Dad's transatlantic custody battle nightmare
For any father, being separated from their child for even a short time can be difficult.
But for Stephen Bell it is devastating as a custody battle has left him living on the other side of the Atlantic from his four-year-old son Charlie.
The 34-year-old, who is orginally from Wigan, met Charlie’s American mum while both were working in London but they moved to the US together when she fell pregnant.
They married and both dreamed of one day moving back to the UK, but due to health problems this never happened.
Although he is unable to go into too much detail for fear it will affect his chances of getting custody, Stephen has spoken about his heartbreaking situation and his fight to bring his son home to the UK.
He said: “The green card expiration date was always the deadline we set to emigrate to the UK. This was our goal and a dream I thought we both shared.
“Even after the things that had happened during the marriage, it was something I was always working towards.
“Her health complications meant we never got Charlie an American passport nor did we make it for the meetings to extend it in the months leading up to it.”
Stephen was able to bring Charlie with him when he moved back to the borough, where he currently lives in Leigh, but in August 2014, he was forced to take the youngster back to live with his ex-wife and then his in-laws.
He said: “Charlie is currently living with his grandparents after an incident last Christmas involving child services.
“I had been with him nearly every day of his life up until August 2014 when I had to return Charlie to the USA.
“Since then I have been in and out of his life on visitor visas but as that can be very expensive I haven’t been able to afford many more trips.
“The last time I saw him was for his fourth birthday in April but before that it is close to eight months.
“I try to Skype as often as I can but with the six-hour time difference he can be in school while I’m working, so usually I can see him on a Saturday or Sunday.
“He has been a bit grumpy with me recently but trying to explain to a four-year-old why he can’t come to my house was always going to be tricky.”
Stephen is determined to bring Charlie here, a move that is supported by his maternal grandparents as being in his best interests.
But the process is complicated and expensive and has led to Stephen launching a fund-raising campaign to raise £15,000 and help him cover the costs.
“The process has been very long and complicated, not to mention expensive,” he said.
“Everything has been paid for by my parents at the expense of their pensions as there has been no help.
“I couldn’t even afford to fight for sole custody as I would have to pay for Charlie’s mother’s legal fees as well. There were numerous court appointments, educational classes, mediation session and psychological evaluation.
“In the end I had to settle out of court and currently have half custodial rights but, due to not being American, I am not present to exercise them.
“This meant that after the incident with child services I should have had sole custody of Charlie but couldn’t take him to England, which meant in their eyes, I was abandoning him.
“In order to get him back I have had to ask a court permission to take Charlie out of the States. This will involve some trial time from either six to 12 months.
“The actual process or what could be involved, we won’t know as it is usually up to a judge. The longer and more complicated the trial, the more expensive it becomes.”
So far, Stephen has raised £2,566. A charity night is being held at The Swinley club on May 28 from 8pm. To find out more or to donate visit www.gofundme.com/doingitforcharlie.