September 2 2008 - Jennifer Collins LOOK Magizine

I’ve Been In Hiding From Dad For 14 Years’
When Jennifer Collins’mum rescued her from her abusive father she thought their escape was a game. Until now, aged 23, the FBI came knocking…

When I was six, my father kicked me in the head for carrying my security blanket around the house. He’d hit me if it was raining. Once he beat me because I didn’t cheer for his football team.

He denies it, but as far back as I can remember, my dad abused me and my brother Zachary, 25, as well as our mum, Holly. One night he got so upset he fractured my brother’s skull. My mum decided enough was enough. The next day we moved to a house a few miles away.

At first, Mum had custody and we saw Dad at the weekends. But two years later a judge reversed the decision. He claimed she suffered from a personality disorder and that we were at risk. Zachary and I were forced to live with our dad - even though the courts had been shown evidence he’d been violent. It was the worst day of my life. I still remember kicking and screaming as I clung to my mom’s dress. Being handed over to my dad frightened me so much I vomited.

Over the next 18 months, Zachary and I secretly wrote notes to Mum, sneaking them into her pockets during visits, saying: “Help us!”

When I was nine, on 30 June, 1994, Zachary, then 11, and I knew we’d be alone while Dad was at work. We’d made an escape plan with Mum – she would phone us to tell us where she was, and we’d meet her. Leaving everything behind, we cycled to a nearby shop. Mum stood waiting. Even though I was terrified Dad might find us, I was elated to be with her.

We drove 20 hours before stopping to disguise ourselves. To me, it felt like a game. I laughed as Mum slathered us in fake tan and dyed our blonde hair. We also started using our middle names.

For the next month we travelled around the US while Mum thought up a plan. We lived off money she had saved working as an au pair. She’d read about a woman whose daughter was allowed refugee status in New Zealand after being sexually abused by her father.

Mum used her savings to take us there. On the plane, I remember thinking something would go wrong and we wouldn’t be able to take off. It wasn’t until we were airborne that I felt a wave of relief.

Then during our stopover in Amsterdam, customs realized we didn’t have visas. We were detained and Mum begged authorities not to send us back. She had a suitcase of court documents with her and said she wanted asylum. Eventually we were sent to a refugee centre.

Living with hundreds of families from Bosnia and Somalia was difficult – none of us spoke the same language. We ate bread and cold meat, and had to queue for hours for each meal. But I didn’t care – at least Dad wasn’t around.

We lived there for three years until we became the first Americans to be granted refugee status in the Netherlands when I was 12. My mum cried: ”Your father will never be able to hurt you again!”

In 1999 we settled in Leiden, south of Amsterdam. We used Mum’s maiden name. It seemed our lives had returned to normal. Every year, on 30 June, we celebrated our escape with a lobster dinner. But even though we were safe, there was a part of me that feared my dad would find us.

Then, last year, a neighbour came up to me out of the blue and said: “Your dad from Minnesota says hi.” My heart raced and I ran inside. Terrified, I watched as he taped FBI ‘wanted’ posters on our window, saying: “Ä kidnapper lives here – watch out for your children!” Our cover was blown. To this day we don’t know how tour neighbour found out about us.

We went to the police and were amazed to discover we were on the FBI ‘wanted’list. Now the District Attorney in Minnesota wants Mum to go back to face kidnapping charges. She could go to jail for five years. But the US authorities can’t make her, as there’s no extradition treaty between the US and Holland. However, Mum will return if she is assured she can have contact with me and Zachary, since we’re both considered witnesses. All I want is for her to have a fair trial.

For the last 14 years, my mum has protected us. She gave us a safe life away from violent abuse. Now I’m an adult I’m no longer scared of Dad, but I’m petrified Mum could go to prison.

She’s my hero and I consider what she did to be one of the bravest things anyone has ever done.”

* To help Jennifer, visit her website or www.stopfamilyviolence.Org.

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