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Lost In The System

Teenage Wedding Brings Runaway 'Out of Hiding'

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A 16-year-old says his walk down the aisle was his pathway to freedom.  The wedding legally emancipated him from a court order to live with his father, the man he says molested him.

Sixteen-year-old Damon Moelter has lived on the run for nearly a third of his life. Living in a kind of underground...In hiding, no friends, no family. Last month, he finally stopped running. Why? He got married. Confused?

Damon is the first to admit the events in his young life have been "mind boggling." But his story illustrates the Byzantine world of kids caught in California's Family Court system.

Ten years ago, Damon alleged his father, Eric, molested him, a charge Eric adamantly denies. Though Eric admits he failed a police lie detector test and was placed – temporarily – on a child abuse watch list, he won full custody of Damon in Family Court.

Now,  the mother, Cindy Dumas, wasn't drug addict or a criminal. She was just a regular mom.  By most accounts, a really good mom. But she believed her son.  And she fought to protect him. The Family Court basically accused her of "alienating" Damon from his dad, coaching him to say terrible things.

Experts refuted it – and it got complex – but basically, she says, she lost custody because she believed her son. When the Family Court judge gave custody to the dad, she refused to hand him over – fearing he could be abused. Instead she went into hiding.  She says the Family Court completely abused her and stripped her of her rights – and has gone on to become a crusading figure fighting Family Court abuse. But back then, she was a mom protecting her son.

Three years later, she came out of hiding after striking a deal to get a fair hearing in court. Lawyers can debate how fair it was, but Damon's mom says she was tricked. The courts again ordered Damon to live with his dad. Damon ran away again – this time all alone.

He's been moving from house to house, aided by "caretakers."  He describes it as kind of an informal underground. That's where we met him.  He was desperate to go home, to his mom.  He missed his brothers. He missed his friends.  He missed school.

For nearly two years was holed up alone.  He was even cut off, mostly, from the Internet.  He was afraid if he used it too much,  his day – or the police – could track him down. You see, there was a warrant out for his arrest – actually a warrant to stop detain a runaway – but Damon says it amounted to the same thing.

So Damon says he spent most of his time trying to come out of hiding – trying to find someone to help him. He launched an Internet campaign, posting YouTube videos explaining his situation, trying to get TV's Dr. Phil, or someone to help him.

Attorney's appealed to the court, asking them to give custody to Cindy, his mom.  Then there was an appeal to other jurisdictions for a restraining order, so Damon could represent himself in court and fight for his freedom – without the fear his dad would get at him.  Then he called to police urging them to launch a real investigation into  his molestation charge.  Everyone required him to come out of hiding before they would do anything.

When his attorney's last-ditch effort in court was denied, Damon turned to more radical plans. Then he stumbled onto a novel idea:  In California a teenager who gets married is automatically emancipated. Essentially, they become legal adults, not subject to their parent's custody.

Then it was only a matter of finding a bride.  Now Damon won't say much about that. But once the plan was afoot, he says it was a fairly straight path to the wedding aisle.

And so there they were at a the wedding chapel. Damon, beaming. His mother, Cindy, in tears. Tears of joy.  She wasn't losing her son to the bride – she was getting him back. "Your free," she shouted. "I'm free."

"Now we can get back to our lives."

And so their life began again. Damon could hardly pause to say goodbye. He was headed straight to see his brothers – a forced separation he couldn't wait to bridge. And then he could go home.

At long, long last.

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