The Afghan woman ran down the street toward her friend’s apartment as soon as she heard the news: The White House had publicly weighed in on her family’s case.
Her child, who she says was abducted by a US Marine more than a year ago, would surely now be returned, she thought. She was so excited that it wasn’t until after she arrived that she realized she had no shoes on.
“We thought within a week she would be back with us,” the woman told The Associated Press.
Yet two months after an AP report on the high-stakes legal battle over the child raised alarm at the highest levels of government, from the White House to the Taliban, the baby remains with US Marine Corps Major Joshua Mast and his family. The Masts claim in court documents that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s charges are “outrageous” and “meritless.”
READ MORE: A US Marine used political connections to adopt an Afghan baby, her family says. Now they are suing to get her back
“We are all concerned about the well-being of this child, who is at the heart of this case,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said after the AP detailed the child’s situation in October.
Last month, the US Department of Justice filed a motion to intervene in the legal wrangling over the child’s fate, arguing that Mast’s adoption should never have been granted. The government has said that Mast’s attempt to take the child directly conflicts with a US foreign policy decision to reunite the orphan with her Afghan family. They asked to have the case moved from a Virginia rural district court to federal court, but were denied by Circuit Court Presiding Judge Richard E. Moore.
In addition, federal authorities say more investigations are underway.
“We all just want a resolution for this child, whatever it’s going to be, so her childhood doesn’t continue to be in limbo,” said Samantha Freed, a court-appointed attorney charged with representing the child’s best interests. “We have to get this right now. There are no do-overs.”
The legal battle has taken more than a year, and Freed worries it could take months — maybe even years — more. The child is now 3½ years old. The Afghan family spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety and concerns for their relatives back in Afghanistan.
Mast became smitten with the child while on temporary duty in Afghanistan in late 2019. Just a few months old, the infant had survived a Special Operations raid that killed her parents and five siblings, according to court records.
As she recovered from injuries at a US military hospital, the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross identified her relatives and arranged through meetings with the State Department for their reunification. The child’s cousin and his wife – young newlyweds with no children yet – cried when they saw her for the first time, and they said: Taking her in and raising her was the greatest honor of their lives.
Nevertheless, Mast—despite orders from military officials to stop intervening—was determined to bring her home to the United States. He used his status in the military, appealed to political connections in the Trump administration and convinced the court in the small Virginia town to skip some of the usual safeguards governing international adoptions.
Finally, when the US military withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, he helped the family come to the United States. After they arrived, they say, he took their baby from them at the Fort Pickett Virginia Army National Guard base. They haven’t seen her since and are suing to get her back.
The Afghan woman gave birth to a daughter just weeks after the girl they had raised was taken from them. Every time they buy an outfit or gift for their daughter, they buy another matching one for the child they pray will soon come back to them.
The Masters did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Joshua Mast walked out of a recent hearing and told the AP they have been advised not to speak publicly.
In the lawsuits, Mast says he acted “admirably” to bring the child to the United States and care for her with his wife. They say they have given her “a loving home” and have “done nothing but ensure she gets the medical treatment she needs at great personal cost and sacrifice.” Mast celebrated his adoption of the child, whose Afghan family is Muslim, as an act of Christian faith.
The toddler’s future will now be decided in a sealed, secret trial in rural Virginia — in the same courthouse that granted custody to Mast. The federal government has described this custody order as “illegal”, “inappropriate” and “deeply flawed and incorrect” because it was based on a promise that Afghanistan would relinquish jurisdiction over the child, which never happened.
The day Mast and his wife Stephanie Mast finalized the adoption, the child was 7,000 miles away with the Afghan couple unaware of it.
In court, Mast, who is still an active duty Marine, cast doubt on whether the Afghan couple is even related to her. They claim the little girl is “a war orphan and a victim of terrorism, rescued under tragic circumstances from the battlefield.” They say she is a “stateless minor” because she was recovered from a compound Mast says was used by foreign fighters who were not from Afghanistan.
WATCH: Hundreds of thousands of stateless people live in legal limbo in the United States
The case has been consumed by a procedural question: Does the Afghan family — who raised the child for a year and a half — have the right under Virginia law to challenge the adoption at all?
Judge Moore ruled in November that the Afghan family has legal standing; the masters’ appeal is pending.
The child’s Afghan relatives, who are currently in Texas, believe the US government should be doing more to help them because several federal agencies were involved in the ordeal.
“The government is not doing their job as they should,” said the Afghan woman. “And in this process we suffer.”
A State Department official said one of the agency’s own social workers was with Mast when he took the baby to Fort Pickett, but “had no knowledge of the U.S. Embassy’s prior involvement in reuniting the child with her relatives in Afghanistan.” The official described how the United States had worked hard in Afghanistan to reunite the child with her relatives.
“We recognize the human dimension of this situation,” the official said.
The Department of Defense said in a statement that the decision to reunite the child with her family was consistent with the US government’s foreign commitments, as well as principles of international law that require family reunification of children displaced by war. The Defense Department said it is aware that Mast “took custody” of the child, but declined to comment further.
The Afghan couple asked for help from the jumble of agencies at Fort Pickett: the military, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the police. Some didn’t believe them, some said there was nothing they could do, some tried to intervene without success.
The couple eventually reached Martha Jenkins, a lawyer who volunteered at the base.
“When I first heard their story, I thought something must have been lost in translation – how could this be true?” Jenkins said. She contacted the authorities.
Nearly two months after they lost the child, Virginia State Police records obtained by the AP show “an attorney” called to report what had happened.
“The family is at Fort Pickett, they are requesting an investigation into the validity of the adoption and if it was done under false pretenses,” the sender wrote. The record notes that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI were involved.
Jenkins, who was temporarily in Virginia, called every Virginia adoption attorney she could find until she reached Elizabeth Vaughan.
“It was very surprising to me that nobody helped them,” said Vaughan, who offered to represent the Afghan couple for free. “I don’t think they had a lot of the paperwork Americans like to see when someone proves they have custody. But there are laws about people, trusted adults coming with a child. So much more investigation should have been done.”
A Marine Corps spokesman wrote in a statement that it is cooperating fully with federal law enforcement investigations, including at least one focused on the alleged unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material. In emails Mast sent asking for help to bring the child from Afghanistan, which have now been submitted as exhibits in court, he referred to reading classified documents about the raid that killed the girl’s family.
Investigators and prosecutors declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations.
On the other side of the globe, the Taliban issued a statement saying they will “seriously pursue this matter with the US authorities so that the said child is returned to her relatives.”
Now every night before bed, the Afghan couple scroll through an album of 117 photos of the six months they spent raising her – a cheeky child with big bright eyes who loved to dress up in bright colors and gold bracelets. There is a photo of the child wearing a black and green tunic and small gold sandals, perched on the young Afghan man’s lap and smiling mischievously at the camera. In a video, she runs with the man and jumps down the sidewalk to follow his steps.
They will soon be moving to a new two-room apartment. There, they say, the little girl’s room will be ready for her when she comes home.
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report