SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The usual joy of the holidays has been replaced this year by a cloud of sorrow for a 41-year-old Snowmass Village man who is uncertain if he will ever see his two young daughters again.
Dennis Burns has been in the thick of an international custody dispute since his ex-wife ignored a Garfield County district judge's order in September and moved back to her native Argentina with the couple's children.
Burns said he calls his wife's mother's home in Argentina every day in hopes of talking to Victoria, 4, and Sophia, 2. The daily connection with the girls hinges entirely on the mood his ex-wife is in.
"It's absolutely heartbreaking, man," Burns said.
He is both haunted and inspired by the experience of David Goldman, a New Jersey man who fought for five years to resolve an international abduction case to regain custody of his son after his ex-wife moved to her native Brazil.
"I can't wait five years for my kids to come home," Burns said. "I'll die."
On the other hand, conversations he has had with Goldman give him hope that he can use an international legal process to force his ex-wife, Ana, to honor the custody order of a judge.
Burns, a real estate agent and snowboard instructor for the last 14 years with the Aspen Skiing Co., met Ana in 2001 when she worked as a chairlift attendant. They got married in 2002, bought a nice home in Aspen Glen and had their first child after four years together. Sophia was born two years later.
Their relationship soured by summer 2009 and led to a year of bitter divorce proceedings. "The relationship is very volatile and hostile," said final orders signed by Garfield County District Judge Denise Lynch in August.
Both Ana and Dennis accused the other of domestic violence. Dennis pleaded no contest to a charge of harassment and had a deferred judgment, which means no conviction will be on his record if he avoids trouble for a year. Judge Lynch said in the final divorce orders she thought the incident was "isolated" and that Dennis didn't pose a threat to Ana.
Dennis claimed Ana trumped the charge of domestic violence and that she purposely allowed their house to be taken in foreclosure by not signing an agreement to sell it. He claims she spread rumors about him that damaged his real estate career.
As part of the divorce case, Ana sought permission to relocate to Argentina with the children. Dennis objected. "He testified that if they move they would essentially be taken out of his life," the final order says. "He would become just an acquaintance, not a father."
The Burnses were required to hire a neutral expert in child custody to interview all family members and advise the court on how to proceed. Some of his findings were ominous.
"Dr. Austin did consider the issue of abduction risk," the final divorce orders said. "In his opinion there is a significant risk of abduction by Mother. The Court researched the issue and Argentina is a member of the Hague Convention so the abduction remedies would be available."
The judge determined that Dennis should be the primary residential parent and the children were to stay with him in the United States. The order gave Ana rights to be with the kids two weeks per month in Colorado. The order also gave Ana permission to take the kids to Argentina for two weeks in the summer and one week in the spring.
Burns was pleased to be named the primary parent but wary of his wife's intentions. He said he tried but failed to get a court order giving him control of the children's passports.
"Within three weeks of the decision, Ana backdoored everybody," Burns said. She disappeared with the kids on Sept. 9. Burns learned four days later by e-mail they were in Argentina. Ana said they would return on Sept. 29, but didn't.
On Oct. 12, Judge Lynch signed an order for immediate return of the minor children to the United States. The order said if Ana ignored the order, she would be in contempt of court and subject to jail time, fines, or both. In reality, the order has no teeth.
Burns said he has diligently taken steps to try to get his kids back, but he's stressed to his ex-wife he won't pursue charges against her if she complies.
He has talked to the FBI, the U.S. Attorney General's Office, the U.S. State Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Another nonprofit, Team Hope, comprised of parents who have experienced international abduction cases, offers some comfort, but Burns said he still finds it overwhelming.
"It's such an isolated feeling. There's nothing to soothe the pain," he said. "I'm in uncharted ground here. I've had a pretty blessed life."
There is hope of getting his kids back, he said, but it is time-consuming and expensive. The State Department told him to expect it to take at least 18 months to get his kids back. Goldman spent $700,000 in his five-year fight.
"Where am I going to get that?" Burns said. He filed for personal bankruptcy this month. He is living in employee housing in Snowmass, working three jobs: as a snowboard instructor and bartender in addition to keeping his real estate license active despite the slow time.
"After 16 years in the valley, I'm back to square one," he said.
Meanwhile, he is filing paperwork required under the Hague Convention, protocols agreed to by numerous countries, to get the issue in front of a court in Argentina. He needs a court there to review Lynch's orders and rule that the children must be returned.
He is putting aside his pride and asking for help in the fight. He has set up the Return the Burns Children Fund as a nonprofit organization. Donations can be made at any Alpine Bank or by mailing them to the fund in care of Alpine Bank at P.O. Box 5490; Snowmass Village, CO 81615.
Requests for information about the effort can be sent to Dennis Burns at firstname.lastname@example.org.