A tribute to Juliette Gilbert: What Losing Custody Does to Good Moms

By Joy Henley

When I heard the news that Juliette Gilbert committed suicide in a hotel room in Oregon last week (June 29, 2007), I was stunned by this tragedy. Word quickly spread about the suicide among non-custodial mother’s groups.

Allow me to tell you about my dear friend, Juliette Gilbert. 

You may know her as “The Fugitive Mom” for kidnapping her son Sky, and taking him to New Zealand. They resided there for approximately 3 years. I knew Juliette as a nurturing mother who loved her son with all of her heart. She was someone’s mother, daughter and grandchild. She was artistic, she considered being a Christian Counselor and she loved the great outdoors. None of these things brought her as much happiness though, as her son Sky. She loved him more than anyone and anything on this earth.

Juliette served her time in the Kitsap County jail, reported for Probation Services and jumped through every legal hoop and channel to see her son after returning to the U.S. She understood what she did was wrong. Still, she was not allowed to see him. For approximately 2 years and 2 months–until the time of her death, she did not see him. 

Who is accountable and responsible? 

She did not feel free to discuss much about her life because she was always afraid it would effect getting to see Sky. She shied away from a reporter who wanted to interview her. In some ways, she must have imagined if she kept her mouth shut, it would help her see her child. She stayed silenced. Other than a paper she wrote about her abuse–which gives a clear, shocking indication into why she fled with her son, she kept quiet. The media has had a field day with this mother and I cannot recall reading many positive things.

Juliette quietly tried to re-build her life. Most of her letters from jail, emails and phone conversation were tinted with ramblings about her son. He was clearly her reason to face each day. She tried to have hope. She told me it was quite painful not even getting to see him. It is especially frustrating that she did her part–served her time–reported for Probation Services, etc. and still could not get near her child.

  At the time of her death, I have been told that mother and son still had not seen one another. As I previously mentioned…approximately 2 years and 2 months later.  There is no excuse for this.

Subtle Alienation

In custody disputes, it is common to hear “professionals” such as therapists refuse to allow the absent parent contact with the child. Common phrases are, “it would be detrimental to him” or “it may harm him.” So a subtle alienation occurs. The alienation is somehow more acceptable because it is done by professionals. 

I believe people should have tried harder to make contact between this mother and son happen. Juliette would have settled for supervised visitation (she told me this) just as long as she could see her Sky. What did people think she would do in a controlled, monitored, supervised environment?  Take her son and flee to New Zealand? What could possibly be the reason this did not happen? Could it have been so difficult to give this mother a ray of hope?

The Continuance Game

We have become case numbers in a revolving Family Court door. Court appointed evaluations, astounding legal fees, manipulations and maneuvers, outrageous allegations… it’s all there.  So are the continuances–the court dates that are “postponed” or ones that will never happen. Among us insiders, we call the “Continuance Game,” a way of working or manipulating the system.

Somewhere along the line, the “professionals” who seem to know everything about us–from what is best for our children to the inner thoughts in our minds, have lost compassion. That “human factor” is mysteriously missing. Why is it a total stranger can spend 50 minutes in a “therapy session” with our children and be an expert as to which parent is the “better” parent? Why not look at how BOTH parents can be involved in the child’s life and create a workable plan? Anyone with common sense can see that Juliette Gilbert was not treated fairly. 

Suffer the Children

From the child’s point of view, he was with his mother for three years. Didn’t people think Sky might miss his mother and want to see her?  People cannot make a mother disappear from a child’s heart. Sky could not possibly turn his feelings for his mother off, like a light switch. What about what Sky wanted? 

From my point of view, children should know both parents, if it is at all possible.  Especially when that child has a history with that parent. A picture that sits in my living room of Juliette and Sky – taken in New Zealand, shows a mother and son who appear happy.

