The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His ex took his son to Ukraine. A custody battle now brews as war rages.

Cesar Quintana with his son, Alexander. (Courtesy of Cesar Quintana)
9 min

When Russian bombs started falling in Ukraine in late February, Cesar Quintana watched in horror.

His 2-year-old son, Alexander, was with his estranged wife in Ukraine, her native country. Antonina Aslanova had abducted Alexander over a year earlier, authorities say, in violation of a court order.

“I was frightened for my son,” Quintana, 35, told The Washington Post.

As Russian troops were amassing near the Ukrainian border in December, Quintana, who had traveled to Mariupol to visit his son, tried to take the child back to California, where Alexander was born. But the attempt failed as police intercepted Quintana and his son at an airport in Kyiv and forced him to return the toddler to Aslanova, who had accused Quintana of abducting Alexander.

Then the war broke out. As Aslanova and Alexander scrambled from basement to basement as bombs pummeled Mariupol, Quintana was back in Southern California, largely helpless, glued to the news.

Quintana hatched a plan to travel into the fray to find the boy, believing his son was at a refugee camp in eastern Ukraine. But now the situation has become even more complicated.

Aslanova, 35, told The Post this week that she has fled to Russia with Alexander and her parents. She declined to say precisely where in Russia she is staying, out of fear that Quintana will find them. In an interview, Aslanova expressed optimism that the custody situation will be resolved one day.

“My hope is still that we can make some peace with him,” Aslanova said, referring to Quintana, “for the baby.”

International abduction cases and their legal proceedings are often complex and prolonged affairs. They can take months to resolve, and parents sometimes resort to unlawful tactics to reclaim their children. But what happens when a custody battle is complicated by a literal war?

“This is a very, very unique circumstance,” said Melissa Kucinski, a family lawyer and an adjunct professor at George Washington University who specializes in international abduction cases.

Ordinarily, when a child is abducted by one parent and taken to another country, the parent who was left behind can initiate proceedings under a 1980 international treaty called the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, Kucinski explained. It allows two countries to work out the return of an abducted child with an agreed-upon set of procedures. Some 80 countries, including Ukraine, work with the United States under the treaty.

Quintana had initiated Hague proceedings in Ukraine after Aslanova took Alexander there. But on March 9, about two weeks after the invasion, the Ukrainian government notified Hague officials that Ukraine might not be able to meet its obligations under the treaty because of the war. That meant Alexander’s abduction proceedings were put on hold.

So, in early March, Quintana planned to enter Ukraine through Poland as an aid worker, find Alexander and possibly “work out a deal” with Aslanova to get the child back to California, he told The Post. But the plan fizzled after Aslanova took Alexander to Russia.

Although Russia participates in the Hague abduction treaty, Washington and Moscow have not agreed to work together under it — meaning the chances of Quintana convincing a Russian court that he has sole custody of Alexander are “slim,” said Stephen Cullen, a family lawyer who specializes in international abduction cases.

While Quintana has a California court order granting him custody, “Russia is not going to pay any attention whatsoever to that order,Cullen said.

“That was a long shot before the war,” he added. “And it’s an even longer shot now.”

The saga began in California. Prosecutors say Aslanova took Alexander on Dec. 16, 2020, during a scheduled visit at Quintana’s house in Aliso Viejo, according to a Sept. 8 letter sent by the Orange County, Calif., district attorney’s office to Ukrainian officials.

At that time, a judge had temporarily granted Quintana sole custody of Alexander because of Aslanova’s alleged struggles with alcohol abuse, the letter states. Quintana had allowed Aslanova to visit Alexander, then 18 months old, as Quintana recovered from gallbladder surgery.

But after taking a nap, Quintana awoke to find both Aslanova and Alexander gone. According to the district attorney’s letter, Aslanova had driven to Los Angeles International Airport with Alexander and boarded the first of two flights to Ukraine, having bought the tickets a day earlier.

Aslanova told The Post that Quintana gave her permission to take Alexander. “He kept on saying that if I wanted to live in Ukraine with the baby, I could do that,” she said, adding the permission was given “orally and via text messages,” although she declined to show those text messages to The Post. Quintana denies giving Aslanova permission to take Alexander to Ukraine.

