photo ~courtesy of Holly Collins, Holly Collins and her son, Chip
After returning from 14 years of hiding in Amsterdam and resolving her kidnapping case, the expat mother faces a new legal challenge
By Beth Walton, Published on October 15, 2008
Just a few weeks after Holly Collins returned to the Netherlands, thinking that she would never have to set foot in Minnesota again, her son, nicknamed "Chip," opened the door of their small home in western Holland and was served legal papers.
Collins's voice shakes as she translates the document from Dutch to English over the phone. According to the Order for Enforcement, the 15-year-old and his mother are to appear in Hennepin County Judge Charles A. Porter's courtroom today for yet another hearing. After more than a decade of having no contact with him, Chip's father, Jeff Imm of Zimmerman, wants the boy back.
That night Chip, faced with the fear of being shipped back to a country he has never known and to a father he has no memory of, couldn't sleep. "He was crying," says Collins. "He kept saying, 'He won't even visit me and now he is going to rip me out of my school and my family.' He said, 'Mom, if they take me, can I bring my dog?'"
As she talks, Chip interrupts: "I called him 27 times," the teenager says in the background. (Because he is still under 18, Collins did not allow her son to talk to the press.)
Holly Collins has a long and tangled history with the Hennepin County Family Court, stretching back to the early 1990s when, after a brutal court battle, she lost custody of the two children she had with her ex-husband, Mark Collins.
After the children claimed abuse at the hands of their father, Collins defied the court and fled with them to the Netherlands in June 1994. She took Chip, who was a baby at the time, along with her.
"What was she going to do with the baby, abandon him?" asks her lawyer, Alan Rosenfeld. "The child wasn't at risk of abuse from Jeff, but Holly was the primary parent taking care of him, and the best thing was clearly to take him with. At the time she had legal and physical custody—the courts granted her that."
Earlier that year, Collins had been awarded full physical custody of the infant by Hennepin County Family Court, says Rosenfeld. Separated from Mark Collins in 1987, Holly had her third child with Imm in March 1993. At the time of the birth, Imm wasn't interested in custody, Rosenfeld says. The father was ordered to pay child support amounting to $4,800 a year, totaling $60,000 so far.
Imm did not return phone calls seeking comment. His lawyer, Valerie Arnold of Tuff & Arnold Law Offices in Maplewood, had little to say about the case.
"This is a tragic situation," Arnold wrote in an email. "Mr. Imm, as the father of the minor child, feels that having this private family matter covered by the media is not in the best interests of his son."
When Collins and the baby disappeared, Imm went before Judge Porter seeking a new ruling. Porter reversed custody to Imm, but ordered the father continue to pay child support in his son's absence—the money would go into a trust fund for the child, and could be used to try to locate Chip, though that is no longer necessary.
In 1997 Collins and the children were granted asylum in the Netherlands, where they lived in hiding for the last 14 years. Late last month, Collins accepted a plea bargain with Hennepin County, which agreed to drop the kidnapping charges in exchange for a lesser plea to contempt of court. She served her sentence of 40 hours of community service and is currently residing in the Netherlands.
Neither Collins nor Chip will attend Wednesday's hearing, says Rosenfeld. They only recently returned to the Netherlands and it's just not practical to arrange travel back to the States on such short notice.
"I can't really characterize what they are doing in court as anything other than holding their breath and stomping their feet," Rosenfeld says of the court order. "It's very childish of them. Sending the house a legal document demanding the kid be uprooted from his home, yanked away from the mother, brothers and sisters he loves, the country he lives in. None of that is something you rationally do if you want to build a relationship...I don't know how they could ever make an argument that this is in the best interest of the child."
For months now, Rosenfeld says, he has been working with the Imm family through their lawyer to restore the relationship between Chip and his father. Originally, when Rosenfeld thought the kidnapping case would go to trial, he planned visitation between the father and son during the time the family would be in Minnesota. But when Collins was offered the plea agreement, "the situation had changed," Rosenfeld says. "If Holly lived here it would be much easier, but she's in Holland...[Imm] is going to have to travel and he's going to have to make some effort."
Rosenfeld doubts that Wednesday's court hearing will result in Collins losing her son. For Imm to get actual custody, he would have to travel to the Netherlands and appeal the case in the Dutch courts.
"They say they want actual custody, but the judge in Minnesota doesn't have the power or authority to give [Imm] that," says Rosenfeld. "They have to go to the Netherlands to decide whether or not [Chip] should be sent back."