DAY IT ALL CHANGED

UN­DER NEW IDEN­TI­TIES, THIS MOTHER AND HER BABY ES­CAPED AMER­ICA AND LIVED LIFE ON THE RUN FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS UN­TIL THEY WERE DIS­COV­ERED HERE ON THE SUN­SHINE COAST

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE | BIG READ - WORDS: AN­NIE CAUGHEY

This mother would rather go to jail than live a day where she couldn’t protect her child. And that she did.

Lee Bar­nett’s name be­came known widely through­out the Sun­shine Coast com­mu­nity in 2013 when the seem­ingly nor­mal sub­ur­ban mum was ar­rested by the FBI and ex­tra­dited to the United States.

She had spent 19 years on the run from Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties af­ter kidnapping her daugh­ter Sa­man­tha (born as Sa­van­nah) from what she de­scribes as a “life sen­tence”.

“My hus­band at the time claimed that I had a mental ill­ness called ‘hy­per­thymic tem­per­a­ment’, which still doesn’t ex­ist. It’s a tem­per­a­ment but it’s not a disor­der and I don’t have it any­way,” Lee said.

“He said it was a genetic disor­der and my daugh­ter would also have it. He said he would be watch­ing her very, very closely.

“He would take her to the same psy­chi­a­trist that I thought I was going to for mar­riage coun­selling and he would have her med­i­cated from as early as two or three years old.

“I knew how hard it was fight­ing for my­self at 33 years old, so how could a baby?”

Dur­ing her time on the run, Lee said she

be­came vil­li­fied back in the US, where her ex-hus­band Har­ris Todd, Sa­man­tha’s fa­ther, took to TV shows and other me­dia out­lets telling his side of the story, la­belling Lee as “men­tally un­well” and “un­fit to mother”.

Soon she lost all al­le­giance from the coun­try she once called home.

Mean­while, Lee was search­ing for refuge, travelling a long road from the US to France, Ger­many, Malaysia, South Africa and New Zealand be­fore fi­nally set­tling on the Sun­shine Coast, all the while un­able to speak a word of her story in fear of get­ting caught.

But now, all of that has changed as Lee, who has since served jail time in Amer­ica on charges of parental kidnapping and pro­vid­ing fake pass­port de­tails, has writ­ten a book ex­plain­ing why she did what she did, why she doesn’t re­gret it and why the sup­port system for victims of do­mes­tic abuse needs to change.

Lee said it had all started when she be­came preg­nant with Sa­man­tha. At the time, she was mar­ried to Har­ris and was liv­ing in South Carolina.

“Through­out my whole preg­nancy, the abuse that I went through, be­ing told I was sick, him telling me I was in­sane and that nobody loved me ... I was try­ing to carry a preg­nancy, wor­ry­ing about the baby whilst try­ing to keep my san­ity,” Lee said.

“I was put on drugs that could make me mis­carry. Thank God I only took three out of 60.”

Lee said she had been taken to ses­sions that she thought were for mar­riage coun­selling but were ac­tu­ally for a psy­chi­atric diagnosis for her hus­band to later use in court.

She was pre­scribed harsh drugs and said that when she re­fused to take them, Har­ris la­belled her as “dan­ger­ous”, although she pro­vided re­fer­rals from two other psy­chi­a­trists stat­ing there was noth­ing wrong with her.

“I re­gret break­ing the law. That should have never hap­pened. But if there was more work to help peo­ple who are get­ting abused and to have some­body lis­ten and be­lieve in you, no one would have to do what I had to do,” Lee said.

“For him to say he was going to do the ex­act same thing to her (Sa­man­tha), there was no way to ex­plain how scary that was.”

Even­tu­ally, Lee lost full cus­tody of her daugh­ter and de­spite the har­row­ing road that was await­ing her, she said that mo­ment was still the worst of her life – much worse than be­ing sen­tenced to prison al­most 20 years later.

“Those 18 months (when she was fight­ing for cus­tody) when I couldn’t protect my baby, it was hor­ri­ble and noth­ing com­pares to that,” Lee said.

“When you don’t have any con­trol over your own life and what’s hap­pen­ing to your child, it’s a hor­ri­fy­ing thing.”

Lee said that dur­ing those many years on the run, she never re­ally felt set­tled, but her home here on the Sun­shine Coast was the clos­est thing she ever found to a sanc­tu­ary.

Sa­man­tha had no idea of her mother’s or even her own past un­til the day of Lee’s ar­rest in 2013. She had only known her life with the fa­ther who raised her, Juan Gelden­huys (Lee’s sec­ond hus­band), and her younger half-brother Reece.

Both chil­dren have main­tained a strong re­la­tion­ship with their mother af­ter Juan died from cancer.

To­day, Sa­man­tha re­mains liv­ing in Aus­tralia and re­cently got en­gaged to her long-term part­ner, while Reece stud­ies at Auburn Univer­sity in Alabama.

Lee’s book A Mother’s Prom­ise tells her side of a story that still di­vides many opin­ions through­out the world.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

NO LONGER ON THE RUN: Lee Bar­nett tells her side of events that led her to flee Amer­ica and even­tu­ally find refuge in Queens­land.

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