French mother, forcibly separated from her children, acquitted after fleeing the country to protect them from alleged rape

One day, during a playful bath time filled with songs and games, my five-year-old son shared something heartbreaking with me. In a whisper, he told me about the inappropriate actions his father had taken against him. He clung to me tightly as he spoke, his small hands gripping my shoulder for comfort.

  • 4 weeks ago
  • April 23, 2024
11 min read
Sara Barni and Michelle Youauou embrace after successful acquittal | Photo courtesy of Lucia Merle Sara Barni and Michelle Youauou embrace after successful acquittal | Photo courtesy of Lucia Merle
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Michelle Youauou, a 45-year-old African woman holding French citizenship, endured a trial for allegedly kidnapping her children after fleeing to Argentina to escape gender violence from her ex-partner, who also allegedly sexually abused their children. Acquitted on March 6, 2024, Michelle now seeks to reunite with her children, aiming to secure their recognition as victims and to restore her rights as a mother.
background information
According to El Dario AR, Télam, Pagina 12, and other media outlets, Youauou fled to Argentina from France in 2016 with her children after she alleges the children revealed that their father was sexually abusing them. The father pursued the children and in 2019, after an international arrest warrant was issued, police in Argentina arrested Youauou and took her children, sending them back to France to their father. Youauou’s lawyer, Sara Barni, who is the founder of the NGO Red Viva, explained that Youauou was vindicated in Argentina and acquitted of all charges related to taking the children out of France due to a “state of justifying necessity” that led her “to make a decision to protect her children, beyond the fact that she had tried by all means in France.” In other words, Argentinian courts determined that Youauou fleeing with her children was not criminal, having gone unprotected in France, and that Youauou was doing everything in her means to protect them. They based this decision on evidence from Youauou’s French court case which included the following evidence, per the news reports:
-The father refusing to carry out expert examinations on the children for court, so Youauou had to pay for it and didn’t have the resources
-Medical and psychological services under the Prosecutor’s Office in France issued two reports stating that the statements of the children evoke sexual abuse.
-A witness saying one of the children told her daughter about the situation
-In Argentina, the Council on the Rights of Children and Adolescents issued a report after interviewing the children before they were deported to France, in which it recommended that “the children’s willingness not to return to France should be taken into account and the evidence should be weighed together.” 

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In May 2019, while enjoying a day with my children at Parque Lezama in Buenos Aires, the police abruptly tore them from my arms. The pain of that moment, witnessing the fear in their eyes, is beyond words. Following this traumatic event, I found myself confined to Ezeiza prison for about one month. With a looming criminal case and the court seizing my passport, I had no recourse to seek justice or reunite with my children.

The anguish of knowing their abuser, their father, took them back to France felt unbearable. After years of relentless struggle alongside my lawyer, Sara Barni, I finally found some hope. On March 6, 2024, the court finally acquitted me. This milestone brings me one step closer to reclaiming my children and rescuing them from abuse.

[The following story is Michelle Youauou’s account of events. In the interview with Orato journalist Mariela Laksman, Youauou asserted allegations she has made publicly and in court proceedings against her husband. Her husband has not been charged or convicted of a crime in France. See the background section for details about the official proceedings in France and their tie to the judgement in Argentina. Orato has not independently verified Youauou’s statements.]

Read more stories from crime & corruption at Orato World Media.

Meeting Didier Tabouillot marked the beginning of a nightmare

I grew up in the Ivory Coast, living with my mother in extreme poverty. It was a tough upbringing. At the age of 10, in 1989, I moved to France to meet my father for the first time, along with his wife. Life did not become easy. I worked from a very young age, and I always tried hard to fit in and gain acceptance in my endless search for love.

In 2008, I met Didier Tabouillot, who would later become the father of my children. Joining his family had its challenges; I faced discrimination for being a black woman. I still recall the hurtful moments it happened. One evening after dinner, his mother openly insulted me, reducing my worth to nothing. Meanwhile, Didier just sat there with his head down, and never said a word.

Despite all of that, life moved forward. I gave birth to our first child on September 24, 2009, and our second child followed on November 4, 2012. Didier, a white man, works as a civil engineer and spends a lot of time in Belgium. He is well-off financially, but his frequent travels meant that many responsibilities fell to me.

Looking back, I see the warning signs, but at the time, I struggled to understand what was truly going on. In 2014, during one of my son’s birthday parties, Didier took him upstairs and never came down. His little friends tried to bring him back to the party, but Didier abruptly sent them away. A friend of mine at the party expressed her concern, asking, “Why isn’t your son with us? What’s taking them so long upstairs?” This question made me feel uneasy, and I found myself anxiously wondering, “What’s happening up there?”

Mother discovers her children are victims of sexual abuse by their father

This wasn’t the only sign of something was wrong. There were times when my children would stay home alone with Didier or go away for weekends. They returned from these times exhibiting unusual behaviors, such as nervously coughing, biting their nails, and kissing my cheek strangely or running their tongues down to my neck. Sometimes, they would touch their genitals as well. Our family life proved chaotic. I also faced my own emotional and physical distress at the hands of Didier. These troubling circumstances eventually led me to separate from him.

One day, during a playful bath time filled with songs and games, my five-year-old son shared something heartbreaking with me. In a whisper, he told me about the inappropriate actions his father had taken against him. He clung to me tightly as he spoke, his small hands gripping my shoulder for comfort. He later disclosed how his father would rape his younger brother or watch pornographic videos with them. In these incredibly painful moments, I struggled to hold back tears as I faced the reality of what my children went through.

