Cesar Quintana held his 2-year-old son Alexander at an airport in Kyiv, Ukraine. Alexander was born in Orange County, but on that day in December, authorities told Quintana he would not be allowed to leave the country with his son and would have to surrender the boy to his grandmother in Ukraine.
A year earlier, Quintana’s estranged wife, Antonina Aslanova, had abducted their son from his Aliso Viejo apartment amid their divorce and fled to her home country, Orange County prosecutors say. She took Alexander to Mariupol, the port city that is now being bombarded by Russian artillery.
Now Quintana, 35, plans to travel into the war zone to find his son. He’s unsure what awaits him — or even whether his estranged wife and Alexander are among the millions of refugees who have fled Ukraine.
The last time he saw Alexander was during a brief video call March 2, six days after Russia launched its invasion.
“Like you say in the Army, never leave a man behind. But that’s my son,” Quintana told The Times. “I know there’s worry of life or death. But that’s my son. I can’t just leave him. I can’t.”
He plans to travel to Poland and then to Ukraine as a volunteer with a humanitarian aid group. To him, there are no other options.
This week, Quintana went to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to sign up to enter Ukraine as part of a humanitarian mission.
Joining him on his trip was Noelle Hunter, co-founder of iStand Parent Network, a nonprofit that assists parents in cases of parental child abduction.
Hunter said Quintana’s situation was difficult because of the war but not entirely uncommon. Her own ex-husband had joint custody of their daughter when he fled to Mali in 2011, less than a year before war broke out there and the president was ousted in a coup. After a campaign similar to Quintana’s, Hunter was reunited with her daughter when the courts in Mali ruled in her favor.
“Like any parent, Cesar is going to the ends of the earth for his son,” Hunter told The Times.
Quintana said he was recovering from gallbladder surgery the day Aslanova took their son in December 2020. When he woke up, his apartment was empty, and he messaged Aslanova that he would call the police if she didn’t immediately return, according to a letter from Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Tamara Jacobs to the U.S. State Department.
While Quintana and Aslanova were going through their divorce, she was allowed supervised visits with Alexander under court order. By December 2020, Quintana had full custody of Alexander, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Aslanova lost custody after multiple convictions for driving under the influence, according to court records and the letter from the district attorney’s office.
Quintana said he thinks Aslanova’s mother was the driving force behind Alexander’s abduction. He told Aslanova he was reluctant to leave Alexander alone with her mother, he said, adding that after his son was taken to Ukraine, his mother-in-law demanded money for him to see the boy.
“My mother-in-law is the one who has been in control of that baby,” Quintana said. “She’s been the one who has extorted me for cash, time and time again, for my son.”
A warrant was issued for Aslanova by an Orange County Superior Court judge after she fled the country, and both parents have appeared remotely in family court. Aslanova was charged with child abduction by county prosecutors.
Quintana’s attorney in Orange County has attempted to bring Alexander back to the U.S. under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which is a treaty that allows for the return from one member country to another of children abducted by a parent across an international boundary. Ukraine is a signatory to the treaty.
Though Quintana is Alexander’s legal guardian and obtained a court order from a U.S. judge for custody, he was stopped twice in the last year while trying to leave Ukraine with his son.
According to a Feb. 15 letter from the State Department to the office of Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Quintana did not have Aslanova’s consent to take Alexander back to the U.S. or the approval of Ukrainian authorities, and would need to follow a legal process to bring his son home.
“Attempts to remove the child to the United States may endanger the child and others, prejudice any future judicial efforts, and could result in arrest and imprisonment,” wrote April Conway, an official with the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues.
In 2020, the State Department handled more than 660 international child abduction cases, with 246 new cases opened that year, 129 cases resolved and 185 children returned to the United States. Hunter, of iStand Parent Network, said she believes many more abduction cases are not reported.
Hunter said she warned Quintana of the danger in his plan to search for his son in Ukraine.
“I explained to Cesar the task he was setting out on, but he is a smart man and a determined father,” Hunter said.
Civilian casualties in Ukraine have mounted as Russian forces attack hospitals, theaters and other locations where civilians are sheltering.
Quintana understands that he will be stepping into a war zone.
“Our government is so concerned with the defense of Ukraine, but I wish they would show even a fraction of concern for one of their own citizens who is a victim of kidnapping,” he said.
As the war rages on, Quintana can only think of holding his son again and leaving Ukraine together.