Bringing Pietro Home: One Dad's Epic Custody Fight

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Any parent who has gone through a custody battle is bound to have a story to tell. But the story of Brandon Henry's fight to win custody of his son -- with angry parents, a secret pregnancy and a cast of Italian nuns -- is one only Hollywood could make up, if it weren't true.

The story culminated in an emotional mission to Florence, Italy, where Henry moved into his lawyer's nearby villa and began a long struggle with the local court system.

The story began the day he met Stephanie Chavarria.

"I met Stephanie in about, say, 2004," said Henry. "She's a real people person, a wonderful smile. And an amazing laugh. We just had so much in common. We just clicked."

Henry, 28, was an Army vet and an aspiring DJ in Dallas. He thought Chavarria was going to be the love of his life. There was just one problem. Well, actually two.

"Her parents are extremely controlling," said Henry. "They want to control who she's friends with, who she sees, who she spends time with."

Henry said Carmen and Lazaro Chavarria, two dentists in the Houston area, wanted their daughter to have nothing to do with him.

"They prejudged me," said Henry. "They felt she should be with a lawyer or doctor."

Carmen and Lazaro Chavarria did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them by phone.

Chavarria continued to date Henry against her parents' wishes.

"Our relationship was kinda weird, because every time we'd go out or do something she was constantly lying to her family," said Henry.

Then one day, Henry's mother, Sherrye Andrews, noticed something.

"Brandon actually showed me a picture," said Andrews. "He said, 'Mom, look at this.' And I said, 'Um, she's pregnant.'"

"We always talked about having a child together," Henry laughed. "I just didn't know it'd come so soon. I was looking forward to it. And, you know, at the time, she was too. She was really happy about it."

But Henry was completely unaware of what was coming next.

"Everything changed," he said. "Everything fell apart."

'She Hid the Pregnancy'

As the months slid by, Henry said, Chavarria kept putting off telling her parents about the pregnancy.

"She was really, really afraid to tell her family that she was pregnant," said Henry. "She didn't know how they'd react. She hid the pregnancy by wearing baggy clothes."

Andrews said that "obviously there were deep issues there. I didn't know all of the issues, but obviously there were some problems there."

"I began to worry because she continued to put it off, put it off -- and then she ended up leaving town," said Henry.

"Brandon told me that Stephanie was leaving to go to Mexico," said Andrews. "That's when red flags went up."

Chavarria told Henry that her doctor had approved a short trip to visit grandparents in Mexico City. But the trip turned out not to be short.

"Five days became two-and-a-half weeks," said Henry. "I hadn't heard anything from her. Yet, I still continued to call. Then the ring changed on her phone."

"I continued to call," he said. "And finally, I got a recording saying 'The person you're trying to reach may have their phone turned off' -- in Italian. So then I really began to grow concerned."

Henry said Chavarria finally called him just days before her due date. She had returned to the United States. She said she was fine, but she avoided him, remaining behind the gates of her parents' house. Then the due date passed.

"She told me she was returning to the doctor because she didn't feel any movement," said Henry. "She wouldn't see me."

In the following days, Henry grew increasingly desperate for news. Then, he got some.

"She told me that she went back to the doctor and we had lost a child due to the umbilical cord being tied around the baby's neck," he said. "I was really hurt. I didn't know what to think."

For a moment, Henry thought it was all over. But in fact his ordeal was just beginning. Something told him Chavarria wasn't telling the truth.

"[She] did not answer my questions," he said. "She kept hanging up on me, saying, 'Oh, I need to call you back. I'm really busy.' Excuses, excuses, excuses. And then I start questioning everything."

Henry called Methodist Sugar Land Hospital where Chavarria said she'd miscarried.

"They told me that she'd never been a patient there -- she had never been to that hospital. I'm freaking out, because I have no idea what's going on."

Henry finally got Chavarria's parents on the phone. The call did not go well.

"They called me sick and crazy, and they told me that if I ever called their house or came to their house, they'd call the police and press harassment charges or trespassing charges, whatever applied," Henry said.

So Henry went to the police himself. They called Chavarria, and got a startling story.

'I Walked to a Convent and Left Him'

"She [told police] she'd never been pregnant by me, we'd been broken up for almost a year, and I was doing this just to get back at her," Henry said. "I'm very hurt by this. I was confused. I had no clue as to what was going on."

On top of all that, Henry began to believe that, somewhere out there, he had a child.

And he had proof that Chavarria had been pregnant: photos of her while pregnant, and a sonogram form with her signature. "I showed the officers this, and they said, 'Wow, OK,'" recalled Henry. "'What's really going on?'"