The clarity and detail in my son’s words left no doubt in my mind he was telling the truth and not inventing something. Having always emphasized to my children that their bodies were their own and no one should violate their personal space, the news left me devastated and powerless. The unthinkable happened, the worst possible thing: someone victimized and abused their little bodies. I felt stupid. When I filed several complaints, the people repeatedly gave me no answers. So, in my desperation, I told Didier to do whatever he wanted to me but to leave the children alone.

I thought by offering myself to the clutches of the beast, he would no longer touch my children, but I paid a heavy price. I allowed Didier to beat and rape me. One day, he said, “Have the children not told you I keep doing the same thing to them?” When I realized the truth of his words my body went into shock. I no longer felt any sensations.

I filed complaints in France and during the trial, I submitted my children to psychological and psychiatric evaluations that indicated distressing behaviors from sexual abuse, but the court excluded them from the case file. They deemed the evidence we presented as insufficient, and without the financial means to pursue the case further and appeal the decision, I felt helpless.

Convinced the legal system in France offered us no protection, I came to the conclusion we needed to leave. It was our only option. Alone with my thoughts, I often found myself crying and screaming in despair. When the French courts granted me shared custody, I found it impossible to comply. The thought of eventually having to hand my children over to their abuser filled me with despair.

As a result, due to my non-compliance with the custody order, the possibility he would receive full custody loomed in front of me. So, in 2016, driven by a desperate need to keep them safe, I quickly gathered our essentials and, using the little savings I had, rushed to the airport. It felt like an instinctual move, born out of a mother’s need to protect her children. My lawyer recommended going either to Canada or Argentina as a possible refugee. Holding my children’s hands and trying to conceal my anxiety, I chose Argentina. I bought our tickets in the hopes of finding a safer future there.

May 2019: Police take children away from Michelle, children return to France with their abuser

Upon our arrival, I immediately visited the French Consulate to explain my reasons for coming to Argentina. I did not do this to kidnap my children, but to safeguard them. The consulate advised me against seeking international restitution due to numerous procedural irregularities and clear violations of human rights. In May 2019, while enjoying a day with my children at Parque Lezama in Buenos Aires, the police suddenly confronted us. In a heart-wrenching scene, they forcibly removed my children from my arms.

Amidst our cries and screams of protest, they handcuffed me and placed me in a police car, while taking my children to a juvenile facility against their will. The pain of that moment, seeing the fear in their eyes, defied description. A police officer involved in the operation expressed how heartbreaking the situation felt to him. That painful day marked the last time I saw my children before their father officially took custody. Now, they live in France with him—the person they say repeatedly raped them.

After this incident, I found myself imprisoned for about a month in Ezeiza prison, moving from one terrible situation to another. During this time, a fellow inmate connected me with a friend of hers. I had nowhere else to go, so when I was released pending trial, I moved in with this man. Initially, he seemed kind, but it soon turned into another nightmare. Trapped and vulnerable, I endured further abuse and violence at his hands. Months later, I met my lawyer, Sara Barni from Red Viva. Broken, with a face marred by bruises and swelling, I met up with her for the first time on a November morning.

Acquittal brings mother one stop closer to seeing her children again

Sara heard about my case, and my appearance that day spoke volumes about the ordeals I suffered. I felt like my very identity vanished through these experiences. Between sobs and choked screams, I told Sara everything. Since that day, she never left my side, supporting me from the very beginning—first as an activist and now as my lawyer, having earned her degree throughout my ordeal.

I honestly cannot say where I might be without her. With a criminal case pending and my passport confiscated by the court, my opportunities became severely limited. I cannot secure employment and I missed out on receiving the COVID-19 vaccine during the Pandemic because I lacked access to medical services. The situation pushed me to the brink of poverty and desperation.

Sara Barni, Andres Bonicalzi, and Michelle Youauou embrace after a successful acquittal in Argentina. | Photo courtesy of Lucia Merle

It feels like these countries fail to realize the depth of the hole they forced me into. I felt utterly alone. When the day of the trial in Argentina arrived, it began with the prosecutor calling for my acquittal. As evidence and testimonies unfolded, the injustice of it became clear. The evidence and accounts showcased my dedication to my children and how I cared for them.

After enduring five years of inhumane treatment, where I felt less and less like a human being, the trial concluded in seven minutes with a verdict that vindicated me. When they announced my acquittal on March 6, 2024, Sara Barni and Andres Bonicalzi, the lawyer who stood by me during the trial, wrapped me in an embrace. We had no words and the relief felt overwhelming. This step moved me closer to the possibility of reuniting with my children.

Every day is a struggle for mother knowing her children live with someone who hurt them

Currently, it feels hard to find rest. This year, I underwent a transfusion due to anemia. The overwhelming thought that my children might still be suffering haunts me daily, consuming me, and leading me to feel more and more shut off from the world. This year, my oldest will turn 15, and my youngest 12. More than anything, I long to be with them again.

Every day feels like a struggle, knowing they live with someone who hurt them. I find no peace; it is as if my hands are bound. I am often on the verge of tears, and exhaustion becomes my constant companion. Yet, I remain determined to persevere until I can hold them once more. I want their experiences to be acknowledged, and I desperately want to reclaim my rights as their mother.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them. My mind is perpetually filled with thoughts of my children; my arms feel as empty as my soul, and my heart aches unbearably. In moments of longing, I clutch a small bear and a t-shirt tight against my chest. These items serve as memories of them. Yet, even their belongings cannot stop the flow of my tears nor can they muffle the cries I stifle.

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Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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