Abuse of Authority

What people do not know was that Juliette asked for help for a year and a half before that day she took Sky and disappeared–a year and a half. People let her down and did not properly do their jobs. She was not believed. She wrote to me that she had to “convince” people she was abused. It is not like she did not try. 

 Because of Juliette’s drastic action and taking her son, I never saw her as fragile or being unstable. If anything I saw her as determined and trying to protect her child. Although I would never condone or support parental kidnapping or custodial interference, I always told her that she did what other mothers only discuss. 

How many mothers have I known who wanted to flee with their child because they believed the other parent was abusing the child? Too many to count. 

When the courts fail to protect our children, nurturing mothers take the law into their own hands. I have heard many mothers discuss taking their children and defying court orders. Some pondered “going underground.” Still, Juliette took drastic action. She did what the rest of the mothers could not.

Courageous Mother or Law Breaker?

While some of us did not know where our children slept at night, or if they were enduring another black-out rage from their alcoholic fathers, Juliette had her son right with her. If I had her courage, perhaps my own situation with my children would have been different. 

I can tell you that it would be very unusual for a mother to go to such lengths as to take her child to another country and become a fugitive, remain “in hiding” for three years, and face jail or prison, if she did not feel she had a valid, very good reason for doing so.

Stereotyping Non-Custodial Mothers

There is a strong stereotype about non-custodial mothers. The reality is that many of these mothers became non-custodial mothers because of controlling, manipulative ex-spouses. 

Many of these women were primary caretakers of their children before the divorce or separation, and they were educated and stable. 

Many watched in horror as the abusive parent was awarded custody.

How does this happen? 

Women can lose custody due to:

–False allegations;

–Being financially depleted especially when the ex has more status;

–When Guardian ad Litems fail to remain neutral and in the best interests of the child;

–When the attorney does not show up at court and a “default” is entered;

–When the Judge does not consider all of the evidence–especially in abuse cases; and

–Other reasons. 

Roaring Costs of Custody Battles:

I am always amazed when mothers say,

“That would never happen to me,”

“There is no way he would get custody– he’s a drunk” or

“I would fight for my child.” 

I ask them what they would do that these mothers did not do. I ask them if they are independently wealthy, because last I heard, a roaring custody battle costs upwards of $50,000.00!  If you can fight for custody today on $50,000.00, you have a bargain deal! 

Where did we ever get the idea that justice is perfect? 

When my attorney and I used to enter the courtroom door, my attorney used to wink at me and say, “Let’s hope the Judge got up on the right side of the bed this morning.” There is no place for humor in the courts, let alone sarcasm.

Suicide  is not always foreseeable:

I did not see Juliette’s suicide coming. Sometimes we cannot foresee a tragedy- even one of this magnitude. 

In my 20+ years of working with and supporting non-custodial mothers or mothers living apart from their children, I have never known someone to commit suicide. I also have never known someone to run out of hope, or die of a broken heart.  I can only imagine what went through Juliette’s mind when she took her last few breaths in that hotel room. It will haunt me the rest of my life. She should not have ever reached that point.

When Does the War Stop?

Even in death, negative comments are still made about Juliette Gilbert.

One person even had the audacity to contact me and make the statement, “it’s too bad because now–since she killed herself, her ex-husband WON.” 

Can’t people see that there were no winners? 

There is a little boy in this scenario who did not see his mother for the past approximately 2 years and 2 months, and now he will not see her for the rest of his life.

We must take something positive from this. If we do not, it somehow seems like Juliette’s death was in vain. 

We have a lot to learn and Juliette’s death speaks volumes over what I could possibly write.

When is the “fight” too much? 

Do we forget in all of our litigation that sometimes people are human and do not have the emotional reserves to continue the fight? That sometimes, we are held in this life by what seems to be a thread, and we can just “snap?” Instead of alienation, I only wish people had taken steps to promote a relationship between this mother and child.  There should have been progress in a positive direction–not a negative one. We must do everything in our power to see that a tragedy like the one that happened to Juliette Gilbert never happens again.

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