The Afghan woman ran across the street to her friend’s apartment as soon as she heard the news: The White House had spoken publicly about her family’s case.
Surely her son, who she said was kidnapped by a US Marine over a year ago, would now be returned, she thought. She was so excited that it was only after she arrived that she realized she wasn’t wearing shoes.
“We thought he would be back with us in a week,” the woman told The Associated Press.
Yet two months after an AP report on the high-stakes legal fight over the boy raised alarms at the highest levels of government, from the White House to the Taliban, the baby remains with the US Marine Corps Commander Joshua Mast and his family. The Masts claim in court documents that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s allegations are “outrageous” and “unmerited.”
READ MORE: A US Marine used political connections to adopt an Afghan baby, his family says. Now they are suing to get it back
“We are all concerned for the welfare of this child who is at the center of this matter,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said after the AP detailed the boy’s situation in October .
Last month, the US Department of Justice filed a motion to intervene in the legal dispute over the child’s fate, arguing that Mast’s adoption should never have been granted. The government has said Mast’s attempts to take the boy were in direct conflict with the U.S. foreign policy decision to reunite the orphan with his Afghan family. They asked to have the case moved from a Virginia rural court to federal court, but Circuit Court President Judge Richard E. Moore denied them.
In addition, federal authorities say there are several ongoing investigations.
“We all just want a resolution for this child, whatever it is, so that his childhood doesn’t continue in limbo,” said Samantha Freed, a court-appointed attorney assigned to look out for the child’s best interests. “We have to get this right now. No change.”
The legal battle has taken more than a year, and Freed worries it could take months, maybe even years, longer. The child is now 3 and a half years old. The Afghan family spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety and concern for their relatives in Afghanistan.
Mast became enamored with the child while on temporary assignment in Afghanistan in late 2019. At just a few months old, the infant had survived a special operations raid that killed her parents and five siblings, according to the court records.
As he recovered from his injuries in a US military hospital, the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross identified his family members and, through meetings with the State Department, arranged for his reunification. The boy’s cousin and his wife – young newlyweds with no children yet – cried when they saw her for the first time, they said: Taking her in and raising her was the greatest honor of their lives.
However, Mast, despite orders from military officials to stop intervening, was determined to bring her home to the United States. He used his military status, appealed to political connections in the Trump administration and convinced the small-town Virginia court to skip some of the usual safeguards that govern international adoptions.
Finally, when the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, he helped the family get to the United States. When they arrived, they say, she took her baby from them at the Fort Pickett Virginia Army National Guard base. They haven’t seen her since and are suing to get her back.
The Afghan woman gave birth to a daughter just weeks after the baby girl they had raised was taken from them. Every time they buy a dress or a gift for their daughter, they buy a second matching one for the boy they pray will come back soon.
The Masts did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Leaving a recent hearing, Joshua Mast told the AP that they were advised not to speak publicly.
In court filings, Mast says he acted “admirably” to bring the child to the United States and care for her with his wife. They say they have given him “a loving home” and “have done nothing but make sure he gets the medical care he needs, at great personal expense and sacrifice.” Mast celebrated her adoption of the boy, whose Afghan family is Muslim, as an act of Christian faith.
The child’s future will now be decided in a secret, closed court case in rural Virginia, in the same court that granted custody of Mast. The federal government has described that custody order as “illegal,” “inappropriate” and “deeply flawed and wrong” because it was based on a promise that Afghanistan would relinquish jurisdiction over the child, which never happened .
The day Mast and his wife Stephanie Mast received a final adoption, the boy was 7,000 miles away with the Afghan couple unaware.
In court, Mast, still an active-duty Marine, questioned whether the Afghan couple is related to her. They argue that the girl is “a war orphan and victim of terrorism, rescued in tragic circumstances from the battlefield”. They say she is a “stateless minor” because she was recovered from a compound that Mast says was used by foreign fighters not from Afghanistan.
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The case has been consumed by a procedural question: Does the Afghan family, who raised the boy for a year and a half, have the right under Virginia law to even contest the adoption?
Judge Moore ruled in November that the Afghan family does have legitimacy; Masts resource is under review.
The boy’s Afghan relatives, now in Texas, believe the US government should do more to help them, because numerous federal agencies were involved in the ordeal.
“The government is not doing its job as it should,” said the Afghan woman. “And in the process, we are suffering.”
A State Department official said one of the agency’s own social workers was by Mast’s side when she picked up the baby at Fort Pickett, but was “not aware of any prior involvement of the U.S. Embassy to reunite the child with his relatives in Afghanistan.” The official described how the US had worked hard in Afghanistan to reunite the minor with her relatives.
“We recognize the human dimension of this situation,” the official said.
The Department of Defense said in a statement that the decision to reunite the child with her family was consistent with the foreign obligations of the United States government, as well as the principles of international law that mandate the family reunification of displaced children. the war The Defense Department said it is aware that Mast “had custody” of the boy, but declined to comment further.
The Afghan couple sought help from Fort Pickett’s tangle of agencies: the military, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the police. Some didn’t believe it, some said there was nothing they could do, some tried to intervene without success.
The pair eventually reached Martha Jenkins, a volunteer attorney at the base.
“When I first heard his story, I thought something had been lost in translation, how could it be true?” Jenkins said. He contacted the authorities.
Nearly two months after she lost the boy, Virginia State Police dispatch records obtained by the AP show that “an attorney” called to report what had happened.
“The family is at Fort Pickett, they are asking for an investigation into the validity of the adoption and if it was done under false pretenses,” the dispatcher wrote. The record notes that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were involved.
Jenkins, who was temporarily in Virginia, called every Virginia adoption attorney she could find until she landed on Elizabeth Vaughan.
“It was very surprising to me that no one helped them,” said Vaughan, who offered to represent the Afghan couple for free. “I don’t think they had a lot of paperwork that Americans like to see when someone proves custody. But there are laws about people, trusted adults, coming in with a child. There should have been a lot more research.” .
A Marine Corps spokesman wrote in a statement that they are fully cooperating with federal law enforcement investigations, including at least one focused on the alleged unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material. In emails Mast sent pleading for help to bring the child from Afghanistan, now filed as court exhibits, he referenced reading classified documents about the attack that killed the girl’s family.
Investigators and prosecutors declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations.
On the other side of the globe, the Taliban issued a statement saying it will “seriously pursue this matter with the US authorities so that the said child is returned to his family.”
Now, every night before bed, the Afghan couple go through an album of 117 photos from the year and a half they spent raising her: a cheeky boy with big bright eyes, who loved to dress up with bright colors and gold bangle bracelets. There is a photo of the boy in a black and green robe and tiny golden sandals, nestled in the young Afghan’s lap, smiling mischievously at the camera. In one video, she runs alongside the man, bouncing on the pavement to keep up with him.
They will soon be moving into a new two bedroom apartment. There, they say, the little girl’s room will be ready for her, whenever she comes home.
AP reporter Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report