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Holly Collins returns after 14 years in hiding

Holly Collins hugged supporters at the airport last Sunday
Craig Lassig

Last Sunday, Holly Ann Collins walked off a plane and stood on Minnesota ground for the first time in 14 years. Her friends cheered, waving signs in celebration. "Holly, a champion for children," one read. Another said, "Welcome home."

"It's not a nightmare anymore," said a friend as she held Collins's hand. "You're back. This is the real thing."

Collins slowly surveyed the crowd who had come to greet her. One by one she recalled the people from her past. There was John, the boy she used to babysit when he was four years old. "He was just this high," Collins said, looking the young man over. Tears rolled down her face as she made her way through the group. "I can't believe it. Look at all you."

Collins stopped short when she saw one supporter wearing a protest button from the early 1990s, when she lost custody of her children. She gently touched the aged orange relic. Her hand trembled as she started to read the text aloud. Her voice cracked, tears again welled in her eyes, and suddenly she fell silent. "...The children are still in the custody of their abusive father," read a friend who stepped in to finish. "What can you do to help?"

"Kidnap them," Collins joked, getting a laugh from the crowd. Wearing jeans, a purple polo shirt, and a lapel pin with the American and Dutch flags on it, Collins wiped the tears from her eyes. "I can't believe I'm here," she said smiling.

A fugitive, Collins returned to Minnesota to turn herself in, yet there were no police waiting for her at the airport—only friends greeted her and her daughter Jennifer. After dining together, the group planned a tour of the lakes and a drive past the St. Louis Park home where the family had once lived. The last time Collins saw her friends from Minneapolis, she said she was moving to Edina. Instead, she fled the country, two children and a baby in tow.

"It was a choice between everything I had and my kids, and of course I chose my kids," Collins says.

On December 22, 1992, after a brutal court battle, Collins lost custody of her children. Despite warnings from doctors and psychiatrists that her ex-husband was dangerous, and claims from the children that their father was hurting them, Hennepin County Family Court Judge Michael J. Davis awarded Mark Collins of Crystal full custody of Zachary and Jennifer, then ages 7 and 9. Holly Collins, the judge argued, suffered from a "personality disorder"—most likely Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare illness in which a mother secretly hurts her kids to gain attention.

Letters flooded the court and protests were held regularly at the Government Center. Even Collins's court-appointed psychologist expressed skepticism at the diagnosis. Collins's problems were "the result of marital abuse or battering," the expert wrote. Nonetheless, the state Court of Appeals refused to reverse custody. Evaluators were convinced that Collins had been coaching her children to claim abuse by their dad and that they were actually safer in his care.

"Anything that happened to my children after the court was made aware they were being abused, Hennepin County is responsible for," Collins says. "I'll take responsibility for marrying the guy, for staying so long, but after the court knew, after they saw the medical records, everything that happened after that, every single beating, Hennepin County is responsible for. And I think they should make amends for that."

More than a year later, when the children claimed continuing abuse at the hands of their father, Collins devised an escape plan. She secretly met the children at a local video store, where the kids ditched their bikes and jumped into her car. After months on the road in disguises, Collins and her three children ended up in the Netherlands, where in 1997 they were granted asylum.

Collins was charged by the state of Minnesota for deprivation of parental rights and by the FBI for fleeing to avoid arrest. The family remained in hiding until 2006, when they were discovered. The Dutch government declined to extradite her, and federal charges were eventually dropped.

But Hennepin County refused to budge. Deputy County District Attorney Pat Diamond told City Pages in July, "Look, we are not going to negotiate with someone who is in a country with a non-extradition treaty, fleeing from a crime. That's just not how we do things."

Yet as the case received increased attention from the media and politicians, the hard-line stance started to soften. Earlier this month, Collins's lawyer, Alan Rosenfeld, got word that charges would be dropped.

"You'll have to go to Minneapolis and turn yourself in, but you will be let go," Rosenfeld told her.

"I started screaming, 'See, see they know we're telling the truth. Even the DA knows we are telling the truth,'" Collins says. "That's the most important thing, that we are believed, that my kids are believed. It just feels like a little bit of validation that I did the right thing."

For months, Jennifer, now 23, has been lobbying U.S. lawmakers to drop the charges against her mother. On September 14, she was awarded the Medal of Courage by the California Protective Parents Association after speaking to a crowd of custody evaluators in San Diego. She plans to move to Washington, D.C., and become a lobbyist for children's rights.

"People need to be aware of what is going on in our court system, especially in family court where everything is so hushed," Jennifer says. "I feel so failed by the court, and I hope people see from our story that the system is flawed, and they fix it. It's so sick, but what happened to me and my brother is happening to other kids right now."

On Tuesday, as she waited for the hearing, Collins huddled in the corner of the room with her daughter. Nearly two dozen supporters sat around her in the galley. Some wore protest buttons from the early '90s, yellow pins with a picture of Holly and her kids torn apart and the words "Domestic Violence Destroys Families." Others wore blue ribbons that Jennifer made in support of her mother.

Still considered the victim in the case, Mark Collins had the option to attend the hearing. He didn't show up, but Hennepin County prosecutor Elizabeth Cutter said he was in agreement with the sentence. "It would have been nice to confront him," says Jennifer Collins. "I have no desire to see him again, and this was going to be the moment where I told him how I felt, but it's over for me now."

As promised, the felony kidnapping charges were dropped in exchange for Holly Collins pleading to a lesser charge. In a quiet voice, Collins told Judge Margaret Daly, crying, " I admit I'm in violation of contempt of court. This court didn't protect my kids, and I just want to say, I still to this day believe them."

She was sentenced to unsupervised probation for one year, or until she completes 40 hours of community service, which she plans to serve in the Netherlands by either volunteering at a shelter for domestic violence victims or working with refugees. "Without them actually putting it in words, they are basically admitting they made a mistake," Collins says of the reduced charges.

After the hearing, her supporters stood near the fountain on the second floor of the Government Center holding signs while media cameras rolled. "Listen to children," one said; another proclaimed, "It shouldn't hurt to be a child." Then Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman addressed reporters. "We have learned a lot more about this case since [July]," he said. Freeman said that his office had dug up more information and agreed to the negotiations because there was insufficient evidence and it seemed unethical to call the children as witnesses against their mother. "This is a very difficult case that has been made more difficult because she took them 14 years ago," Freeman said.

Now free, Collins plans to travel in the states for a week with her daughter before heading home to the Netherlands. "My lawyer keeps telling me I should be happy, but I'm not," she says. "I just keep thinking, 'What took them so long?'" 


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