If it wasn’t for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Michell McGahey doesn’t know how she would have found her 5-year-old daughter, Hayden.
McGahey said she was surprised to return to Northern Michigan from Florida last spring to discover that her daughter and her daughter’s father were gone.
McGahey and the father, Brandon Beard, had joint legal custody of Hayden, so McGahey was supposed to be kept abreast of her daughter’s whereabouts.
But when McGahey visited Beard’s rented house in Beulah last May, she got a bad feeling. She said she suspected almost right away that Beard and her daughter were headed to California.
She knew that Beard had recently married a woman from California who he had met online.
CLUES IN AN EMPTY HOUSE
McGahey said that while she suspected Hayden was headed west, she had no idea as to where in California.
McGahey, 39, said she and Beard had always been on good terms, even if their relationship didn’t last long.
When Hayden was younger, McGahey voluntarily let Beard have physical custody of their daughter because McGahey was struggling financially and she thought he was a good father.
Despite him having physical custody, however, the terms of their most recent custody arrangement, hand-written on a piece of paper filed in the probate court in Grand Traverse County, dictated that McGahey was entitled to parenting time.
Now she was left searching an abandoned house in Beulah, looking for clues.
“The house was just filled with all of her belongings and Hayden was gone,” McGahey said. “Everything that meant something to her, they left. They just took her.”
McGahey said the house was otherwise a complete mess.
McGahey said the first place she turned for answers was online, where she monitored Beard’s activity on Facebook and Twitter for clues.
In the coming days she was able to check the progress of a cross-country trip as Beard posted photos and status updates.
She said she called the police to report a parental kidnapping but was told by officers there was nothing they could do.
She said that Beard had earlier had permission to take their daughter to Las Vegas, but she believed he did not have the right, under the terms of their shared custody agreement, to take Hayden on a one-way trip to California.
At this point someone with resources might have bought a plane ticket to California to search for their daughter. Maybe they would hired a private investigator.
But McGahey is a person of modest means -- she is a painter and a house cleaner. She realized she would have to find her daughter herself, from her home in Traverse City.
McGahey said that while she didn’t know exactly where Beard and Hayden had gone in California, she wasn’t completely cut off from her daughter.
She was sometimes able to call Beard’s cell phone and speak to Hayden, but those calls were kept short.
“I’d call for her and they’d hang up on me,” she said.
She turned her sleuthing skills to Facebook and Twitter. She read status updates; she looked at who was commenting on Beard’s posts; she friended friends and family of Beard and his wife; she studied photos they posted.
“When I saw pictures of them doing anything in California, I would zoom in on the pictures” and look for street signs or landmarks or business names, she said. Anything to offer a clue about where Hayden was.
FRIENDS WITH GRANDMA
She found the mother of Beard’s new wife and friended her.
Hayden’s new step-grandmother accepted her friend request.
Though the woman apparently did not believe anything was wrong with her daughter’s and son-in-law’s arrangement in California, the woman showed some kindness to McGahey.
She sent cell phone photos of the girl. “She pretty much said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll send you pictures every once in a while,’” McGahey said. “She thought they were just normal, smiling pictures.”
In these, McGahey said, she saw evidence she believed showed that her daughter was not being treated well in her new home. She said she saw in the pictures what appeared to be bruises on Hayden’s face and body. She said she also thought her daughter looked too thin.
A BREAK IN THE CASE
The best clue McGahey got was a picture of Hayden’s student ID.
McGahey asked for a photo of it, and Hayden’s step-grandmother sent one along. McGahey learned the name of the school Hayden attended -- Fallsvale Elementary School in San Bernardino County, outside of Los Angeles.
It was late September. McGahey had been looking for her daughter for months.
McGahey called the school and explained her circumstance and expressed concern about the appearance of her daughter. She said a school staff told her they were also concerned about Hayden.
“That’s when I knew the school had my back and were going to help me,” McGahey said.
Soon McGahey also had the help of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy and a California child protective services worker.
FLIGHT TO TRAVERSE CITY
Once the authorities were involved, that started Hayden’s journey back to Traverse City.
A sheriff’s deputy visited Hayden’s school.
“He went to the school and talked to a couple of the teachers and the teachers said something isn’t right,” McGahey said.
Officials paid a visit to Beard and his wife where they found evidence of child abuse and substance abuse, according to a report included in a court petition that put Hayden into foster care in November.
Beard and his wife denied they had been abusing drugs or that Hayden was physically abused, according to the documents.
Nonetheless, California CPS sent a caseworker to Traverse City to interview McGahey and make sure she could provide a safe home for Hayden. The same caseworker accompanied Hayden on a cross-country flight that finally arrived in Traverse City for a reunion between mom and daughter on Feb. 5.
“She almost knocked me down,” McGahey said of the airport reunion. “She came running into me, she almost knocked me over.”
‘WE’RE GLAD THAT SHE IS BACK’
McGahey’s attorney, Gerald Chefalo, has filed a motion to give McGahey legal physical custody of Hayden in Michigan, in line with what officials in California determined to be best for the girl.
Chefalo said it is remarkable how thorough California officials were in this case and that they flew Hayden across the country to reunite her with her mother.
“I would never have thought that they would do that level of investigation,” Chefalo said. “I was shocked that they did this, and I was glad that they did this.”
Brandon Beard has not responded to the probate court motion. He could not be reached for comment.
Beard’s mother, Wanda Beard, defended her son, but said she just wants the best for Hayden.
“I do not want anyone to downtalk her mother or father to her,” Wanda Beard said. “I am glad she is back in Michigan, where she has a nanna, a grandma, a greatgrandma, and cousins and uncles, plus a little sister and a big sister.”
She added: “We’re glad that she is back.
We know that there were a lot of mistakes made along the way by a lot of people, and not one person in general.”