Our names are Christa Johnson and Laurie Willis, mother and daughter. We live in Dublin, Ireland and have recently been given notice to vacate our rented home after ten years. It is our hope and dream to purchase the property from our landlord before the given date of departure: September 30th, 2015. In order to do this, we will need your help, and the help of anyone you think might wish to support us. The amount we need is great, but we believe that it is not impossible. In order to gain a better understanding of our lives and why this is so important to us, please read our story below.
If we succeed, it is our dream to give back with a similar ethos, by opening a “safe haven” for others. We feel that this is something sorely lacking in the world, and hope that you agree.
It is our goal to create an environment where all are welcome. This environment will be a “safe haven” where people are welcome to come for friendship and non-judgmental solidarity. We will offer compassionate conversation and company with others in a safe, warm, objective setting. It will also be a haven of joy, music and laughter. No-one will be excluded from visiting, and no exclusion of any kind will be permitted. Our aim is to offer people a place where they feel they can take some time to regroup from their life’s trials, sorrows and difficulties. Safe Haven will not be a place of professional counselling or therapy, but rather an opportunity to examine and calm one’s own thoughts and fears in a place removed from one’s own problems. Only the following rules will apply:
No violence, aggression, or misconduct of any kind will be tolerated.
No alcohol or illegal substances will be permitted.
Safe Haven will not be any type of residential refuge. It will only be a place to visit.
Safe Haven will only be open on certain days, and at certain times.
Coffee, tea, and light refreshments will be served throughout opening hours.
Those involved in the running of Safe Haven will not give out personal numbers or contact details.
Safe Haven itself will have a contact number.
We will endeavour to do our best to offer hope and friendship to those who are in need of it in any way. We understand that difficulty in life affects all. We understand that there are times when there seems to be no-one to turn to, and that being and feeling alone is damaging. Having been through many trials and tragedies ourselves, we feel that Safe Haven is something that desperately needs to be offered to people in times of personal adversity.
Our Story – 1978 – Present
The following is a synopsised account of the events of my life to date. My name is Christa, and I live in Dublin, Ireland with my mother, where we are facing having to vacate our rented home of 10 years. While this, by itself, may seem to be of little importance or consequence, it becomes something unsurmountable to us in light of our lives and the path we have walked. I cannot do justice to all the details of my story here, so I will reference events or publications of public record where necessary.
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona , in 1978. My parents divorced when I was three, which began a storm of adversity that would span three decades. My mother, Laraine Willis, was granted full custody of me, while my father, David Pankratz, had visitation rights, including overnight visitation. During these overnight visits and in the time spent in his care, I suffered various types of abuse. I suffered physical, mentally and emotionally, and changed into a fearful, angry child. My memories of this time are driven by fear of my father, and a terrible despair I experienced each time I was separated from my mother for a visit. As I deteriorated, concern for my wellbeing became paramount. My paediatrician and child psychologist, appalled at what was happening to me and the irresponsibility of the courts, advised my mother that remaining in the situation could have a permanent and devastating effect on me. So it was that in 1983, my mother left her home, her career and her family, and took me away to the safety of Switzerland. We would not return for over fifteen years.
In the mountains of Switzerland, I adapted and found happiness again. I went to school, became bi-lingual in French and developed a deep and lasting love for nature and the outdoors. Back in the States, angry at the loss of a child he never even wanted, my father used all of his cruel and dishonest talents to find us. He successfully sued my maternal grandparents, Carl and Anne Willis, for “mental anguish”, resulting in the tidy sum of $125,000. This set a precedent in the U.S. During my mother’s absence, he had custody changed by publication in a little known newspaper, without her knowledge. He engaged the FBI and Interpol to track us down, and gained the trust and help of powerful political figures, including John McCain. A federal arrest warrant was issued against my mother for “kidnapping”. On a bright Saturday morning, with breakfast ready on the table, I snuck out to play for a few minutes. The house we lived in sat on a small lane, flanked by pine trees and the mountains. On the lane, a man was walking. On seeing him, all of my night-time fears and horrors returned. My legs went hot and weak, my heart pounded. I fled, even trying to confuse him by entering through a neighbour’s property. I was six years old, and no match for my obsessed father. I ran inside, told my mother, who locked the door and called a friend. My father left the property that day, but it spelled the end of our brief life of safety. A few days later, the Swiss police took our passports away. Again fearful of my safety, we hid with friends. Although we did not want to leave our new home, the Swiss authorities would not help, and wanted to extradite us back to the States. At this time, my mother’s parents were aware of what had happened, and engaged the help of Amnesty International, who helped find us refuge. Without passports, we were given refugee status by the Irish government. In 1987, a barrister for Amnesty International travelled with us to Dublin, Ireland, where we once again tried to start anew.
We adapted again, building a life. My mother’s parents also moved to Dublin. I enrolled in school, I made new friends, I tried to believe I was safe. One bright sunny school day at break time, the principal asked me to go with him. Filled with childish pride, I obeyed all too eagerly. We went into an empty classroom, where sat my father. Flooded with fear and panicked despair, I turned and ran screaming down the hall. My classmates and friends stared at me, confused and frightened themselves at my behaviour. There was nowhere to go, and while I realised this, the principal caught up with me and took me into his office. My mother was called, and I went home. Once again, my world was shattered, my security and frail happiness destroyed. A custody trial ensued in Dublin. During this time, my father had the opportunity to see me, and speak with me. Terrified, I didn’t want to be alone with him, so asked if our church minister could be with me. My father refused. As relieved as I was about his decision, that moment clarified and cemented my opinion of him. Nothing he has ever done since has disabused me of that opinion.
