Battered woman becomes American refugee in Amsterdam

Her husband beat her, so she couldn't let him take custody of their kids

It was the first week of the New Year when Holly Collins showed her identification card to the clerk at City Hall in a small township in western Holland. "Asylum for an unlimited time," it read on the front. On the back: "American Citizen."

"Have you seen this? An American asylum seeker!" the shocked clerk yelled to a colleague across the lobby. Dozens of people milling about the building stopped to listen. The clerk shook her head, and held the card to the light. She couldn't believe it: an American refugee.

"That's how it all started," Holly says over the phone as she sits in her home in a city she asked us not to name. It was 2006, and for the next five months, the mother and children dodged questions as rumors circulated the small village streets.

A wanted fugitive and kidnapper in the United States, Holly Collins was granted refugee status in the Netherlands in 1997
A wanted fugitive and kidnapper in the United States, Holly Collins was granted refugee status in the Netherlands in 1997
Jennifer and Zachary with mom Holly as children (left) and all grown up, ages 23 and 25 (right)
Jennifer and Zachary with mom Holly as children (left) and all grown up, ages 23 and 25 (right)

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EXPANDED WEB CONTENT:See the artwork Jennifer and Zachary Collins did while in therapy, including two complete stories drawn by Zachary and referenced in this feature. Also read an interview with Jennifer Collins, where she talks about a future in advocating for abused children.

Then, on May 11, 2006, a man from the neighborhood drunkenly approached Holly's oldest daughter. He said he knew who she really was, and that her father, Mark Collins from Crystal, Minnesota, said, "Hello."

The color drained from Jennifer's face as she turned around and walked inside their townhouse. The family's secret was out. Their illicit travel abroad and tumultuous history had finally caught up with them, more than a decade later, some 4,100 miles away.

The family watched from inside as the crazed neighbor started taping up "Missing" posters from the 1990s of Jennifer and her older brother, Zachary. He wildly pointed toward the home and handed out flyers to passersby. He told them a kidnapper was living in the neighborhood, one who was wanted by the FBI.

"She's dangerous," he said. "You better watch out for your kids."

Later, he told investigators that he wanted reward money—that Americans always give out cash for things like that, Holly remembers.

That night Holly and her entire family went to the Dutch authorities. The man was right about one thing: Holly was wanted by the FBI.

"For years I've lived this quiet life, and now all of a sudden I'm pulled back to my past trying to convince someone to believe us," Holly says.

Mark and Holly Collins, both teenagers, were married on December 5, 1982, in Bedford, New Hampshire. Holly was 17 years old and pregnant.

Since the day they'd met, Holly's feelings toward Mark had been a toxic mix. As a child, Holly claims, her mother and her stepfather beat her up. So when she was a teenager and Mark would push her around, it didn't seem as bad. "At least then we were the same size," she says. Their marriage was brief and rocky, pocked with angry separations. In 1987 the couple parted for the last time.

Mark was at his worst when he was drunk, Holly remembers. He beat, threatened, and raped her on numerous occasions. She has hospital records documenting wrist, foot, and head injuries, among others. One doctor confirmed that a three-centimeter scar on her body was consistent with a knife wound.

The documents continue even after the couple separated. "It got to the point where every time he dropped off the kids [from visitation], he'd do something to me," Holly says. "Punch me in the face, push me into the wall."

Medical reports list her accidentally running into the refrigerator door, catching her arm on a shopping cart, tripping over the dog, and falling several times down the stairs. Mark testified that injuries Holly sustained while they were still together—her broken nose, shoulder injury, and black eye—could have occurred after he accidentally rolled over her in bed, or while they were playfully wrestling. By 1989 they were both living in the Twin Cities. Holly obtained an Order for Protection from Hennepin County, and Mark was told to abstain from drinking for the 24 hours prior to visitation with the children.

Reached on the phone, Mark Collins politely declined to comment for this story, but throughout the four-volume file at Hennepin County Family Court, he repeatedly denies claims of child and spousal abuse.

In October 1990, Holly and Mark were divorced. Holly was granted full physical custody of then seven-year-old Zachary and five-year-old Jennifer. Mark was given joint legal custody and visitation rights.

Fearing for their safety, Holly at times defied the court and refused to let the children go to Mark's house. They came home with stories of how their father had hit and kicked them, she remembers. There was at least one incident where Zachary required medical care.

As a university student, Holly lived off public assistance and financial aid after the divorce, working sporadic jobs as a lobbyist, activist, and daycare provider. She mostly considered herself a full-time mother, sewing the children's clothes, baking with them, and helping with art projects; paramount to her existence was ensuring that her children had a better childhood than her own. Every time the kids would tell her a story about how Mark hurt them, she shuddered, thinking of her own past.

When the divorce was finalized, Holly asked the judge if she could move across the country with the kids. She wanted to go back home to Massachusetts. She planned to enroll in courses at Endicott College, live with her family to save money, and work at her father's real estate firm. She would start a new life for herself and the children.

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