Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Friday, July 31, 2015

Jami Leigh Burrows, Tavernier


"5 Years without your child is a very long time. It is time that you can never get back. It is a nightmare to not know where they are or if they are healthy and safe...and when you find them, it takes every bit of strength to be able to hold yourself together when you realize that they don't know who you are...
I was 18 when I got married and had my daughter here in Florida. Kyleigh's birth was the happiest moment of my life at that time, but within her first year things began to go downhill. My husband went to jail. For nearly one year, it was just the two of us, alone in the middle of nowhere in a house in Ocala, Fl. When he got out we moved to Tennessee. We had planned on staying with his parents for a little while; just long enough to work and save some money. That move ended up being one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
Shortly after moving we started having marital issues. We decided to split up, and agreed that it would be in Kyleigh's best interest to move back with me to the Keys. He decided that he would stay in Tennessee with his family. We had a verbal agreement and he signed a paper, (it wasn't notarized) giving me permission to move.
So, I moved back to where I was born and raised, the Keys, with our daughter. It was about 6 months later that I was served divorce papers...along with a petition for custody. I didn't really know what to do, or where to begin so I consulted a lawyer in Miami and they told me not to worry, it would all be fine. We counter filed in Florida (asking for equal time sharing), and were given jurisdiction over the case, but Tennessee wound up taking jurisdiction back because that's where the grounds for our divorce took place. I then had to get a lawyer in Tennessee. Immediately after Tennessee took the case, my ex husband was (by default) granted an order for pick up. Tennessee courts said my child had to physically be inside their jurisdiction. They never did an investigation, they never checked to see if I was fit or unfit, they didn't care who she knew, who was taking care of her, what she was used to, they gave no consideration whatsoever for her well being... they allowed my daughter to be ripped away from me simply because of a legality.
A few months shy of my daughter's 2nd birthday, my ex-husband came down and took her and there was nothing that I could do about it. She didn't even know who he was. She clung to me screaming as I was forced by law to strap her into their car seat. It was the most devastating thing I have ever had to do; going against my instincts as a mother, being forced to say goodbye to my daughter. I remember the day we finally packed up her things...we had to. I had spent months in her room crying into her pillow. Just looking at her pictures became too unbearable. My life revolved around her, and everything in it became a constant reminder of losing her. It was like mourning a death...except with a death there's closure.
My lawyers couldn't do anything. His lawyer kept filing motions and I had to keep traveling back to Tennessee. I spent every dime that I had. I was barely making it. I had to drop my lawyers and defend myself. I won my first hearing, representing myself! Going as far as cross examining my own ex husband on the stand. I was awarded visitation, but after 2 visits, I had exhausted all of my funds and was unable to make it to the final hearing and since I had no one to represent me, he won....everything. Before I got the chance to fight that judgment, he violated the terms; he left Tennessee and went to Georgia; cutting off his phone and blocking me from all social media. I couldn't find him or my daughter.
I spent the next 5 years looking for them; I consulted with lawyers, I wrote to Governors, DCF tried to help, I wrote Gloria Allred, talk shows, I wrote and contacted anyone that could possibly help, but to no avail. As a parent, I felt that I had failed my daughter. I could not protect her, comfort her, or nurture her. I was helpless. The thought of her growing up without her mom tormented me. I began to lose hope, but I never gave up.
Last October (2014), my ex-husband's wife reached out to me. (Now I knew that they knew how to contact me!)
She said that she felt the need to talk to me. I was so excited!! My daughter was within reach!! I wanted to build a repoire with the wife and reconnect with my daughter!! She wanted a repoire too, (as I later found out) they actually wanted it to terminate my parental rights. My gut told me something was fishy, so I had held back on the communication.
In December, I decided to reach out to the wife again. This time the response came from an attorney informing me that my ex-husband had passed away in November and his wife was filing for custody of my daughter. I was in shock.
Now I had to fight in yet another State, Georgia- and I was going to fight. I had wanted my daughter this whole time and I had never quit looking for her. This was not going to happen Twice.
