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Missing in Minnesota: Perham father still fighting for answers, change following the return of his missing daughter, Claire Cooney

Claire Cooney went missing back in Feb. 2017. She was reunited with her father two weeks later. Submitted Photo 1 / 5
Miranda Cooney and her boyfriend Jonathan Bromen built a lean-to shanty in a national forest--a crime--where they lived after taking Miranda's daughter, Claire, and leaving Minnesota. Submitted Photo 2 / 5
Miranda and her boyfriend, Jonathan Bromen, absconded with Claire to the Chippewa National Forest in Tennessee where they built this shack. Submitted Photo3 / 5
Claire is reunited with her father, Brian Cooney. Submitted Photo4 / 5
Claire Cooney (left) with her father, Brian Cooney (right). Submitted Photo 5 / 5

Anyone who has been involved in a child custody battle knows that to say they can get complicated is an understatement.

For Perham resident Brian Cooney, a cut-and-dry, joint legal custody agreement that was decided during his divorce from Miranda Cooney turned into a nation-wide search for his daughter when his ex-wife absconded to Tennessee with their five-year-old, Claire.

Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby and Bruce Kunz, Brian’s attorney, said Claire’s is one of the biggest missing-child cases they have worked on—if not the biggest—and that situations like Claire’s don’t happen that often in the Perham area. However, even though the case was big for Perham, statistics show that, actually, cases like this happen quite often across the United States.

Teresa Lhotka, executive director of Missing Children Minnesota, says cases like Claire’s occur 200,000 times annually in the nation.

Lhotka says that most of the time, a parent who absconds with a child does not intend to hurt them—they actually believe they are doing what is best for the child. However, what they don’t see is the stress that uprooting everything puts on the child.

“Living on the run is hard. It asks the child to lie for the parent,” said Lhotka, adding that often times parents will manipulate their children in one way or another, like a case that occurred years ago in the Twin Cities where a father absconded with his child and told his son that his mother had been mangled in a terrible car accident in order to make the boy stop picturing his mother, to stop him from wanting to return to her.

The missing Minnesota girl

In Claire’s case, there is no evidence Miranda told her daughter that Brian had been mangled or that he had died. However, when Claire was finally recovered from the lean-to shanty that Miranda and her boyfriend, Jonathan Broman, had built in the Chippewa National Forest, it was clear the couple had been working to conceal the child.

In one of Miranda’s diary entries, which states they “headed for the mountains on Feb. 27th, 2017,” Miranda writes about planning to run away “for over a year, before fate forced our hand and gave us no other option.”

According to a report of events written by Renee Brewer and Andy Wood of Still Watch Investigations, witnesses they interviewed while tracking the missing child said Bromen was talking about “living off the grid,” and he was seen purchasing camping gear at a Tennessee pawn shop.

“Claire told me that Jon cut her hair and colored it black,” reads the Still Watch Investigations report. “Claire said she asked Jon, ‘Why are you cutting my hair?’ Claire said Jon told her, ‘Because your daddy is coming.’”

Not only that, “living off the grid” proved a tough endeavor for the couple—and Claire: the Still Watch Investigations report also noted that, after Claire had been recovered, she said she hadn’t been bathed since they had stayed at a Super 8 Motel, which receipts showed they had checked out of 10 days before Claire was found.

Not to mention, it had snowed and hailed while the three were living in the shack.

“Claire told me that they got four inches of snow, and that’s when she saw...animal tracks,” reads the report. “Claire told me that her mom was so cold she could not feel her hands.”

Brian was finally able to recover Claire on March 12, 2017 and, later that year, in May, when a mental health professional assessed Claire, she wrote in her report that Claire does not show signs of trauma, but Claire tells her “it was scary sometimes in the tent because of the animal tracks we saw or the noises I heard.”

While Claire is young enough to get back to a new normal, now thinking of her trip with her mother as more of a camping excursion, Brian was not willing to just forget the incident. He says he went through “hell and high water” to get Claire back, spending every penny he had to recover her, so it was difficult for him to come to terms with the fact that the county attorney decided not to prosecute Miranda.

“The social services network is busy—and especially in Tennessee...and if they don’t have to take on a case and spend their resources, that’s what they’ll choose to do,” said Kunz. “And, quite frankly, if they’re going to prosecute, they want a reason to believe there’s going to be a conviction.”

