SHEBOYGAN — Last month a local mom was criminally charged when she took off with her kids to Georgia without informing their father. It's a common problem in Wisconsin, but a review of court records show it's rare for parents who take off to be held accountable.
Two years ago James Wolfe became a dad.
"There's nothing like it in the world. You're afraid at first, because you don't know, but when you see that little baby for the first time you never want to give it up," Wolfe said.
Wolfe is a truck driver.
"Sometimes that means I was gone for two weeks at a time, three weeks at a time and I'd come home and I'd spend as much time as possible -- every waking moment with my son."
In January he was out on the road when he got a call from his landlord. A moving truck was outside of his apartment.
"My heart sank. I knew what I was walking into but there was nothing in the world that could have prepared me for it," Wolfe said. "She took all of my son's toys. Every single one of them. Every single thing of my son's is gone -- including him," he said.
The mother of his son is Latisha Anderson. She's better known in the porn industry as Darcy Tyler.
James met her on a movie set -- something he says he's not proud of. It's a life he wanted no part of, so he convinced her to start a family with him in Wisconsin. The couple moved to Sheboygan after their son Ethan was born.
"I'd give anything I have just to have him back," Wolfe said.
It's been 179 days since James has seen his son.
"I'm doing everything that I can," he said.
But everything he's done has not yet been enough. Wolfe has spent more than $30,000 on lawyers, process servers, and private detectives trying to get custody of his son.
"The police won't help. The courts won't help. There is nobody out there that's doing anything, and I'm trying as hard as I can and I'm getting nowhere," Wolfe said.
James is not married to the mother of his child, so he's been forced to spend months in court proving he's the father.
"I just want my son back," he said.
When his son was born he signed the birth certificate acknowledging he's the father. His son even has his last name. But in Wisconsin, legally, that's not good enough. "I'll find a way. I can't stop. I love my son more than anything in this world. I would do anything for him...and I never want him to go without knowing that."
His attorney says normally the court would order a DNA test, but how do you test your child when don't know where he is?
"It's very concerning, that they make it that difficult for someone who has been there since the beginning, who co-parented," says his attorney Chelsea Williamson.
"People need to know if you have a child out of wedlock that you need to get your legal rights established. Having your name on a birth certificate isn't always enough," Williamson said.
These days 40 percent of babies born in the United States have parents who are not married. State laws often prioritize the rights of mothers, but aren't as specific about the rights of fathers. Dads like Wolfe often find themselves fighting a losing battle in a tug-of-war over their kids.
"It's so common and unfortunately it's accepted as common," said Peter Kerr, former president of Wisconsin Fathers for Children and Families.
After spending years in court fighting for his daughter, Kerr now offers advice to other dads.
"I was up to $135,000 when I stopped counting. Not many people have got that to fight for time with their children," Kerr said.
He says society should reward involved dads, not punish them.
"We really need to protect a child's rights to know both parents and that the definition of family includes fathers."
When Wisconsin parents leave the state with their kids without permission from the other parent, it's technically a felony -- but our research shows cases are rarely filed. With few consequences for the parent who took off with the kids, experts say, are the ones who suffer most.
After months of going to court, Wolfe finally has a court order saying his son should be living with him, at least temporarily.
But he still doesn't know where his son is.
He bought his son a new crib, new clothes, and a new car seat.
"Even though I didn't see him on his birthday, I still got him presents," Wolfe said.
It's been six months since he reported his son missing. Sheboygan Police are finally involved with the case, and are searching for Wolfe's son.
But here is no guarantee they'll find him.
We were able to reach Latisha Anderson on Twitter. In messages, she says she is in hiding because she fears for her safety. She says she doesn't want Wolfe to find her -- but was not able to provide credible evidence of any domestic violence in the relationship. She says Wolfe was never abusive toward their son Ethan.
In this case, a judge gave Wolfe joint custody after making a preliminary finding that there is no evidence of domestic violence. Police had never been called to the residence.
This could be charged federally as a parental kidnapping case. The Parental Kidnapping Act was passed decades ago, but it really hasn't been utilized much. A federal court clerk says to her knowledge there has never been a parental kidnapping case filed in Southeast Wisconsin.
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