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A Father’s Day he won’t see: International child abduction devastates former Kent man
Sunday is Father’s Day, and while dads all over the region and the country will be waking up to gifts and smiles from their children, B.J. Rao will not be one of them.
It’s been almost a year since the former Kent resident has seen Anand, his son, who turned 4 just last week. Rao’s ex-wife Arathi Bandi took Anand to India last July and despite court-ordered visitations and a custody change to put Anand into Rao’s home, there is still no word from Bandi.
And there’s nothing the authorities can do.
“I have absolutely no legal mechanism,” Rao, 40, who is now living with friends in Sammamish, said this past week.
India is one of several countries around the world that are not part of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a 1983 treaty signed to prompt the quick return of children who have been taken illegally to another country.
Because of that, even the State Department has no jurisdiction and despite legal victories in the United States, Rao will spend this Father’s Day as a custodial parent, but without his son.
Rao’s story begins in late 2003 when he married Bandi. They met on an Indian singles Web site and quickly married.
It was the second marriage for both of them, and Bandi moved to the Seattle area from Atlanta soon after.
Anand was born June 5, 2005, Rao’s only child. In December 2005, Bandi’s father, who lives in Hyderabad, India, had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. The couple decided Bandi would take Anand to India to be with her father while Rao stayed in the U.S. to work and pay off some of the couple’s debt.
The visit was scheduled to be three months and Bandi and Anand had a ticket to return March 13.
However, while in India, Rao said Bandi got into an argument with members of his family, specifically his sister, and things got “nasty.”
“They both said hurtful things to each other,” Rao admits, adding that after the fight, Bandi told his family that they would never again see Anand.
The next day, Bandi and Rao spoke on the phone and according to Rao, Bandi implied that her father made threats against Rao’s family.
“I had no reason to think that her family had this much animosity toward me and my family,” he said.
Rao said Bandi then told him that she had no intention of coming back to the U.S. until Rao assured her family that he could protect her and their son from Rao’s family and demanded that Rao apologize to her father, which Rao said he tried twice.
Soon after, Bandi canceled her return ticket to the States.
“If you think I am coming home March 13, you are dreaming,” Rao remembers her saying, adding, “don’t call me at all.”
A week later, Bandi’s father called Rao and told him to come to India to get his wife and son. Rao made last-minute plans at work and flew to India.
When he arrived, Bandi reportedly refused to allow Rao take Anand to his family, and said that no member of Rao’s family, including his siblings, one of whom lives on Long Island, New York, could ever see Anand again.
Rao agreed, because, he said, his only alternative would be going to court, and Rao’s goal was to simply get Bandi and Anand back to the U.S.
“I just wanted to get her away from that toxic environment,” Rao said.
Looking back, however, Rao recognizes that something was amiss even then.
“In hindsight, I think I probably overlooked a lot of warning signs,” he said. “That’s the first time it reached a point where I said ‘I think we should go our separate ways.’”
With Anand, the pair flew back to the States and Rao said the plan was to think about their relationship and take care of whatever was necessary should they opt for divorce, though Rao admits he hoped things would change once they got away from India.
“But they didn’t,” he said. “The bitterness just was not going to go away.”
As 2006 progressed, the couple grew further and further apart and the pair filed for divorce in October 2006.
But as October approached, Rao said Bandi started to make plans to take Anand to Atlanta to visit her sister, who was coming in from India.
“That sounded suspicious to me,” Rao said.
So he also got a restraining order to prevent Bandi from taking Anand out of state.
It took two years for the divorce to get to trial in March 2008. Six weeks before the start of the trial, Bandi and her lawyers asked to permanently relocate to India with Anand.
“I said if it’s permanent relocation, I am never going to see my son again,” Rao said. “At trial we were opposing permanent relocation.”
When the divorce was finalized, permanent relocation was rejected, but the judge allowed each parent to travel with Anand to India, something Rao said he was not in favor of, but could not afford to appeal.
“This all became such a financial burden I couldn’t afford to appeal it,” he said.
As the summer of 2008 approached, Bandi asked Rao for a copy of Anand’s passport so she could take him to Vancouver, British Columbia. However, Rao’s suspicion was raised when his ex wife also asked for Anand’s Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card, which allows Indians to get in and out of India without having to get a Green Card or Visa.