Ryan Cheshire, assistant county attorney in Otter Tail, writes, “I do not believe I can prove a charge of Deprivation of Parental Rights beyond any reasonable doubt. The custodial situation seemed to be very fluid prior to the suspect leaving the State.”

Buried under paperwork

Because Miranda used a tactic that experts say many absconding parents use—filing an emergency order of protection against Brian on behalf of Claire, alleging abuse—Brian temporarily lost custody of Claire and, not only does that make prosecuting for deprivation of parental rights difficult to do, it made Brian’s search for Claire even more difficult because he was not able to file a missing person’s report.

Working on his own (though he did later receive substantial help from the Perham Police Department once it was established that Claire was with a wanted felon, Bromen), Brian expended every resource he had.

“I easily spent over a year’s salary bringing Claire home,” he said, estimating he spent around $50,000.

It racks up fast—he had to hire a private investigator, pay for travel to and from Tennessee (twice), as well as pay for a lawyer and court fees.

“I cashed out my 401K,” he said. “The bank owns my car, my dad’s car, his pontoon. My mom took money out of retirement.”

He did what he had to do, saying that he would do it all over again, too.

“I would expend absolutely every resource I have to bring her home safely,” he said.

As Brian worked to find his daughter, Hoaby worked to clear up the legalities, dismissing the order of protection against Brian and getting a warrant to ping Bromen’s phone, two instrumental pieces in finding Claire and returning her to her father.

Brian then filed his own order of protection against Miranda and, once it was reported that Claire was no longer supposed to be in her mother’s custody, local news stations no longer considered the issue just “a messy custody fight.” They aired Claire’s story as headline news—and it went viral.

“Claire was getting the news coverage that stranger abductions normally get,” said Brian, adding that if it wasn’t for that coverage, he fears they might not have found her.

Almost immediately after the story aired, someone reported spotting the couple, and that, along with the location where the cell phone pinged, allowed them to locate Claire.

 MN Statute 609.26

Even when there is not an order of protection against the parent, Lhotka says it’s not uncommon for police to refuse to file a missing person’s report and claim it’s “a civil issue” that needs to be taken to court.

“I’ve even heard officers say a parent surrendered their child because they gave the other parent permission to go back-to-school shopping,” said Lhotka, adding, “That’s just not true.”

Lhotka says, in those cases, it’s possible to go to the courthouse and get an emergency temporary custody order proving parental rights. However, that order still has to be served to the missing parent which, if they’re gone, can be difficult—or impossible.

And it can get even messier if the parents of the child were never married because, then, in Minnesota, the mother is assumed to have full custody of a child.

“The father has to establish parenthood with the courts, but it doesn’t necessarily give him physical, legal custody or even visitation. Those have to be established by court action,” said Lhotka.

So her advice is to play it safe—have proof of custody, so if the worst-case scenario does happen, you can go to the police, prove custodial rights, and the police can then file a missing person’s report because of Minnesota Statute 609.26. Though, she says, under the statute, parents should be able to do that without paperwork proving they have custody.

“It’s civil—and it’s criminal,” said Lhotka. “Federal law says a missing child is missing when the custodial parent does not know the whereabouts of that child.”

 Home safe, looking forward

Brian Cooney is beyond happy to be reunited with his daughter—he says she is doing well, and he is working to co-parent with Miranda, who has agreed to attend therapy sessions in order to have unsupervised visits with Claire, whose primary residence is now with Brian.

But he is still working to stop children from going missing like this as often as they do.

Brian met with Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen and Senator Bud Nornes, separately, sharing his story with them and asking them to do what they can to stop other parents from going through the heartache and fear he faced, not knowing if he would ever see his daughter again.

During their meetings, Ingebrigtsen said he would look into giving Minnesota Statute 609.26 “some teeth,” so parents who are the victim of deprivation of parental rights have more rights, and Nornes spoke briefly of proposing a bill.

“We’re kind of working together to see where we can go with this,” says Nornes. “We just have to sort out what’s the most feasible thing to do.”

Though, Nornes says a short upcoming legislative session might push this “complicated” issue back another year.

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