Fighting for Liam: Michael McCarty Journeys to Italy in Hopes of Regaining Custody of Son

Despite father's legal custody, 8-year-old son remains in Italy.

September 10, 2009, 8:35 PM

Sept. 11, 2009— -- For most Americans, a trip to Italy would mean a romantic getaway. But for Michael McCarty, who has made about a dozen trips to Italy over the past two years, his latest trek was anything but an escape.

That's because he was desperately trying to bring back what means the most to him in the world: his 8-year-old son, Liam. McCarty's ex-wife, Manuela McCarty, took Liam to her native country more than two years ago, and he's been fighting to get Liam back ever since.

McCarty recently made yet another trip to Italy to visit his son, whom he hadn't seen in months. Though he knew that he couldn't win custody on this trip, McCarty still had high hopes for the scheduled visit.

But these hopes were quickly dashed.

McCarty said there were about a dozen security guards and a throng of Italian reporters present during the visit. Also present were Liam's mother and grandmother, both visibly upset and disruptive, according to McCarty.

"The mother was there screaming, the grandmother was there screaming," he said. "In the middle of that was my son."

Perhaps worst of all, when McCarty finally caught a glimpse of Liam, the son he's been working so hard to get back, he did not exactly come running with open arms.

"He yelled at me, [saying] that I was a bad person and walked back inside. It was … you know I just don't know why they are doing this to him," said the distraught McCarty during the trip.

McCarty told "GMA" today that he learned from recent documents that his son had been kept up all night before the visit.

Liam's reaction is "not surprising under the circumstances … the pressures that are being put upon him," he said. "He's being shuttled around from place to place, he does not know whom to trust."

McCarty said that the Italian courts are aware that "there's a problem."

"It's very clear to them at this point he's traumatized," he said.

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International Custody Fight for Liam McCarty

Michael McCarty's nightmare began more than two years ago. On March 5, 2007, he received the phone call that every parent dreads: Liam was no longer at his school in New York City.

His son was halfway around the world. Boldly defying a court order, his mother, Manuela McCarty, had taken Liam, then 5 years old, back to her native Italy.

The case would grow only more complicated -- and more nightmarish -- for McCarty when his ex-wife Manuela was ruled an unfit parent by an Italian court.

After this ruling, Liam, who is an American citizen, was placed in the custody of an Italian orphanage, even though his father was alive, well and had legal custody of his son.

Now father and son are entangled in a legal quagmire that involves several courts in what Michael McCarty said is Italy's "archaic, insane, Kafka-esque" legal system.

Currently, there are three cases pending related to Liam, dealing with both custody and custodial rights: one in Rome's juvenile court, one in the appellate court and one in the Supreme Court.

The case is further complicated by the fact that Liam was born in Italy and has dual citizenship there and in the United States, and that McCarty did not have formal final custody of Liam until after Manuela fled to Italy with him.

Historically, getting a child out of a foreign country is difficult, especially if one parent is a citizen of that country.

Many parents, finding themselves frustrated with diplomatic channels, have sought help from professionals such as former CIA Agent Fred Rustmann. His company, CTC International Group Ltd., has orchestrated successful rescue operations of abducted children from Latin America to Europe to the Middle East.

"There is nothing more complicated than a child recovery operation," Rustmann said. "They are all different, but they are all horrible in the sense that they require an awful, awful lot of planning, surveillance, everything must be timed down to the minute."

What's Next for Liam?

Challenging as a recovery is, it's nearly impossible if you don't actually know where the child is. As recently as August, McCarty was not even sure of his son's whereabouts, given that much of Italy had shut down for the month.

Despite the increasingly messy situation, McCarty and Segal say that international law goes strongly in their favor, with both an FBI warrant for Manuela McCarty's arrest and the Hague Convention on their side.

But the courts don't seem to want to acknowledge either, Segal claims. "They say everything and they say nothing. They conduct endless additional legal proceedings. You never get a straight answer."

For his part, McCarty remains determined to get his son back and says that it's concern for Liam's wellbeing that keeps him going.

"There are good days, there are bad days. You just get through it," he said. "It's not about how I'm doing. It's about how Liam's doing. Every day I'm worried about his safety."

McCarty expects a decision to be made later this month about whether Liam will be returned to an Italian orphanage, or placed with a relative such as an uncle or his grandparents. He plans to continue returning to Italy and fighting to bring his son home.

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