December 14, 2013
US House pressures countries on child abductions
The US House of Representatives voted Wednesday to punish countries that do not promptly return abducted children, upping pressure in an issue that has soured relations with Japan and other allies.
With no dissenting votes, the House voted to create an annual report to assess every country’s history of child abductions and to require President Barack Obama to take action against nations with poor records.
Potential US measures include refusing export licenses for American technology, cutting development assistance and putting off scientific or cultural exchanges. The president would have the right to waive the punishment.
Representative Chris Smith, the author of the legislation, said it would put the force of the US government behind solving the more than 1,000 cases each year in which US children are taken overseas, generally by a foreign parent after separation from an American partner.
“It is a full-court press to finally elevate this issue, where American children’s human rights are being violated with impunity,” Smith told reporters.
“Right now, it’s like other human rights abuses, maybe on page five as an asterisk” in talks between the United States and other countries, he said.
Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, previously led legislation that set up annual reports on human trafficking and religious freedom, which have often caused discomfort for countries deemed to be lagging behind.
The child abduction legislation still needs approval in the Democratic-led Senate, but Smith voiced confidence at passage as the bill has been revised over several years to ensure support of both parties. The State Department had initially voiced concern at proposals to impose outright economic sanctions over child abductions.
By far, the greatest number of abduction cases takes place in Japan, the only major industrialized nation that has not ratified the 1980 Hague convention that requires countries to send abducted children back to the countries where they usually live.
Japanese courts virtually never grant custody to foreign parents or fathers.
Paul Toland, who served in the US Navy in Japan, said that his daughter Erika was put in the care of her maternal grandmother and that he has no visitation rights after the girl’s mother committed suicide.
“For me, this will be my 11th consecutive Christmas without my daughter,” he told reporters.
In the wake of persistent US and European criticism, Japan’s parliament took key steps this year to join the Hague treaty. But critics say that the decision will not address past cases.
The House legislation calls on the United States to seek legal agreements with all nations not party to the Hague convention to lay out ways to return children within six weeks after abduction cases are reported to authorities.
Smith named the bill after David Goldman, who succeeded in bringing his son Sean back to the United States after a five-year fight with Brazilian courts.
“We won’t stop until we get the children home, one by one, child by child,” Goldman said.
Parents of children in countries including Brazil and Argentina said that they often had no recourse, even if individual officials in foreign countries are sympathetic to their cases.
Arvind Chawdra, whose two children were abducted to India, said he had no other option but to take out a newspaper advertisement because he does not know where they are.
December 14, 2013
Bill may help ‘left-behind parents’ in global child custody fights
State Department figures show 7,000 American children were taken by a parent to a foreign country to stay between 2008 and 2012, leaving behind the other parent to fight for custody or visitation rights in places where United States court orders mean nothing.
The result is often heartbreak, as most children never return. Adding to it is the frustration from dealing with both the foreign government and the U.S. State Department, which parents and some in Congress say does not put enough emphasis on getting children back.
“Does the word parental in front of kidnapping make it less of a crime?” Michael Elias of Rutherford asked at a House hearing in May, the second time he’s told his story before Congress in the past three years.
A Marine veteran and Bergen County sheriff’s officer whose wife used illegally issued passports to take their son and daughter to Japan seven years ago, Elias has become one of the public faces for a group that calls itself “left-behind parents.”
His willingness to go public with his personal struggles could pay a small dividend today as the House is expected to give strong bipartisan support to a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith that pushes the State Department to use more powerful diplomatic tools.
Unfortunately for Elias and those like him, the department is not very interested in the new powers.
In June, Japan took a step forward when it signed the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an agreement that lays out a framework for custody disputes. But Japan’s action will affect only future cases, and existing disputes will be in a legal limbo.
“All the left-behind parents like Michael Elias will be shut out,” said Smith, a Republican from Robbinsville who is a subcommittee chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Smith has been urging presidents and ambassadors in President Obama’s administration and President George W. Bush’s before him to raise the issue of child abductions at high-level discussions with foreign leaders.
Smith’s bill would require the president to take specific actions — ranging from private requests all the way to economic sanctions — if abduction cases are not resolved or if countries show a pattern of non-cooperation. The State Department would have to provide Congress with statistics that Smith says are incomplete now, and pursue separate agreements known as memoranda of understanding with countries that are not likely to sign or abide by the Hague convention.
“The Pollyanna-ish, naive view that the administration keeps spouting is that Japan signing the Hague Convention might create a climate [for solving earlier cases],” Smith said. “There needs to be a memorandum of understanding or a sidebar agreement to say all of the existing cases will be solved civilly and with an eye towards justice.”
A State Department spokes¬man, when asked about Smith’s bill, recommended checking a federal website that the agency has created that spells out how different countries deal with abduction cases.
At the May hearing, the department’s special adviser for children’s issues, Susan Jacobs, disagreed with Smith that a separate agreement with Japan would make any difference.
“We have three memoranda of understanding with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, and there’s been no enforcement mechanism and no [child] returns,” Jacobs said. “We believe the Hague Convention provides the best opportunity for resolving these cases. One of the problems with Japan is their belief about custody, that one parent is supposed to drop out of the child’s life when there is a divorce.”
She said once the convention takes effect in Japan, she hoped to be able to work on better compliance, and at least provide for some visitation for parents.
Smith’s bill is named after Sean and David Goldman, the Tinton Falls son and father whose case caught national attention after Sean Goldman’s mother took him to Brazil in 2004 and his grandparents sought custody after she died in 2008.
Smith had been pressuring the State Department to act and made two trips with David Goldman to Brazil, which had signed the Hague convention. The boy was finally returned in 2009 after Sen. Frank Lautenberg said he would block action on a trade bill Brazil wanted.
Goldman has called the forces that aligned to help his family a “perfect storm,” but said most families in the same situation struggle with little hope.
For Elias, the only developments in recent years have been negative. He was deployed to Iraq when his wife began an affair with a Japanese man. She told Elias she wanted a divorce when he returned from the war.
A Bergen County judge awarded joint custody and ordered that the children’s passports be surrendered. But his wife, who had worked in the Japanese consulate in New York, was able to get new passports issued by the Chicago consulate as she and her companion fled with the children.
Smith traveled with Elias’ parents to Japan in 2011, and at the time they were told by authorities that a criminal investigation was under way into the passport issuance.
In February, Elias received a letter notifying that the Japanese prosecutor in the region had concluded no charges would be filed. The letter was dated October 2010, or three months before Smith and Elias’ parents had been in Japan.
“It was a slap in the face,” Elias said. “People tell me I should just pick up the pieces and move on. But two of my pieces are in Japan.”