Police say the Hakkens somehow discovered that the court had awarded custody to the boys' maternal grandparents, who live near Tampa, Fla.
Last Wednesday, Hakken broke into the house, bound his mother-in-law, and left with the boys still in their pajamas, police said. He drove his mother-in-law’s car a few blocks and then changed vehicles.
Hakken, his wife, and the two boys then boarded a sailboat and headed into the Gulf of Mexico. A manhunt and statewide missing-child alert ensued, but the trail went cold – until they turned up aboard their 25-foot sailboat “Salty” at the Hemingway Marina in Havana.
The Hakkens apparently fled to Cuba hoping to either remain anonymous in the Caribbean yachting community or to appeal to the Castro government for refuge.
The circumstances of their surreptitious departure from the US cast a significant cloud over their case, experts said.
“If their parental rights were terminated, it would be as though they stole two other children from a day care center or a school,” said Michael Dale, a family law professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“These people no longer have any legal interest in those children. They are legally strangers to each other,” he said.
Because of the lack of bilateral agreements between the US and Cuba, any solution had to be negotiated. “If there are no treaties, no conventions, then the question becomes whether or not the two countries, as a matter of reciprocity, will grant relief to the other,” Professor Dale said. “If not, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.”
The negotiations may have been helped by a well-known precedent. Thirteen years ago in 2000, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the forcible return of Elian Gonzalez from relatives in Miami to his father in Cuba.