Indea Ford in Sitka this past January, the day before she flew to Anchorage and surrendered to US Marshals. She had been under house arrest in Sitka since April 2017, when the US Department of State received an extradition petition from the UK. A year away from full citizenship, Ford had just taken her driver’s license exam and was celebrating with lunch at the Westmark with her husband and three children, when US Marshals arrested her on the street corner. “I thought I had failed the test!” she says. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Update 5-4-18: Ford was extradited on April 10. Find the follow story here.

Original report:

A Sitka woman is in prison, pending extradition to the United Kingdom to face charges that she abducted her children to the United States.

Since her arrest in downtown Sitka last April, Indea Ford has been treated as a criminal. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will ultimately decide if Ford has to return to face abduction charges in the UK — and to face a former partner who she claims assaulted her and abused their children. Family advocates say this case is not unique, and points to a huge gulf between the rule of law and the actions of women desperate to protect themselves and their families.

Downloadable audio.

Sound: A service at Grace Harbor Church

Grace Harbor Church is probably one of Sitka’s largest. It’s a bright space, with windows overlooking the wide expanse of Sitka Sound. A contemporary Evangelical congregation is led by a rock band, with lyrics projected on the gleaming white walls.

Today they are praying for one of their own.

Pastor Paul McArthur, from the pulpit: We’re praying for Indea while she is in custody… and we look forward to the day when this family can be reunited.

“Well anyone who meets Indea Ford, and the Ford family realizes that Indea is not a criminal,” says McArthur. “The person who caused the harm isn’t going to jail, but she is.”

A 30-year veteran of pastoral counseling, Paul McArthur seen his share of domestic violence — and repentant partners. Nevertheless, he has faith in Ford and the effort she has made to rebuild her life in the US. Nevertheless, Ford’s case is theologically challenging: “The person who caused this harm is not going to jail, and she is,” he says. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

I meet with McArthur and Indea Ford in the church conference room. Ford is a 34-year old British expat, now a legal permanent resident in the US. She bakes cakes for a living. There is a solemn feel in the room.

After eight months in supervised house arrest, Ford is flying to Anchorage tomorrow to surrender to US Marshals and to enter prison. She has no idea how long she’ll be there.

This church is her emotional sanctuary.

“I just know that there has to be a reason for all of this. I don’t know what that reason is — nobody knows what the reasons are, and He has plans for everybody. But I do know that I am not alone.”

A turbulent relationship leads to flight from home

Ford has lived in Sitka for 2-and-a-half years with her husband, Kenny Ford, a Coast Guardsman, and three children: Grace, Ava, and Noah — this last is her child with Kenny. Before moving to Sitka she lived in Kent, England, where Grace and Ava were born. Her relationship with the girls’ father, however, was short-lived and turbulent. An extensive motion filed by the assistant federal defender for the District of Alaska asserts that in frequent “drug-fueled rages” over several years, her former partner physically assaulted her, prompting one British policeman to warn her that she was in danger of her life.

Although Ford encouraged her partner to seek help, nothing worked. She made up her mind to leave him.

“And it got to a point one day, when he was being particularly abusive — and both Grace and Ava were there — and I sat there and looked at my girls and realized that the only thing I’m doing is letting them think it’s okay to be treated like this by someone. And that was the point I realized that, you know what? I’m done. And I ended the relationship.”

But ending the relationship did not end the abuse, Ford claims. The British courts awarded Ford custody of Grace and Ava and granted her former partner visitation — or “contact.”

The federal defender’s motion argues that the arrangement proved unsuccessful for Ford and the girls.

“Throughout 2012 to 2015 contact started and stopped. He was arrested for battery against Ava in 2014. That was investigated for quite some time but dropped because there was not enough evidence despite my taking pictures and documenting with social services through the right channels. And, yeah, it just went backwards and forwards like that, and the children would come home terrified and begging me not to send them to him anymore.”

Among Ford’s evidence documenting an alleged pattern of abuse by her daughters’ biological father are these Instagram posts, where he apparently boasts about their battered appearance. Of Ava, clearly bruised, he writes “#beeninthewars,” along with other much cruder language. Ford made an appeal in May, 2015, to emigrate legally with the girls to Alaska, but it was dismissed by the Dartford Family Court. (Images provided)

Spread out on the conference room table in Grace Harbor Church are Ford’s legal files. There’s also a large binder filled with records of all the social service and therapeutic interventions Ford obtained for her daughters during the three years they lived under the British court’s Child Arrangements. Despite her efforts, she could not get traction in the British system to wrest herself and her children from her ex-partner, who according to the federal public defender’s motion “was uncooperative with the terms of the (Child Arrangements) order and repeatedly harassed and threatened Ms. Ford.”

Ford, son Noah, and her husband Kenny, a member of the Coast Guard. The couple met at a Toby Keith concert on one of her visits to the US to see her father. They married in September, 2014. While Kenny Ford has borne the stress of Indea’s legal proceedings, the family has thrived. Of Grace and Ava, Indea says “They’ve gone from timid, scared children that were just terrified of everything, to happy, outgoing, confident girls.”  (Photo provided)

She booked tickets for herself and Grace and Ava (then ages 5 and 4) to travel to Virginia in the fall of 2015, to visit her own father — a trip she had made often in the past. She says she was fully intending to return. But the plans changed. The girls’ last contact with their biological father was two weeks before their departure for the US.

