Two teenage sisters at the center of a bitter custody dispute who had been missing for more than two years were found this week, and will now be reunited with their father, who has full custody of the girls.
Gianna and Samantha Rucki, ages 16 and 17 (pictured above), were found by police at a Minnesota horse ranch on Wednesday after not being seen in public since April 2013, according to ABC 10. They were found when the Lakeville Police Department, along with U.S. Marshals and the Grant County Sheriff’s Department, executed a search warrant at the property, near the town of Herman.
The teens “were found safe and in seemingly good health at the residence where the search warrant was executed,” according to a Lakeville Police Department news release. They ran away from home amidst the custody dispute, though Lakeville police have accused the girls’ mother, Sandra Grazzini-Rucki, of helping them get away from their father, David Rucki, according to the Star Tribune. They had accused their father of abusing them, though a psychologist concluded that their mother had brainwashed the children. Rucki was awarded full custody of his daughters in November 2013.
The mom was arrested in Florida last month for her alleged involvement in the girls’ disappearance, and remains in county jail in Minnesota. Police suspected that the sisters were being hidden by an underground network of the Protective Parent movement, which tries to prevent family courts from awarding custody to abusive parents, the newspaper reports.
Now, according to a press release from the police, “The sisters will return to Dakota County, where the unification process can begin. Both the Dakota County Attorney’s Office and the Lakeville Police Department ask for respect and privacy of the Rucki family during the reunification period.”
The impending reunion, to outsiders at least, may seem like reason to celebrate. But even putting claims of abuse aside, reunification between a parent and children after time apart — either because of an abduction by the other parent or, in this case, because of running away — can be fraught with complications.
“Everyone is celebrating and cheering, but when you close that door as a family you have to assemble anew,” Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a University of Maryland professor of social work tells Yahoo Parenting. Greif, coauthor of When Parents Kidnap, coined the phrase “ambiguous reunification” — an extension of the idea of “ambiguous loss,” used in cases of loss, such as a missing child, that have no closure — to describe the complexities of families reuniting after a kidnapping and long stretch away.
“It comes from the idea that the loss doesn’t necessarily stop when you meet with your missing child,” he explains. “The expectation is that you should know each other, and that everything will be great. But you have to take a step back and realize that a lot has occurred, and that it may take a while to accept that something has been lost, and that you’ll have to get to know each other again.”
The inherent nature of both parent and child will affect how smoothly a reunion goes, however. “In general, what’s happening is that when you have your child taken away and then returned, you expect to have them back the same way as when you last saw them,” Greif says. “The fantasy and hope is that they haven’t changed.” And not only will there be changes in the children — especially at the ages of the Rucki girls, who will have gone through normal developmental shifts in addition to being affected by their extraordinary circumstances — but changes in the left-behind parent too. “Perhaps they’ve moved, or started a new relationship,” he says. “So it’s like two orbs spinning in different directions, which can make it difficult for them to connect.”
Greif’s advice for both parents and children being brought together after a traumatic stretch apart, he says, is to “try and do it at your own pace,” and not allow the reunification to be driven by the media or anyone else around you. “Everybody has to step back, mourn the loss of those years they haven’t been together,” he says, “and accept the fact that there may be a new person standing in front of you.”
(Top photo of Gianna and Samantha: Rucki family)