For more than three years, Deepa Topiwalla fell asleep every night wondering where her young son was. She doesn't have to wonder anymore. He sleeps in her bedroom in a small bed next to hers. After a court battle that took her halfway across the world, she has returned home to Cary with her son, and together they look forward to starting a new life.
This year marks a new chapter for them, after a tumultuous struggle that began in 2004 when Topiwalla was granted primary custody of Mihir, then 2, in Wake County Family Court. During a weekend visitation, the boy's father kidnapped him and fled to India.
Topiwalla hired a private detective in India but had no idea where to begin her search. A native of Tanzania, she had only twice visited India, which is about one-third the size of the U.S. and has a population of more than 1 billion. To complicate matters, “I was told that even if I go there, if I find out where my son is, Americans won't be able to do anything because India does not follow American laws,” Topiwalla said. Because India is not a member of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, U.S. court orders aren't automatically enforceable there, Chester said.
Last June, on a trip to India to visit her dying father who traveled to India for treatment, Topiwalla began her search again. With help from relatives, she hired an Indian lawyer and issued a public plea for help in the local newspapers and television stations, showing an old photo of Mihir and asking for any information on his whereabouts. That call for help led to a tip -- and authorities were able to track down her son. But her battle wasn't over. Attorneys warned Topiwalla that she could face years of custody litigation, and “based on what we were hearing from the (U.S.) Department of State, the chances of Deepa ever getting the child back were really slim,” Chester said.
She persuaded an Indian court to grant her emergency custody of Mihir. After a hearing, the Indian judge decided to honor the American custody order, and last October, Topiwalla brought her son home to the U.S.
Topiwalla now works at a local day care center -- a job she chose in the wake of her son's abduction. “I thought, 'If I cannot be with my son, I can be with other kids and experience what's going on in their lives every day,' " she said.“Because I was missing all that growing up with my own son, I thought, 'If I do this with another child, I will feel a little bit better.' “
Topiwalla's ex-husband faces federal parental kidnapping charges but has not been arrested, Chester said. To their knowledge, he has not returned to the United States.
Nearly $50,000 in court costs decimated Topiwalla's savings. But rather than focus on the past, she is determined to look forward. “I hope to have a good future with my son. I want to give him the best education you can have and do everything possible for him, so he can grow up to be a good person," she said. "It's huge for me to get my life back because my son is everything to me.”
© Copyright 2008, The News & Observer Publishing Company. By Cara Bonnett, Correspondent, News Observer