Michael McCarty was in a custody battle with his ex-wife when she kidnapped their kindergarten-age son to Italy. And even though McCarty has full custody in the U.S. and the mother has been declared unfit, his son is still in Italy four years later — and McCarty is still enduring an agonizing wait in a seemingly eternal legal limbo.
In 2007, Liam McCarty was taken by his mother, Manuela Antonelli, to her native Italy — an unauthorized trip that flew in the face of her custody agreement with ex-husband Michael. Two years later, she was deemed an unfit parent by Italian courts and Liam was placed in an orphanage. A year after that, Antonelli kidnapped Liam again, and when Italian officials recovered the boy three months later, he was placed in foster care with his Italian uncle.
But even though McCarty has full legal custody of Liam, now 9, in the United States, Child Services in Italy will still not give him his son.
‘One excuse after another’
Appearing live on TODAY Wednesday, McCarty, a Manhattan-based photographer, told Matt Lauer he’s been given every excuse in the book why his son remains a ward of the Italian state instead of being returned home to his father.
“It changes all the time,” McCarty said. “Initially, it was, ‘Well, he hasn’t spent enough time with you because you’ve been separated; you live too far away; well, he’s stable now, he seems to be doing well, he’s been through so many changes.’
“It’s just been one excuse after another, and it gets very frustrating.”
McCarty separated from Antonelli in 2004 after 12 years of marriage. She made a string of criminal allegations against him, from sexual to physical abuse, but the courts found the charges baseless, and she was declared an unfit mother while McCarty was given full custody.
McCarty told NBC he had long been uneasy about Liam’s post-divorce visits with Antonelli, saying she had long showed signs of mental instability. But uneasiness turned to horror when he went to pick the boy up from kindergarten in 2007, only to find him missing. He received a phone call that Liam’s mother had taken him to Italy.
Nearly two years of repeated trips to Italy to retrieve his son proved fruitless — McCarty was unable to even see the boy. But his ordeal seemed to be ending in 2008, when Antonelli lost parental rights in Italy. Yet instead of being returned to the U.S., Liam was placed in an orphanage by Italy’s Child Services.
While McCarty spent hundreds of thousands on legal counsel to try to bring his son back home, his ex-wife managed to abscond with Liam a second time in November 2009. But even after Italian authorities apprehended her, the boy still wasn’t returned to his dad; instead, he was put in the care of Antonelli’s brother in an emergency foster-care arrangement.
Frustration and confusion
Lauer expressed bewilderment about why Italian authorities would prefer to have Liam in their foster care system rather than back home with his father. McCarty said he is just as puzzled.
“It’s the question nobody can answer,” McCarty said. “It’s very frustrating because there have been several points in this journey where I thought it was going to come to an end. I was told ‘This will be resolved shortly,’ only to be extended one more time. There’s always some vague excuse.”
Antonelli is a wanted fugitive in the U.S. for leaving the country with Liam without permission. In Italy, she faces a criminal trial this month for abducting Liam from authorities in 2009.
Though McCarty isn’t allowed to bring Liam home, he’s allowed visitation by the Italian courts, and even took his son on a short vacation last summer. But he told Lauer that “it’s horrible for me” every time they part — and even worse for his son.
“His father was torn from him once, and then I come back into his life, and then I go away,” McCarty said. “It’s confusing for him. He doesn’t know who to trust.”
Susan Jacobs, U.S. special advisor for international children’s issues, told NBC’s Hoda Kotb that the State Department has spent hundreds of hours on the case. “We visit Liam, we talk to Italian Social Services, and we have done what we can,” Jacobs said. “We want a resolution, and the resolution that we want for Liam is that he be returned to the United States with his father.”
Jacobs told NBC she is hopeful Liam could be back home in the U.S. by summer. But McCarty says he has to temper his hopes: “I’ve been told that many times. I thought that he might be home by Christmas, and (now) we may get a resolution by the end of the school year.
“I have to remain hopeful and remain positive and do everything I need to do, but I’ve been burned a lot of times here. It’s a tough situation.”