Estranged Spouses Must Put Children First, Father Says; Offers Tips

In his wedding pictures taken during the 1980s, Steve Fenton is on top of the world. He’s a handsome American newlywed with a sly smirk on his face, about to drink a toast with his beauty queen wife in a traditional wedding in Xalapa, Mexico.

Eight years later, the rising tension begins in this real-life, Hollywood-styled drama, detailed in his new book, Broken Treaty . He became estranged from his wife Silvia, but allowed her to take their son, Stephen, 6, on a two-week trip to her native Mexico in December 1992. More than four, frantic weeks later, he found out Silvia had enrolled their son in a school there, quit her job in California and had no plans of coming back.

“I know a lot of mothers down here who have done this same thing with no problems,” she told him over the phone.

Fenton also spoke with his son during that call, and could tell the boy was close to tears.

“He wanted to come back home to his friends, his school and a model submarine project we were working on,” he says. “Silvia hung up the phone shortly thereafter.”

He pursued the Hague Convention Treaty, an international accord signed by Mexico the previous year, to return his son. A year later, although adamantly assured by both Mexico and the U.S. State Department that his son would be returned to his birth country, Fenton saw that his only hope would be to leave diplomats to their own devices. He began quietly engineering a complex plan to bring his son home to California.

Fenton grew his hair and a beard and donned sunglasses and a hat to disguise his appearance. He hired a pilot and others to help in the extraction of his son from southeastern Mexico. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and risking his life with no guarantee of success, he landed back on U.S. soil – with Stephen.

But while the action movie portion of the story ends here, another saga – single-parenthood – would begin. He offers tips that, despite his unique circumstances, apply to all divorced parents.

• It’s not about you. Although Fenton’s heroics to recover his son on foreign soil were life-changing, the mission’s purpose was to provide young Stephen with a better life. That meant giving his son the opportunity to continue his relationship with the mother who abducted him.

• “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” That’s the second-to-last chapter title in Fenton’s book. Initially, he took his son to visit his mother at the border, where they two were separated by a tall chain-link fence. He asked authorities to reduce charges against her when she came back to the states, so that his son could continue to have a meaningful relationship with her. His reward – Silvia was perpetually taking Fenton to court for child custody and child support, though she was court-ordered to repay him $51,000 for the rescue mission.

• Forgiveness is ultimately rewarded. Fenton’s second marriage broke up because of the stress on his family from his first wife’s actions. He was reprimanded by his lawyer for putting himself in a compromising situation. But the doting father got the affirmation he was looking for during a lunch with his then-22-year-old son. Stephen spelled out his gratitude for his father’s instincts and actions. “Fourteen years after brining my son home, he helped me understand that I could look ahead and realize that we’d both finally made it home,” Fenton says.

Steve Fenton is a specialty building contractor. After his estranged wife spirited their son, an American, away to Xalapa, Mexico, the father decided he had to take action. With little to no help from the U.S. and Mexican governments after a year and a half, the determined father went on a clandestine recovery mission across the border. What ensued were life-changing events that have defined the lives of father and son. His book was written with some technical assistance from Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who would later become a national hero after safely landing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River.