The police called the family in and Chavarria finally spilled the beans.

"She broke down and said, 'I had the baby in Italy while we were on vacation. After having the baby, I walked to a convent and left him there,'" said Henry. "Initially, it was relief. It meant that there was a way I could get my child back."

But Henry had to search on his own. The police only could tell him that Chavarria had left the baby in Florence.

Florence -- birthplace of the Renaissance, home of countless art treasures and dozens of churches. Locating the right one would require a small miracle.

"I sat at my computer, and I found every convent and church in Florence," said Henry. "I called them one by one, and I think, after calling about 30, I found a nun who spoke English. She told me to Google 'neonato abandonato' [abandoned newborn]. And I found all these stories. 'Baby Abandoned in Church in Florence.'"

The article described a baby boy found in a church by an order of nuns, right around the time Chavarria was in Florence. "I knew it was my child," said Henry. "In my heart, everything told me that this was my child."

Chavarria fessed up with additional details after Henry e-mailed her the article. She told Henry she went into labor while staying at a ritzy Florence hotel and gave birth to the baby on the bathroom floor. The next day, she said, she took the baby around the corner to a church and left him there.

"You know, I really don't know what happened there," said Henry. "The story still hasn't come out."

The crisis was far from over. Henry's child was now in the care of Italian social services. The child was about to be put up for adoption.

"I couldn't give up," said Henry. "I couldn't give up on finding my child."

Henry had never been to Italy.

"The best thing I could do was contact an attorney in Italy who spoke English," Henry said.

After emailing every bilingual lawyer he could find, Henry hooked up with attorney Vincent Lualdi, whose expertise was international family law.

'It Was Crazy'

Henry had to appear before a Minors' Court in Italy and submit DNA samples to prove he was the child's father. The process dragged from days into weeks -- then a month. Henry took in some of the sights, made friends with the locals and killed time working around Lualdi's house, but he still was not allowed to see his son.

"The process has been slow, there have been bumps in the road, and it's been very expensive," Henry said at the time. "The first time for me to go into the cathedral was to actually go and pray."

Henry's family sent his aunt, Tamara Dattola, for support.

"I have four kids so I definitely have parenting experience," said Dattola upon her arrival in Italy. "Brandon, he's a new father and has no clue -- so I'm here to help him."

After more than a month, Henry was about to have his first visitation with his abandoned son. The baby was in an orphanage in a seaside town called Viareggio.

"It was crazy," said Henry. "My heart just jumped out of my chest. I felt like he knew who I was. This whole struggle and process was very hard. But, at that moment, I knew it was all worth it. I looked at him and I was like, 'That's my life.'"

Over the next week Henry got acquainted with the routines of parenting a four month-old boy: changing diapers, feeding, strolling, and changing more diapers. The nuns had named him Pietro, or Peter.

In the Bible, St. Peter is known as The Rock.

"I must say, he's a very strong boy," said Henry. "I mean, he's gone through more in four months than a lot of people will go through in their entire lives."

"They were so impressed with Brandon," Dattola said of the nuns, "his ability to take care of [Pietro], feed him."

After Henry's family provided the U.S. consulate with all the necessary documents to establish the child's citizenship, father and son seemed poised to go home.

But there was more red tape to cut through. Though Lualdi was told the paperwork was complete, a court order had failed to go through in time for Henry to take exclusive custody of his baby boy.

"I'm very frustrated right now. This has happened over, over, and over again," said Henry. "I think it's very unfair."

The next day brought more delays until Henry and Dattola finally take matters into their own hands, going to the court to demand the order.

"I said the heck with this, we are coming," said Dattola. "We were going to make something happen." In the end, the court order came through and baby Pietro was delivered into Henry's arms.

"It feels excellent. I'm ready to get his passport and head home," said Henry.

After a quick stop by the U.S. consulate, the child had a passport.

But before heading home, it was time for an important reunion.

Henry took the child back to the convent that had saved him.

"It was mind-blowing," he said. "The nuns were so happy that he wasn't going to be left alone in this world. They told me they prayed and prayed and prayed for this child because they felt he was very special."

The next day, baby Pietro arrived in Dallas and met the rest of his family. Andrews, the grandma, saw Pietro for the first time.

"Hi baby!" she cried. "Hi baby, so happy to see you!"

"I cannot even describe it," Andrews said. "For a little baby that nobody wanted. We got him though. We wanted him."

"Family is really the most important thing you can have," said Henry. "And if you do have it, be thankful for it."

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