Wentzville father hasn’t seen his children in nearly 3 months; Missouri complicates finding them
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) -UPDATE: OCTOBER 18 AT 10:00 PM: One of the three children has been reunited with Hall. The two others are in a safe place while an investigation is being done.
Original story: Even though he has full custody of them, they were taken by their mother. Now the Wentzville father is claiming the system is failing to ensure their safety, in part, because he says a state-run program has worked to keep his kids hidden from him.
“I don’t know if my kids are alive today. I have no idea,” Stephen Hall said. “As a man, you want to protect them, and I don’t know where they’re at. I have no idea.”
His children 14-year-old Faith, 12-year-old Malachi and 9-year-old Titus are missing. Hall hasn’t seen them since July 23.
“Everything is set up to keep me away from them, even though I have custody,” Hall said. “I just don’t understand.”
The courts have been very clear. Hall has 100% full legal and physical custody of his children. Their mother is ordered to only have limited visitation, but after her last visit alone, she simply never brought them back. They haven’t been to school or to the doctor.
“If the roles were reversed, I don’t think we would be talking, you would see me on the news getting arrested,” Hall said. He’s gone to the police and filed reports, but so far they’ve done little. The courts, too, are taking their time. “There has been no activity, nothing to go get them, nothing to return the kids.”
“Right now, my biggest concern is where are these kids and are they okay?” Crystal Blacketer said. She is the kids’ Guardian Ad Litem, an independent attorney.
Recently assigned to the case, she was alarmed to learn that she, too, couldn’t locate them. “There are three children out there that no one seems to know where they are,” she said.
She’s now doing all she can to find them, but one thing that’s stood in the way, she said, is the State of Missouri. “You’d think the right arm and the left arm would be talking to each other, but they’re not,” Blacketer said.
The problem is this: the kids’ mother is enrolled in a state-run program called “Safe At Home.” It’s intended as a vital benefit to victims of domestic violence, rape or sex trafficking. Anyone can enroll, without necessarily having to show a police report, order of protection or other documentation. The program allows a person’s address to be kept secret. Not just from the public, but even from government agencies.
Blacketer says that meant for weeks, no one, not her, not the police, not even the Division of Children and Family Services, could get the mother’s home address.
“I have been told that their response was, if there is not an address where mom can be found, there is nothing they can do, which is concerning,” Blacketer said.
Finally, the courts ordered the Secretary of State, who administers the program, to turn over the address, but having lost precious time, Blacketer learned that the mom wasn’t even living there anymore.
“It seems like not being able to get an address and having to jump through these hoops when you have three children that no one has seen or heard from since July is troubling,” Blacketer said.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft says the program - which started in 2007 - has helped thousands of Missourians stay safe from abusers and those who mean harm.
“The idea is that government is not always good at keeping its data secret,” Ashcroft said. “Once that address gets out publicly, it’s amazing how quickly anyone can find it on the internet.”
Ashcroft says there is a process in place to turn over addresses, in rare and extreme circumstances.
“What we want to do is make sure we are not making it easier to evade because that puts the people who really need it at risk,” Ashcroft said. He says they can do it quickly. “We are happy to work with law enforcement to do whatever we can to help them. We are not going to withhold if we have a participant violating the law.”
Blacketer says it wasn’t easy. So does Hall’s attorney Julia O’Connor. “We are just going in circles here and not really sure what our next option is,” O’Connor said. “I have filed everything I can think of.”
Even News 4′s attempts to get ahold of the mother have been unsuccessful. So we called St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar to ask: would law enforcement finally step in?
“Typically, when they reach this point, it’s an egregious violation, an extended period of time, there is no good cause, whatsoever, and that’s when we have a felony on our hands,” Lohmar said.
He’s now assigned an investigator and if necessary, may consider parental kidnapping charges.
“Obviously if that’s what we have to do, that’s what we will do,” he said.
“I am going crazy, just sitting around, trying to figure out, where are my kids at?” Hall said. Fearing the worst and thinking they could be anywhere, Hall says it’s already gone on too long. “I want my kids back. I want my kids safe.”
Hall had a glimmer of hope earlier Wednesday during a court hearing in St. Charles County court. The mother showed up, but without the kids. She acknowledged the children are staying with her and in court filings said they were in St. Louis County. She still wouldn’t provide her current address.
Instead of ordering her to turn over the children immediately, Judge Jack Banas told her to bring the children to court next Friday. The judge warned her that she could be arrested if she doesn’t.
Afterwards, Hall said he’s shocked that she was still given more time, despite the court order for him to have custody.
We’ve confirmed with the Secretary of State that she is no longer in that Safe At Home program because she hasn’t kept her address current. Meanwhile, police detectives and investigators were also in court on the case. They told us they couldn’t comment at the moment.
News 4 will continue covering the story.
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