real life

Mum faces 20 years in prison for kidnapping her daughter

What would you do if your ex-husband was awarded full custody of your child?

Shattered mum Dorothy Barnett decided to flee the country and spend 20 years in hiding to protect her daughter, only to be dobbed in by a friend earlier this month.

Savanna Harris Todd was just 11-months-old when she went missing. She’s finally been found living in Australia and her mum faces more than 20 years in jail for hiding her.

It was 1994 when Dorothy Lee Barnett made the desperate decision to flee. She lost custody of her daughter after her husband, Benjamin Harris Todd, convinced the court she was bipolar.

In a little-seen interview with Columbia Journalism School from 2009 he said: “I was on the run from her, hiding out at friends’ houses. She’d drive around all night, looking for me, and sometimes she’d find me. She’d stand outside the house and scream that she was going to kill herself.”

Benjamin was awarded full custody of Savanna by the courts.

The shattered mum couldn’t stand not seeing her baby girl, so she hatched a plan. It’s thought the then-flight attendant was helped by a secretive organisation called Children of the Underground who help women flee abusive relationships and flew to South Africa.

The scared mum changed her name several times to avoid detection. While in South Africa she met a man named Juan Geldenhuys. They were married and had a son. In 1995 they moved to New Zealand and then Australia. They eventually split and Mr Geldenhuys recently died of bone cancer.

All this time her ex-husband was trying to track her down. This missing persons notice was constantly updated to take into account how little Savanna would look as she grew up.

After almost 20 years in hiding, the mother and daughter were found after a so-called friend became suspicious of them. The girl, now known as Samantha, was very close to her mum. Occasionally, the friend heard mum Dorothy call her daughter Savanna instead of Samantha. She also spoke of fleeing an abusive relationship.

The friend went on the internet and managed to identify the pair. She called the Australian Federal Police.

Ms Barnett was arrested in her Sunshine Coast home in Queensland on November 4. She has been denied bail and will be extradited back to the US to face international kidnapping charges. Her daughter is at every court appearance. She often holds up a sign in court saying, 'We love you Mum'.

According to The Australian, Savanna - who has been studying nursing at a Queensland university - held up a sign during the hearing saying 'We love you Mum' and Dorthy has been spotted winking back at her daughter. 

In an affidavit tendered to the court, she described her mother as "an amazing woman, having raised both myself and my brother and always giving us the support we needed to become the people that we are".

What happens next for Samantha is anyone's guess. Will she reunite with her father who has been searching for her for two decades?

It depends on how much her mother has told her about their past and at this stage, that is unclear.

Ms Barnett is back in court this week.

Has a friend ever lied to you about their past? How did you discover the truth?