American mother suspected of kidnapping her daughter

Ugly custody battle between a Danish/American couple has turned into an international saga after ten-year-old goes missing

The three-year-long battle between an American woman and her Danish ex-husband over the custody of their two daughters, aged ten and seven, has resulted in the older girl, Mia Nørgaard, being reported as kidnapped to Interpol.

The child was reported as missing to Danish authorities by her father, Christian Nørgaard, on April 2 after her mother, Tammy Nørgaard, failed to return her to her father after an Easter visit. The father has custody of the children. Tammy Nørgaard told police in Jutland that her daughter had run away from home and she did not know her whereabouts. Police suspected the mother of hiding the girl and held her in custody for five days in May. Once she was freed, Tammy Nørgaard also disappeared.

"We suspect that both the mother and her daughter are in the US, and we have asked the Justice Ministry to issue an international arrest warrant for the mother charging her with kidnapping,” Niels Kristian Larsen, the deputy police commissioner from Herning, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.

California romance went sour

Christian Nørgaard, a Danish engineer, was working in California when he first met Tammy Zeid. The pair were married in 2001 and they moved to an affluent section of California’s Silicon Valley.

Mia was born in 2003 and the couple’s second daughter Sarah followed in 2005. After first moving to Germany, the father argued that conditions for children would be better in Denmark, and the family to move to Højbjerg, a coastal suburb of Aarhus, in 2007. 

The marriage quickly soured and by May 2010 the couple was battling over custody of the children.

A court in Aarhus ultimately awarded full custody of the children to their father, saying in its decision that “Christian Nørgaard would best insure the children’s stability.” Tammy Nørgaard was awarded visitation rights every other weekend. She appealed the ruling to the High Court, which in March 2012 again ruled in favour of the father.

The father has  now been awarded custody of the children on four separate occasions but according to the father’s account to Jyllands-Posten newspaper, Tammy Nørgaard has as many as 20 times refused to return the children to him after they visited her, claiming that the father beats the children. According to police reports, Tammy Nørgaard has reported her ex-husband for violence against the children 15 times. Christian Nørgaard was acquitted in the only case that ever made it to trail and police dismissed the others, citing lack of evidence.

Tammy Nørgaard presented reports from emergency room visits she made with her daughters, claiming that the bruises and other injuries sustained by the children had come from their father. Police said that there was no evidence to support her claim that the father had caused the injuries.

Tammy Nørgaard has presented numerous written statements from the children in which they say that their father beats them, but Christian Nørgaard said that the girls were told what to write by their mother and that the statements had never been verified by independent parties.

Unfair treatment from the Danish courts?

In February, Tammy Nørgaard testified in front of the European Parliament (see a video of her testimony here), where she accused the Danish courts of discriminating against foreign women in child custody cases.

“Danish authorities maintain an inhuman system that says that foreign girls and women can be abused and treated as slaves and property by Danish men simply because it has always been like this in Denmark,” Tammy Nørgaard told the parliament.

Following the testimony by Tammy Nørgaard and others – including Marion Weilharter, the mother in a high-profile international custody case involving her son Oliver – the European Parliament sent a delegation from its petitions committee to speak with the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), the then social affairs and integration minister, Karen Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), and the national police commissioner, Jens Henrik Højberg, specifically to discuss the growing number of child custody cases the EU is seeing coming out of Denmark.

Neither the ministers nor the police commissioner would meet with the delegation. Committee head MEP Angelika Werthmann from Austria was outraged by the snub and the committee is currently preparing what has been described as a “highly critical" report on Denmark, due to be released in September. Werthmann has previously expressed her support for Tammy Nørgaard on her EU website, and continues to believe that the mother has a right to protect her daughter.

Mia Nørgaard is officially listed as a missing person with Interpol (Screen shot: Interpol)“It is hard to understand why she (Tammy Nørgaard) would be held responsible for not turning Mia over to her father,” Werthmann told The Copenhagen Post. “This is one of the cases where the hospital reports show that the father has obviously been abusive towards the girls several times and staying with an abusive father simply cannot and should not be interpreted as being in the best interest of the children.”

German delegation member Peter Jahr said the committee “encountered authorities who believe that they had the best laws in the world. It resembled a trip to Moscow during the Cold War”.

Margrete Auken (Socialistisk Folkeparti), the Danish member of the EU petitions committee, did not meet with her colleagues when they were in Denmark and was not present at the press conference. She said later that she felt the opinions of the other members were “somewhat exaggerated” but that there was some truth to the claim that Danish judges preferred to grant custody to Danish parents.

“I think it is true that Danish courts are biassed in favour of granting custody to the Danish parent in a Danish/foreign marriage,” Auken told Jyllands-Posten. “I think the judges have the attitude that it is best for a child to grow up in Denmark.”

Mikael Sjöberg, the head of the Danish Judges Association, vehemently denied the allegation that judges were biassed.

“I must reject the idea that we discriminate,” he told Jyllands-Posten. “We make decisions in what we believe are the best interests of the child.”

While in Denmark, the delegation held a four-hour meeting with a group of mothers, both foreign and Danish, who have lost custody cases to Danish men in Danish courts and are leading an active campaign to get both the EU and the UN to take action against Denmark. A principal member of the group is Weilharter, the Austrian woman who has been battling with Thomas Sørensen over the custody of their son Oliver.  

“When a foreign mother is involved in one of these cases, it is reported as a kidnapping, but when a Danish father takes a child forcibly away from their mother, the press says the child was ‘picked up',” Weilharter told The Copenhagen Post. “I have been called a kidnapper for the past three years without having violated any laws.”

Weilharter said that the Danish justice system is failing thousands of children.

“There isn’t a rug big enough to sweep all of these cases under and feed the Danish illusion that there are no problems and that they have ‘the best system in the world',” she said.

Recently, the group has written to the White House and requested that US President Barack Obama raise the issue when he meets with PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) in September.

Emily Ronek, the cultural and press attaché at the US Embassy in Copenhagen, said there may not be much that even the president can do to help.

“One of the highest priorities of the US government is protecting its citizens abroad,” Ronek told Jyllands-Posten. “However, it is important for Americans to understand that they are subject to their host country’s laws, which may differ greatly from US law and may not afford them the same protections.”

Christian Nørgaard said that he is mostly concerned about his daughter’s welfare.

“I have not seen my daughter for almost five months,” he told Jyllands-Posten. “It is terrible not knowing how she is doing. Almost a third of her life has been filled with conflict, things need to be done differently for the good of the child.”

NOTE: This article was updated on 20/8/2013 at 10:50am to reflect the following: The couple moved to Germany before moving to Denmark, and the claim that Tammy Nørgaard refused to return her children 20 times comes from the father's version of the events as told to Jyllands-Posten newspaper. 

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