When Rao refused, he said Bandi stomped out. Soon after she started insisting on the card so she could take Anand to India for 13 days in July, which Rao saw as a violation of his custodial rights in the divorce, which stated neither could take a vacation of more than five days with Anand. A judge agreed.
As a sign of “good faith,” Rao agreed to give Anand’s PIO card to Bandi’s lawyer.
“At this time, both my lawyer and I are under the impression she wasn’t going because her motion was denied,” Rao said.
On July 16, 2008, Rao had a custodial visit with Anand. It was the last time he saw his son.
On the morning of July 17, 2008, Rao said he woke up with a suspicious feeling so he went to court seeking a clarification on travel restrictions, though he said he could not get in to see anyone.
“I don’t know why I had the suspicion,” he said.
Rao called Anand’s day-care center, but that day he was not scheduled to be there so the center had no info for him. However, at 4 p.m., the day-care center called back to tell Rao that Bandi told them she was going to India with Anand and he would not be back that month.
For Rao, the suspicions became ever greater.
“In the back of my mind, I had suspicion she wasn’t coming back,” he said, adding that he remained “hopeful” because of the legal agreements.
The day before the pair was scheduled to return, Rao said he received an e-mail from Bandi telling him Anand was sick so they would not be traveling the next day.
Rao said he started to get more worried.
On Aug. 2, 2008, Rao said he received another e-mail saying that Anand was healthy, but now Bandi was sick.
“No word about the return,” Rao said.
On Aug. 5, Bandi’s lawyers withdrew from the case.
On Aug. 7, Rao called the U.S. State Department and requested a welfare visit through the consulate in India, but the visit was totally up to Bandi.
According to a letter from the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Children’s Issues, attempts to contact Bandi led to a run-around from Bandi’s sister who said Bandi had taken Anand to the city of Goa.
“We now believe this was false information,” the letter states.
On Aug. 23. Rao received his final communication from Bandi, a two-line email that Rao has memorized:
“We’re returning on Sept. 16. Please see the attached itinerary.”
According to the document, the two were scheduled to fly back on that day. Also included was a cell-phone number, which Rao said he used to check the ticket’s validity.
On the Friday before his ex-wife and son were scheduled to return, Rao said he was told the ticket was canceled.
“That’s it,” he said, with tears beginning to well in his eyes. “I haven’t heard from her.”
On Dec. 9, 2008, the courts granted Rao full custody of Anand. A kidnapping investigation was also started. On March 1, 2009, first-degree custodial interference charges were filed against Bandi.
But due to India not being a party to the Hague Convention, there is nothing that can be done to help Rao, or other parents like him. The State Department has told him he must file a missing person report in India, but Rao said Indian police simply hang up on him and speculates it is because Bandi’s family is well-known and is fairly wealthy.
“The reality of the situation is he’s going to have to go to India,” said Mark S. Gouras of Gouras and Amis, PLLC, of Kent. Gouras is Rao’s attorney and said he has dealt with many cases of interstate and international “custodial withholding.”
But because India is not a member of the Hague Convention, all bets are off.
“If it’s not a Hague country, it all depends on the individual country,” he said, adding that high corruption rates in India (something Rao also mentioned) make it unlikely anything can be done.
“India does not respect U.S. court orders,” he said.
On top of the travel issues, Bandi has filed charges against Rao and his family and Rao faces potential arrest simply upon arriving in India, but he is determined to get his son back. He was laid off earlier this year and has sold his house and is now planning a trip.
“Once I go to India, I don’t know how long it’s going to be,” he said.
Last weekend marked Anand’s fourth birthday, a day that was “pretty bad” for Rao.
Rao said he stayed up late and went to a Hindu temple the next day and requested a ceremony in Anand’s name.
He also sent a card to Hyderabad, though he has no way of knowing if Anand received it.
Rao said he still beats himself up over not being more forceful on July 17, the day he attempted to get a travel clarification, as well as not appealing when the judge granted international travel.
But now, Rao just wants other parents to know about his situation and wants to wan others that may find themselves in similar situations.
He also wants to make sure the judiciary understands the scope of the problem and be more careful when allowing one parent to travel outside of the country.
Until then, he plans to keep fighting in hopes that next year at this time, he will be able to spend Father’s day with Anand.
“Some days are better than others. Some days I just keep thinking...” he said, he voice trailing off in a sea of emotion.