“He was particularly upset and aggressive that day,” says Ford. “I asked him not to speak to me like that in front of the children. He said a few choice words to me, and then told me that he was going to kill me and take the children to another country. And at that point I was like, no one’s helping me.”

Ford travelled legally with Grace and Ava to Virginia on October 2, 2015. Ten days later when she did not return home, Ford became an international fugitive.

The law can punish victims who don’t act ‘reasonably’

“There is a misfit between the contours of the law, which is based on acting reasonably, and what can happen neurologically and emotionally if someone’s experienced trauma,” says David Voluck, who has practiced family law for 21 years. He’s been a tribal judge for ten of them. While Voluck is not involved in this case, he has ample experience with situations where the law seems to disadvantage the people it’s designed to protect.

“Particularly in domestic violence relationships or batterer relationships, it could end up with results upside down: Where the victim of the battering and the power and the control ends up being on the end of punishment.

There’s also this: A pattern-abuser may not stop just because his victims have escaped his reach. According to the US federal defender, “the primary legal mechanism for the protection of children wrongfully removed or abducted from their country of habitual residence” is The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction. The United States won’t return a child under the Convention, if doing so exposes him to potential harm. Answering a petition from The Hague would give Ford an opening to present evidence to support her allegations of abuse. But the father of the girls never submitted one; he’s only filed kidnapping charges. Ford feels he’s just trying to punish her — and facing an indefinite future behind bars, it’s working.

Author Lizbeth Meredith is a women’s advocate in Anchorage. In her book Pieces of Me, she tells a similar story. Although she ultimately recovered her daughters, Meredith says she was always a step behind her ex-husband, as he manipulated the legal systems of two countries.

“We have a lot more research that tells us the incredible, damning impacts domestic violence and abuse has on children — even infants. It’s debilitating to children’s futures. Their health — physically, mentally, all of that — is compromised. Knowing all that, we still are not able to make quite the adjustments I think we need to, to prevent victims from being exploited.”

In extradition proceedings, courts consider only the crime — not the ‘criminal’

Back in Grace Harbor Church…

In domestic struggles almost anything is possible: “Victims” may exaggerate or lie, or experience sudden religious conversions that appeal to responsive communities like Grace Harbor Church. Paul McArthur believes Ford’s authenticity speaks for itself, and his church will back her even if she has to return to the UK for trial. “We want this family reunited,” he says. “That’s our commitment to her.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

And then there are those “victims” who lie, or experience a sudden religious conversion, to tease out an advantage in a domestic dispute. Paul McArthur has been pastor of Grace Harbor for three decades. It’s a job that often involves him intimately in family crises — including domestic violence. He parses the truth every day in his role as a counselor, and he doesn’t believe Indea Ford is posing. He and church secretary Betty Jo Moore (a former city paralegal who’s been helping assemble Ford’s defense and tracking her voluminous paperwork) have been writing letters and communicating with Alaska’s congressional delegation since last summer*. Their faith in Ford is absolute — it’s the legal systems of the United States and the United Kingdom which they find troubling.

“The more details that you learn of this story,” says McArthur. “Every one of them makes it even more of an amazing thing that such a thing should be happening in two countries sophisticated enough to understand basic justice.”

Ford has never been able to present the evidence of her or her children’s abuse to a judge in the United States. As far as federal courts are concerned, she must return to face the charges in the UK.

A humanitarian appeal before the US Secretary of State

The only way to escape extradition now is to appeal to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the first person with power over Ford’s future who can fully weigh her story. If Tillerson denies the appeal, and Ford is extradited to stand trial, her girls will remain in the US with her husband Kenny — whom she met at a Toby Keith concert in 2014, and around whom she has rebuilt her family. Grace and Ava are thriving in their new life in Sitka — a life Ford wants for them, even if she can’t have it for herself.

“I have had more support in Sitka in this very short time than I’ve had my whole life, where I’ve been anywhere else. And this place feels like home, and my children’s home. My children are so happy here, and the difference in them is amazing. They’ve gone from timid, scared children that were just terrified of everything, to happy, outgoing, confident girls. The difference is just astounding. It’s truly astounding.”

Indea Ford with McArthur, and church secretary Betty Jo Moore. Ford has found a peace living in Sitka that she had never really experienced before, and her daughters are thriving. Even if she’s forced to return to the UK she’ll try to ensure that her girls remain in the US with Kenny. “I do not want them subject to that abuse again — ever,” she says. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Ford’s residency status if she’s extradited is uncertain. Attorneys I consulted say that under the Trump administration, immigration is a wild card. The only certainty is that Ford will do anything in her power to keep her daughters away from the man who she claims abused them.

“Because as a parent, that’s your main goal is to keep your children safe and happy at all times,” she says, holding back tears. “That should be the goal of any parent.”

Indea Ford surrendered to federal marshals on January 8, and remains in custody at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River.

*Note: McArthur and Moore report that Alaska’s congressional offices are sympathetic, but unhelpful. As a rule, Congress does not interfere with the functions of the Judiciary. KCAW confirmed this position with Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office. An aide directed us to the senator’s website, which states that due to the separation of powers “I cannot assist or intervene in any way with legal actions, including both civil and criminal matters.” 

Update 3-13-18: This story was amended in 6 places to clarify that the assertions made by Indea Ford about the abuses she and her daughters allegedly suffered are a part of the factual record of her defense, in a Motion to Deny Request for Extradition prepared by the Assistant Federal Defender for the District of Alaska. One photo caption has been amended to include information about Ford’s effort to legally emigrate.