Two days after the alleged abduction, a judge granted Quintana full custody of Alexander, according to court records. In May, Quintana filed a Hague application for Alexander’s return. He also traveled to Ukraine, first staying in Kyiv, then at a hotel in Mariupol, where Aslanova and her parents lived.

As the custody proceedings played out in Ukrainian court, Quintana and Aslanova managed to work out visits with Alexander, and the arrangement lasted about four months. Aslanova described the period as a relatively happy one, with the three of them together, going on outings to playgrounds and the zoo.

“I thought he was going to stay for some time so we could work towards resolving things,” Aslanova said. “I thought that he was genuine about this decision.”

Quintana said his intentions were always to bring Alexander back to California. His memory of the period was not as rosy, he said, noting that he always felt at Aslanova’s mercy. If he was overly possessive of Alexander, Quintana said, “I wouldn’t see my son.”

In November, Aslanova was hospitalized, and Quintana saw his opportunity. Aslanova’s mother brought Alexander to Quintana’s hotel room to stay with him alone for several hours. And, after having already called his lawyer to the hotel, “we just got in the car and left Mariupol,” Quintana said.

Quintana insists he did nothing illegal because there were no Ukrainian court orders granting Aslanova custody of Alexander at the time, he told The Post.

But legal experts and the U.S. State Department advise against such actions.

In a Feb. 15 letter to Rep. Luis J. Correa (D-Calif.), April Conway of the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues wrote that it had learned of attempts by Quintana to remove Alexander from Ukraine. Conway stated that a California court order “may not be valid and enforceable” in another country and that such an attempt could endanger the child, hinder future legal efforts, and result in arrest or imprisonment.

Cullen, the family lawyer, told The Post that such a move is a “nonstarter.”

“If you engage in self-help, then you’re not only violating family law, you’re most likely violating that country’s criminal law,” he said. “So that’s a very dangerous proposition.”

On the way to Kyiv, Quintana and his son were intercepted twice by police officers who had received reports from Aslanova’s mother that Quintana and his lawyer had kidnapped the child. They were let go both times, Quintana said, but the second time, police officers confiscated Quintana’s and Alexander’s passports.

That meant Quintana and his son were stuck in Kyiv until Quintana could obtain new passports. A month later, they did. But as Quintana and Alexander were ready to fly out, they were again intercepted by police. Officers provided a document charging that Quintana took the child from Aslanova without permission and called for an investigation into whether Alexander could be legally taken out of the country, according to the Associated Press, which translated the document.

“I just figured, you know, this isn’t the hill to die on,” said Quintana, who returned the child to Aslanova’s mother.

Quintana eventually went home to Southern California. On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

In the following weeks, Mariupol would descend into crisis. With its roads closed, food and other supplies dwindled. Continuous shelling by Russian forces has destroyed civilian areas. Thousands of people have died there, the AP reported, and mass graves have been dug for children.

Aslanova told The Post that she and Alexander took shelter in the basements of friends as Russian troops bombarded the city. During periods of relative quiet, she and Alexander stayed above ground at a friend’s house. There was a fireplace, a hose with clean water and enough food, she said.

Two weeks ago, she said, she was faced with a decision: flee to another part of Ukraine — or Russia. “I picked Russia because I was safe,” she said, explaining that she feared she would only put herself and her son in more danger if they fled to another Ukrainian region.

Voices from the siege of Mariupol

Around that time, Quintana, uncertain about Alexander’s location, told several news outlets that he had plans to enter Ukraine and find his son. But in recent days, the State Department notified Quintana that Aslanova and Alexander had migrated to Russia, Quintana told The Post. Aslanova said only that she was staying with a friend, declining to specify her location.

Cullen, the lawyer specializing in abduction cases, said Quintana may have had a better shot at retrieving Alexander from war-torn Ukraine because the Hague obligations there seem to be suspended and Quintana could make the case he was reclaiming Alexander out of fear for his safety.

But now that Alexander is in Russia, the path forward is uncertain.

“Obviously, I’m devastated,” Quintana said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to give up.