When Motherhood Gets You Jail Time

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Milwaukee Sheriff's Dept.

April Griffin

How long must a mother be jailed to force her to give up her child? April Griffin has been in a Milwaukee County jail cell since May and is likely to be there through the holidays and beyond.

Unwed and on welfare, Griffin, 28, walked into a Wisconsin court last May with one goal: She wanted to keep the man she says beat her throughout her pregnancy from winning joint custody of their son. Unwilling to listen to her own attorney, Griffin conducted her own clumsy, meandering cross-examination of the child's father, Ugandan citizen Matthew Sebuliba, and failed to convince the judge that the abuse had really occurred. Instead, she tried the patience of Judge Michael D. Guolee, who chided her for spurning Sebuliba, whom he called a good catch. "We are going to force the mother to allow the father to be a father," he said. "Period. And if she doesn't, I will take the child away from you and give it to the father unless you totally cooperate."

Griffin didn't cooperate and her defiance has come at a price. "I don't want to hear anymore," Goulee said. "I made my ruling. It's ten minutes after five. I made my ruling. You don't want to hear it. You'll either cooperate or you won't cooperate. You don't want to cooperate, if you don't, you will be in jail."

And for seven months now, that's exactly where April Griffin has stayed — behind bars. Her son Jesse is in hiding, and her continued confinement doesn't seem to have moved Griffin any closer to revealing his whereabouts. "All I want, all I ever wanted, is to protect my son," she told TIME, weeping, in a phone interview from her jail cell. "I never did anything wrong. I've never been in jail before, and now I am just so scared. I don't think I am ever going to get out of here."

Sebuliba, meanwhile, is left wondering whether his son is safe. The Milwaukee nurse and legal resident of the U.S. told TIME he never beat Griffin. And while he concedes he was away in Africa during the child's birth, he now wants to help raise his son. "I don't want to see April in jail," Sebuliba told TIME. "I just want to have the opportunity to be a father to my child, and I would want April to have the opportunity to be his mother."

But before that can happen, somebody has to produce Jesse, a little boy whose first birthday was spent on the lam. Guolee, who has called Griffin her "own worst enemy," has tried to find the baby. Since jailing Griffin, he has issued a bench warrant for the baby, and threatened Griffin's family members with prosecution if they are helping hide him. Griffin's mother told TIME that officers, acting on a court order to search the house, kicked her door in earlier this summer. April's sister said officers came to her house and, thinking her own son was Jesse, drew weapons before realizing their mistake.

But so far, none of that has worked. The baby remains missing, though Griffin says he is safe. Griffin is still in jail and Sebuliba's desire to be a father still frustrated. She repeated to TIME over the weekend what she told Judge Goulee over and over again in court, that her son Jesse would be in danger if he went to live with Sebuliba, "I am not going to give my child to a man that beat me when I was pregnant."

April Griffin is hardly the first woman in America to refuse to comply with a judge's order to share custody of a child she believes — with or without proof — is at risk. And she isn't the first one to go to jail, or to go into hiding, as a result. Last year, an Oklahoma mother spent several months in jail on contempt charges when she sent her daughter into hiding in Texas. She was found, and the mother was released. Perhaps the most famous case took place in Washington, D.C. where plastic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Morgan spent 25 months in jail while her daughter was in hiding with her parents, both elderly psychologists. Dr. Morgan maintained that her ex-husband had sexually abused the girl and refused to share custody, despite a court order that she do so. A special act of Congress forced her release in 1989. (It was later declared unconstitutional because it was specifically tailored for Morgan's case.) It was several more months before her daughter was found, after 31 months of hiding.

Part two of this story will look at the social welfare bureaucracy that led to the court proceedings and the jailing of April Griffin.