One year ago, a distraught French-speaking native of the Ivory Coast walked into the offices of Sanctuary for Families begging for help in reuniting with her kidnapped 6-year-old daughter. Her request launched a complex legal saga spanning three states and two continents.

“I had a sinking feeling and felt a tremendous sense of urgency,” said Dorchen A. Leidholdt, director of the group. “I also saw how utterly devastated the mother was and wanted very much to help her, but knew it would be hard to find a pro bono attorney.”

Founded in 1984, Sanctuary for Families provided legal and other services to more than 11,000 victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking last year. Cases like that of the Ivorian woman have become increasingly common.

“We’ve had several cases where the victim or one of the parties is here and jurisdiction lies in another state, sometimes in a fairly remote location,” Ms. Leidholdt said. “It’s a function of immigration and migration, and the economy and people moving, and it means it can be very difficult to find representation for someone in a very meritorious case.”

The woman, whose name was withheld by Sanctuary out of concern for her safety, said her daughter was born in 2004 in Charlotte, N.C. Her husband, also from the Ivory Coast, was a truck driver who was not home much but often beat her when he was.

According to court papers filed in North Carolina, in June 2010 the husband said he was taking his wife and child to the Ivory Coast on a “family trip.” One week into the trip, the woman was sent to visit her mother-in-law, while the husband remained at his sister’s house with their daughter.

Shortly afterwards, the husband called his wife to say he was back in the United States, though the child remained in the Ivory Coast with his sister. He said that he had divorced her and she should return to her own family, and told her that he had burned her papers, including her passport and green card.

“You no longer have a daughter,” the woman said her husband told her, and he threatened legal action if she attempted to contact or visit the child.

Worried about her daughter’s safety, and the possibility the girl would be subjected to female genital mutilation, the woman tried to convince her sister-in-law to let her see her daughter. When the sister-in-law refused, the woman was left with few options in the Ivory Coast, which, according to Ms. Leidholdt, has a legal system favoring fathers.

“The Ivory Coast has a completely broken justice system,” said Ms. Leidholdt. “Family law is very much informed by Sharia law, where a woman’s testimony is worth one-third of a man.”

Then the country plunged into a bloody civil war after a contested presidential election last fall.

The woman secured new papers with the help of the U.S. embassy and returned to this country, where she stayed with an aunt in New York City while she contacted Sanctuary for Families.

The organization quickly concluded that jurisdiction for any custody dispute was in North Carolina, where the child had spent most of her life. Ms. Leidholdt immediately began searching for New York firms with offices in Charlotte.

One by one, four firms that had helped Sanctuary in the past turned her down, daunted by the complexities of the case—a potential client who spoke no English, a child in another country and a father whose exact location was unknown.

“Each time a firm said no it was a little like a kick in the stomach,” Ms. Leidholdt said. “I was haunted by this case for months.”

But in April, Josephine Lea Iselin, a retired counsel at Morris & McVeigh who had been working with Sanctuary for several months as part of the state courts’ attorney emeritus program, stepped in.

Ms. Iselin said her son’s firm, McGuire Woods, had a big Charlotte office. “So I called him up and he put the word out to see if there was a partner willing to help,” she said.

Jill Griset, a McGuire Woods partner and e-discovery expert, and associate Matt Pearson, a commercial litigator, agreed to help, although neither had family law experience.

“I did it because [the mother] has a daughter born at the same hospital as my daughter a month after my daughter was born and it touched my heart,” said Ms. Griset.

Mr. Pearson said his ability to speak French made him “useful to the client in a way others couldn’t be.”

Assisted by J. Gregory Hatcher of the Hatcher Law Group, a Charlotte family law attorney, and Ms. Iselin, who had spent more than 50 hours drafting a brief and preparing the case, Ms. Griset and Mr. Pearson tackled their first challenge: convincing a North Carolina court that it had jurisdiction under the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.

“Key here was whether North Carolina would be considered the home state,” said Ms. Griset.

The act defines the home state as “the state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months immediately before the commencement of a child-custody proceeding.” As the child had been living in the Ivory Coast for approximately 10 months at this point, North Carolina did not meet the requirements.

