African mom in Indiana loses custody appeal to dad in Mali

An African woman currently living in Indiana must return her children to their father in Africa after the Indiana Court of Appeals found her home country’s custody laws do not violate fundamental human rights, so Indiana courts lack jurisdiction to strike down her African custody order.

After marrying Eric Stevance in 2001, Maimouna Coulibaly, who, like her husband, is a dual citizen of France and Mali, moved with the couple’s two children to France in 2005 while she obtained her master’s degree. The children were born in 2002 and 2004. After returning to Mali in 2007, Coulibaly decided she wanted to immigrate to Canada, and Stevance initially agreed.

However, when Stevance later changed his mind, their marriage began to fall apart, and Stevance eventually filed for divorce. Both parents requested custody of their children, but before the Malian court could rule, Coulibaly took the children and moved to France.

Although the Malian court awarded Stevance custody of the children a few months later, Coulibaly has yet to return the children to their father and was unsuccessful in her efforts to seek relief from the custody order in both Mali and France. She then moved to Indiana and sought relief, arguing the Malian custody order is unenforceable under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act because Mali custody laws violate fundamental human rights.

As evidence of this violation, Coulibaly presented the Marion Superior Court with evidence concerning judicial corruption and widespread female genital mutilation in Mali, a fate she said she feared for her daughter if she is forced to send her back to Stevance. But the trial court found no evidence of corruption in the Malian proceedings or of the daughter being at risk for mutilation, and, thus determined it did not have jurisdiction to modify the order without evidence of a violation of human rights.

The court ordered Coulibaly to immediately return the children to Stevance, but the parties later agreed to stay enforcement pending the appeal in Maimouna Coulibaly v. Eric Stevance, 49A02-1702-DR-235. The COA affirmed the trial court’s finding of lack of jurisdiction in a Wednesday opinion.

Specifically, Judge Robert Altice wrote the Malian court’s order listed several reasons for awarding custody to Stevance, such as the fact that the children’s immigration to Canada would deprive them of time with their father and the fact that Stevance had sufficient resources to care for the children.

“… (T)he Malian court expressly stated that its decision was based solely on the best interests of the children, and it conducted an analysis of those interests not at all unlike the one applied by the courts of this state,” Altice wrote. “Thus, when considering Mali’s child custody law as applied in this case, we cannot conclude that Mother has established a violation of fundamental human rights.”

“Further, although Mali’s marriage laws impose duties on husbands and wives based on gender, either spouse may be granted a divorce based on the other spouse’s failure to fulfill his or her respective duties,” Altice continued. “Whatever we might think about the wisdom of Mali’s marital and custody laws in this regard, we simply cannot say that they are so utterly shocking to the conscience or egregious as to rise to the level of a violation of fundamental principles of human rights.”

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