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Mom Sues Attorney After Custody Travail

CLAYTON, Mo. (CN) - An attorney's negligence allowed a woman's ex-husband to kidnap their child and establish custody in Florida, the woman claims in St. Louis County Court.

Jennifer Belcher retained Richard Keyes of the Probate Law Center to represent her in her divorce against her now ex-husband Kevin Slusher. She says Keyes advised her to allow Slusher to take their daughter to Florida for 30 days before custody was established.

Belcher claims Keyes told her that if Slusher failed to return with the child after the 30 days, he could be criminally charged with kidnapping, and that it would be good to share the child until an order for custody was obtained.

Slusher filed for custody in Florida, 11 days after leaving with the child, Belcher says. That filing didn't comply with Uniform State Laws that require that the child must be present in the state for at least 6 months prior to a custody proceeding, court papers state.

Belcher claims she told Keyes about the filing and he told her to obtain a Florida attorney. Since she was a stay-at-home mother and Slusher had all of her assets, Belcher says Keyes authorized her to file a motion contesting jurisdiction in a Florida court as a pro se litigant. She says Keyes failed to inform the Missouri court of the simultaneous hearing in Florida.

When Slusher failed to return the child, Belcher says she informed Keyes and filed a police report. Keyes failed to inform the Missouri court of the alleged kidnapping, the complaint states.

A hearing was set in Florida on Belcher's motion to dismiss, where Belcher was allowed to appear via telephone. Belcher claims her motion to dismiss was denied because, unknown to her at the time, her case in Missouri was dismissed because of Keyes' failure to obtain service on Slusher. The Florida case was set to be heard on Nov. 18, 2004 and Slusher was allowed to continue to hold the child in Florida, court papers state.

Belcher claims Keyes once again tried but failed to obtain service on Slusher, and told her that she had to obtain service on Slusher herself on Oct. 15, 2004. Belcher says she obtained service moments before the Nov. 18 hearing. The Florida judge stayed any further hearings until she could schedule a conference with the Missouri court to review jurisdiction.

A Jan. 3, 2005 conference hearing was held, but Keyes failed to appear, the suit states. Belcher claims she didn't receive a notice for the hearing from the Florida court until after the hearing. On Jan. 10, 2005, Belcher received an order from the hearing stating that the State of Florida had assumed jurisdiction.

Belcher says she tried to contact Keyes for several months, but never received a reply. On Jan. 26, 2005, Belcher filed a complaint against Keyes with the Missouri Chief Disciplinary Counsel and on Feb. 15, 2005, the Florida court granted temporary custody of the child to Slusher.

The Missouri Chief Disciplinary Counsel administered a written admonition to Keyes for his conduct in February 2006, the suit states.

Belcher claims she lost more than $63,000 plus the companionship of her toddler daughter. She seeks an undetermined amount of damages from Keyes and the Probate Law Center. She is represented by Joseph Green with Leritz, Plunkert & Bruning of St. Louis.

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