My mother was granted custody of me in Ireland. Now, we were safe. Yet even then, a terrible injustice continued to prevail. We had no passport, no citizenship and were not free. As I got older, I began missing out on exchange programmes with school. We could not return to the States to see our family, or travel anywhere out of Ireland for a holiday. My mother and grandparents tried repeatedly to have the felony charges against my mother dropped. Time and time again, they failed. Lawyer after lawyer crumbled against the web of lies my father had constructed. I began to write repeatedly to the Justice Department in Dublin, outlining the injustice of our predicament, and querying the reasons with withholding our Irish citizenships, which we were now due. They claimed they were fearful of the backlash from the United States, especially in light of the powerful people my father, David Pankratz, had helping him.
Just after Christmas in 1995, as I was facing my final school exams, my mother and I, along with her parents, had the opportunity to travel to Switzerland for a short holiday. She was assured that the travel document given to her would allow her departure and re-entry in Ireland. While in Switzerland, my grandmother had a heart attack and passed away. To make this tragedy even worse, the Swiss did not recognise the papers my mother had been given as valid travel documents. Thankfully, we managed to persuade them to allow us to travel back to Ireland. After my grandmother’s death, my mother fell apart with grief and my grandfather returned to the United States, leaving us alone and without any family.
Ever more desperate to put an end to our enforced lack of freedom, I finally contacted a much respected journalist in Ireland, Nuala O’Faolain (since deceased). She listened to my story in horror, shocked at the perversion of justice and contacted the Department of Justice in Dublin herself. She told them that if they did not grant us our citizenship immediately, she would release and publish our story in the Irish Times. That same evening, we received a phone call telling us that our Irish citizenship had been granted. Shortly after this, I travelled back to the U.S. alone, to get the felony charges against my mother dropped. With the help of the law firm Doyle, Appel and Davis, I finally achieved this in 1998. My father, David Pankratz, agreed to drop the charges against my mother if I met with him, which I did. During this meeting, I calmly told my father that I remembered what he had done to me as a child, and through the years. His only defence was to tell me that I couldn’t possibly remember back to my early childhood. Instead, he chose to blame my mother for how I felt about him. The doubt about the capacity of my memory was a fight that I engaged in for a long time. Nevertheless, it is true that my memories from a very early age of about two are quite clear, and I believe that I have successfully proven this. Some weeks after the meeting, my mother was finally issued with her U.S. passport. After everything that had happened, I felt that I needed to put things right, and so filed a civil lawsuit against my father. This first came to trial in 1999, but was thrown out of court by the judge, as he felt that I was too “well-adjusted” to be awarded damages. The press in Arizona and Ireland published certain details of this event. At the time, there was also interest in the larger story, but although several reporters and journalists contacted me, they all broke contact once “difficult” details emerged. I can only assume that they were in some way dissuaded from taking things further. I appealed, and the case came to trial again in 2001. The verdict was in my favour, and I was awarded a total of $875,000. To date, I have received none of this. This case is online with the Superior Court of Maricopa County, Arizona. CV1998-011442.
With the “end” of the legal years, a new problem arose. Years of fighting and hiring lawyers had depleted us of any savings we had. Without any remuneration from the judgment, we were now financially spent. As a country, Ireland now entered what was called the “celtic tiger”. Rental prices went insane. Although I worked through college, and my mother taught, we did not have enough to continue living where we were. Between 2001 and 2005, we moved seven times, with every piece of furniture that belonged to us. It was all we had. We lived out of boxes during these years, saving what we could and working towards the hope of a better future. By 2005, I had secured a decent job while finishing a postgraduate degree. We found a better home to rent, and believed that we would never have to move again.
For the first few years, things improved. Our stability was unfortunately short lived, as the country fell into recession. I lost my job, and despite gaining short term work, and trying many other avenues, I failed to find anything stable and sufficient.
The following years were anything but easy. We were dogged by employment and financial issues. Although we could now travel back to the States, finances were often too tight. My mother’s health began to suffer. Blind in one eye since childhood, and severely visually impaired in the other, she now developed severe trigeminal and occipital neuralgia from too many years of stress, which leaves her in constant, chronic pain. The financial responsibility fell to me, as well as an increasing amount of daily concerns and demands.
Our landlord had never taken proper care of the property, which left us having to do many things ourselves. Despite the unfairness of this, we did it because we could not face leaving. Our world became a dance of one step forward, two steps back. It was exhausting.
Finally, this last April, our landlord decided that after ten years he wanted the property back for summer use. Despite having repeatedly asked him to communicate any change in plans for the house, he gave us only five months. The shock of this announcement, coupled with everything else, was enormous. We feel that another move in our current physical and mental condition would be devastating. To make matters worse, we have nowhere to go, and at the moment, no means to move at all. So it was that I decided, with nothing left to lose, that I would try to buy the house. The only way I can see to do this, is with the help, support and contribution of many people. Along with this, my mother and I strongly feel that owning the house would also give us the chance to do something we have wanted for many years – to open our house as a safe haven to other in times of distress. If we owned our house, this is what we would do. We ask that you help us purchase this property, so we can find a measure of peace and happiness at last, and pay it forward to others.
Please visit our GoFundMe page if you wish to donate: Safe Haven
Alternatively, please contact us directly through our email address: email@example.com
We thank you for taking the time to read our story.
Christa and Laurie