This is when we reached out to the Keys community and asked for help. Anything anyone could offer. I now have 2 sons and would do anything to get my daughter home. There wasn't any legal aid available but our Island came together. Many people already knew what I was going through. They all stepped up. We started a donation page, my fiance Rob Qualls started a benefit concert called 'Fight for Family Fest' (which we will continue for other families in need) and Chris Richert started an aluminum can drive.
With my Mother by my side (to keep me company and maybe share some of the driving), I was able to travel to all of the hearings, some with only 6 days notice. I had to prove that I had been looking for my daughter, which I did, successfully. I won some visitation.
Visitation was challenging; my daughter didn't know who I was, she thought that her step mom was her biological mother- no one had told her about me. I had to really think about this; was this going to do more damage than good? Selfishly I wanted to pick her up and take her home, but I knew that wasn't the best thing for her. I had to think about her first. Ultimately I decided that getting her home would be most beneficial for her; these people took my daughter, kept her from me, didn't tell her that I existed. They certainly weren't doing what was in her best interest all along, and being the only person that loved her selflessly, I knew that I was making the right choice. I agreed to a staggered transition; she was only 7.
She went to therapy and they worked her into it. We met, her not knowing who I was, and she immediately took to me, ran up and gave me a hug. Wow, I hadn't expected that! My daughter took the news really well when they told her I was her biological mom.
All of the things that you look forward to doing with your children, teaching them, experiencing with them, memories you want to make; I never thought I would get to do with her. I had started to accept the idea that it may not be until she was an adult when I would reconnect with her. To hear her call me mommy the first time, to hear her say "I love you", Wow. It was a dream come true. I was reassured that I had been doing right by her, and that made the past five years of pain worth every moment.
The struggle was not over. I was granted custody but her step-mom was granted physical custody. The judge thought it best to do a series of visits and make the transition when school was out. I agreed. I never missed a visit and talked to my daughter every day. Our bond was as strong as ever. The guardian ad lidem and therapist agreed that she was ready to come home. It was finally almost over.
Shortly thereafter, I received papers again; my ex-in-laws were going to fight for custody. That was so scary, after all we had been through, after all we had overcome to now have another battle to fight.
Luckily my lawyer and their lawyer agreed that the decision had already been made and she was going home with me. Their petitions were eventually thrown out. I granted her step-mom and grandparents visitation; I would not do to them, to the people my daughter knew and loved, what they had done to me. I would not do to her what they had done to her. She knows how much she is loved we all love her. When I finally spoke to her grandparents I told them 'We all have the same intentions. We all love her and want what is best for her. If we were able to work together then there would never be any issues for her; she has a blended extended family and we need to come together to do what is best for her.'
June 16, 2015 I picked her up and she came home with me! It was a day I will never forget. I almost couldn't believe it was actually over. Our hearts could finally heal and our bond could fully mend. I now have full legal custody! She can talk to the other members of her family whenever she wants and they can come and visit her whenever they want. Kyleigh is doing great! She smiles and laughs and plays with her brothers. She is thriving here in the Keys again. She has been incredibly strong, and is so wise for her age. I am thankful for every moment we spend together as a family. We will never get back the time we missed but we are making new memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I will never take one second for granted.
It really was the Keys community that brought Kyleigh home. As Kyleigh gets older, I want her to know how many people love her and how many people helped in the fight to bring her home. There were people e-mailing me that I didn't even know, encouraging me and supporting me. There were a lot of people who saved cans; a young woman had her whole neighborhood saving cans and Ralph Pratt, the pastor at Key Largo Christian Center had everyone in his church saving cans, they even picked them up from the side of the road. There are no words to describe the amount of joy that I hold in my heart. Our community came to the benefits. They came together and donated, whether it was money or time or support or encouragement, it is all priceless to me and I cannot thank them enough.
The community reached out and helped to bring my baby home. They helped to make my family whole, and for that, I am forever grateful".


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