SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Because a pile of legal bills and her own government were doing little to help bring back her two young children, Marla Theocharides quit her job in South Bend and moved halfway around the world to be with them more than a year ago.
Marla’s story -- documented over several Tribune articles in the last three years -- has been one of arrests, a Cyprus legal system full of frustration, and a family’s hostility whose greatest victims seem to be an 8-year-old girl and her 5-year-old brother.
Now, Marla has finally conquered legal work issues to find a job in Cyprus she likes. She has accepted a Cyprus court agreement awarding her joint custody that means the children remain in Cyprus and never leave that country without consent of both parents.
But within a week of signing that, she was slapped June 12 with a ruling that she no longer can visit her own children.
Because they no longer want to see their mother, the court has ruled.
Marla’s attorneys filed an appeal Tuesday.
“As a mother it absolutely breaks my heart that these innocent children are in the middle of a war,” Marla told the South Bend Tribune in an email.
She and her ex-husband, Charis, met and married in the United States, and the children were both born in South Bend.
“My son was taken from me when he was 1 year old and my daughter was 5,” Marla wrote. “I have never put them to bed, given them a bath or read bedtime stories to them in over three years. I have sacrificed my entire life, career, friends and family to move to Cyprus to be close to my kids. I am only asking what is fair and what every other Cypriot is entitled to.”
Last summer, the case enjoyed a flurry of publicity as Marla faced arrest after she first arrived and was behind on her child support as she struggled to find work. Reports of the dispute circulated around Indiana and on CNN and Fox TV news.
Charis Theocharides, who has been otherwise reluctant to comment for Tribune articles, sent an emailed statement then, which included an allegation that Marla missed many visitations with the children and merely used the case to gain attention.
“I have faced many allegations from my ex-husband,” Marla responded. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love my kids more than anything and I cherish every moment that I have with them.”
She even broke down and bought a video game for her 5-year-old son, Marcus, as a way to connect with him, despite formerly being against video games, she says.
It has long been more difficult to engage with Katerina, her daughter, she says, because Charis’ family has spoken so negatively about her.
The family destroys or refuses to pass along gifts she gives the children. She has offered to pay for a child psychologist, but they won’t send them to one, Marla says.
The only times she has left her visits with her children early -- and they are all supervised by the family -- has been when they are confrontational and seem about to turn violent, Marla says.
Marla’s mother, Jeri Smith, and sister, Raquel Muessig, have repeatedly tried to contact the children by phone and letters, but his family rebuffs them.
Smith, of Granger, has established legal grandparent’s rights in Cyprus, but when she last visited, in January, she spent nearly every day in court trying to force visits with her grandchildren.
She ultimately was able to see them three times, she says, for a couple of hours at a time -- but only Marcus, supervised, in their grandmother’s kitchen.
She has court-ordered Skype and phone times set, but the family does not answer the phone.
While she was there, Smith says she and Marla finally negotiated their way into Katerina’s school to watch the girl in a play, being careful to not let her know they were there.
“She has been told so many horrible lies,” Smith says angrily about her granddaughter. “The country is depriving the children of their basic rights. They are depriving all of us. Every single one of us.”
She and Muessig traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month with a small delegation of other parents interested in the issues of parental abduction and alienation. Smith met with officials in the Cyprus embassy, who very politely listened but who she knows have little sway over what will happen in her daughter’s custody case.
The family is grateful to local U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, who they say has been responsive, meeting with Marla back home and with Smith and Muessig in Washington.
Marla says Walorski has contacted the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus, and she let her know Vice President Joe Biden was looking over her file on the plane while en route to a diplomatic May visit in Cyprus.
She was told he was too busy to meet with her, she says, but she has hopes for an upcoming planned visit by Secretary of State John Kerry by the end of the year.
“The biggest thing we need to do is expose Charis and his lawyer for allowing parental alienation. It’s child abuse,” Smith says. “In Cyprus, their laws are just now catching up to that. It’s very, very sad. ... I just don’t see how any human can keep a child from his mother.”