“While [the daughter] wasn’t there for the six months immediately before the proceedings, we argued that she was kidnapped, and wasn’t living with a parent or anyone acting as a parent under that definition after leaving North Carolina, so while it didn’t fit in perfectly, North Carolina was the home state, absent the kidnapping,” Ms. Griset said.

In early May, the North Carolina District Court found it had jurisdiction, calling the child’s stay in the Ivory Coast a “temporary absence.” Noting that it had “substantial concern for the welfare and safety of the child,” the court granted Sanctuary’s client temporary custody and ordered the father to appear with his daughter the following month.

Ms. Griset and Mr. Pearson hired a private investigator who tracked the father to Pennsylvania, where he had been working. When the court date came, the father appeared with a lawyer, but without the child.

The father argued in his court papers that “the child was never kidnapped” and disputed that his wife had been denied permission to see her daughter. He denied he had ever abused his wife, although, according to his court papers, “in her fits of rage resulting from her clinical depression, mother assaulted father frequently.”

He also contended that the woman’s concerns about their daughter’s safety were unfounded, noting that his sister who was caring for the child is a doctor. He called the mother’s fear of female genital mutilation “irrational,” claiming the practice is illegal in the Ivory Coast and his sister has twin 16-year-old daughters “who have not been subjected to this practice.”

Finally, he disputed North Carolina’s jurisdiction, saying that the family had left the state permanently. Moreover, he denied “that the legal system in the Ivory Coast is biased in favor of anything except the best interest of the child.”

But the judge did not buy those arguments. He declared the father to be in contempt of court and again ordered him to turn the child over to her mother.

A few weeks later, the father’s attorney contacted the McGuire Woods attorneys saying that the child was in New York.

“We were obviously ecstatic, so I said, ‘Let’s arrange for him to bring the child to the McGuire Woods office in New York’ and arranged with an associate there to do the transfer,” Ms. Griset said. “I frantically got a hold of my client, she got some toys and got to the office at the time he was supposed to show up and he doesn’t show up. It was heartbreaking.”

The next day, Ms. Griset received a call that the father was in his lawyer’s office in Charlotte and would only turn the girl over to her mother. The mother took the next flight to Charlotte. She and her lawyers met with the father and her daughter at 8 p.m. that night at a Dairy Queen.

Ms. Griset said the little girl looked “shell shocked” as she hugged her “ecstatic” mother almost one year to the day after they were separated. The girl had not been mutilated or otherwise physically injured.

Both mother and daughter have returned to New York, where the daughter is enrolled in school and the mother is learning English. They have had no contact with the father since, according to Ms. Griset and Mr. Pearson, and a hearing date in North Carolina for a final custody determination has not been set.

Ms. Griset said she is “confident” the father will not be awarded custody, noting he left the girl with his sister “in a country at war” and “hasn’t shown any interest in taking care of her.” She also said the father’s job as a truck driver, which requires him to be away from home often, would not provide the proper “lifestyle for a little girl.”

Abely Award

From left, Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, Jill Griset, Josephine Lea Iselin and Matt Pearson at the Abely Awards.

Ms. Griset, Mr. Pearson and Ms. Iselin were all honored for their work earlier this month at the Abely Awards. The annual ceremony, co-hosted by Sanctuary for Families, Davis Polk & Wardwell and Columbia Law School, recognizes individuals dedicated to assisting domestic violence victims.

It is held in honor of Maryellen Abely, a former pro bono attorney at Sanctuary, associate at Davis Polk and Columbia Law graduate, who died in 1995.

Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, the administrative judge of New York City Family Court also was honored.

Sanctuary is working on retrieving children from Sudan, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. Ms. Leidholdt said it has been successful in the majority of the dozens of international kidnapping cases it has taken on and hopes more attorneys will realize that these cases are “not so different from the fact pattern in a typical domestic violence case.”

“Child abduction is often an attempt by the perpetrator of domestic violence to retaliate against a victim,” Ms. Leidholdt said. The “domestic violence perpetrator understands that the best way to destroy the victim psychologically is to take their child.”

Ms. Griset and Mr. Pearson, who spent more than 200 hours collectively on the case, said they have no regrets.

“For me, this has been the highlight of my legal career, standing in front of the Dairy Queen getting her back,” Ms. Griset said.