In a statement posted on Twitter, Victoria Azarenka confirmed reports on Thursday regarding her potential absence at the upcoming US Open because of a child custody case over 8-month-old son Leo. Having separated from his father, Billy McKeague, shortly after Wimbledon in July, she is unable to bring Leo out of the state of California.
"As we work to resolve some of the legal processes, the way things stand now is that the only way I can play in the US Open this year is if I leave Leo behind in California, which I'm not willing to do," noted the 28-year-old native of Belarus.
Azarenka went on to note that she hopes to reach an agreement with McKeague, a U.S. citizen, before the start of the tournament, which would allow her to play in the year's final Grand Slam event.
With so many questions immediately swirling regarding the two-time Grand Slam champion's announcement, we consulted with attorney Cecelia Townes, who is a graduate of UCLA's School of Law and does pro bono work in family law, in an attempt to make sense of it and understand Azarenka's legal options going forward.
espnW: Can you recollect a similar legal battle? Is there a precedent here?
Cecelia Townes: I don't recall a particular case where a judge has prevented a parent from taking a child who is the subject of a custody dispute out of the state, but I do know that it's not uncommon. Often courts will require that parents maintain the status quo and/or maintain the child's domicile until a determination is made. Additionally, there is some legal precedent and there are legal standards that exist that should make this specific case fairly easy.
espnW: There are reports that indicate she has a valid custody order from her home country of Belarus; can that help her here?
CT: Under Section 3405 of the California Family Code, unless a child custody law of a foreign country violates the fundamental principles of human rights, California courts are supposed to recognize and enforce child custody determinations made in a foreign country. If there is a ruling from a court in Belarus on the child's custody, California is supposed to honor that ruling.
espnW: What are Azarenka's options at this point?
CT: Her first option is to leave the child in Los Angeles while she plays the US Open and return after completion of the tournament. If she does not want to take that option, she can forfeit her position at the US Open to handle the custody issue in California. Finally, she can file an emergency appeal of the judge's decision in hopes that he or she would reconsider the order that the child remain in California. She could simultaneously file to have the custodial order from Belarus, if it exists, registered in the state of California so that it would be on record as the official custodial order.
espnW: What would happen if she did take Leo to New York, while competing at the US Open?
CT: She could be held in contempt of court, which could include penalties like a fine or jail time, and ultimately could lose custody of her son because of her failure to follow the court order.
espnW: Is California considered particularly strict, or lenient, when it comes to child custody cases?
CT: Most states, California included, make determinations about a child's custody based on the best interests of the child, so each order of custody and/or visitation is made on a case-by-case basis. Theoretically, it's a toss-up based on things like stability, finances, criminality, drug and alcohol usage, domestic violence, etc. To my knowledge, California does not have a reputation for awarding custody to one parent or the other.
espnW: If she were your client, what would you advise her to do?
CT: If my client were concerned with the well-being of her child while in the child's father's custody, I would recommend that she, if possible, forgo any work obligations that would require her to leave the state until a more favorable order could be issued.
espnW: How do you see this playing out?
CT: If in fact there is a custodial order from Belarus, I see this playing out in Azarenka's favor. The court's hands are tied, in favor of honoring the Belarusian order, so once she's able to prove it is valid, she should not have to re-contest custody.
espnW: Could she potentially sue her former partner for lost wages for any tournament she subsequently misses as a result of this custody fight?
CT: Since this isn't a tort claim [a claim in which someone seeks compensation for someone else's wrongdoing], Azarenka wouldn't have grounds to recuperate loss wages from missed tournament appearances. Depending on each party's financial status, the court could award attorney's fees and court costs to either party.