades.

The divorce case that made “48 Hours”

If you've lived in South Carolina for a while you might have heard the story of Lee Barnett. This was the Charleston divorce and custody case that spiraled so out of control that a child went missing for two decades. Barnett was married to Harris Todd. According to her, their marriage began to fall apart when she became pregnant, as children were never part of Todd's plans.

Todd allegedly became abusive and controlling, which led to a separation and a lot of bitterness between the couple. Then came Todd's unsubstantiated allegations of Barnett's temper and mental illness. Barnett and Todd attended a counseling session – Barnett claimed she hoped it would save her marriage – which resulted in her being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder by the psychiatrist who ran the session.

In the end, despite a controversial custody dispute which indicated that Todd was not fully truthful about his wife's behaviors – and in which Barnett's credible accusations of Todd's abusive behaviors were either ignored or dismissed – Todd was awarded full custody of their child. In response, Barnett obtained fake identification and passports, and just over two months after losing custody in 1994, she took baby Savannah and ran during one of her visitations. By the time Todd realized she was gone, mother and daughter were in France and the FBI began a parental abduction search for them. Barnett was able to remain off the grid for years, even remarrying and having another child. She and Savannah, whose name was eventually changed to Samantha, wound up traveling the globe.

The FBI had no luck tracking Barnett down, but Todd managed to find them in Australia. Barnett was arrested for the international parental kidnapping of her own child because she did not possess the custodial rights to remove Samantha from the United States. She was also charged two counts of passport fraud. She faced 23 years in prison, but pled guilty and received only two.

What you should know about parental abduction

The Lee Barnett case made headlines because it was so extraordinary – but that does not mean parental kidnappings are uncommon. Per this 2017 report by the Washington Post:


Under South Carolina's criminal code, section 16-17-495, “it is unlawful for a person with the intent to violate the court order or Section 63-17-20(B) to take or transport, or cause to be taken or transported, the child from the legal custodian for the purpose of concealing the child [under age 16] , or circumventing or avoiding the custody order or statute.” It is also illegal to do so “when a pleading has been filed and served seeking a determination of custody of a child under the age of sixteen.” It is a felony crime, and the punishment includes fines and/or incarceration for five years. Further:

  • If the kidnapping is done by force or threat of violence, the punishment included fines and/or up to 10 years in prison.
  • If the child is returned within three days of the kidnapping, it is a misdemeanor crime, punishable by fines and/or incarceration up to three years.

The parent may also be held in contempt of court under certain circumstances, and faced additional collateral damages as a result of a conviction.

If your ex-spouse has kidnapped your child, or if you are accused or kidnapping your child, Holland Law LLC can help. Our firm represents both family law and criminal defense clients, which means we can offer a full perspective from both sides of the aisle. To schedule a consultation, call 803-219-2630, or fill out our contact page so that we can reach out to schedule your appointment. We maintain offices in Fort Mill and Rock Hill.

About the Author

Tom Holland

Experienced Divorce, DUI, and Criminal Defense Attorney While I've been primarily focused on the practice of divorce and family law for the past decade, my experience as a criminal prosecutor has continued to serve my clients well. I previously served as the General Counsel for the Lancaster Cou...


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