Article about Chris Smith bill

December 14, 2013

http://www.northjersey.com/community/family/Bill_may_help_left-behind_parents_pursue_kids_in_global_custody_fights.html?page=all

Bill may help ‘left-behind parents’ in global child custody fights

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2013    LAST UPDATED: WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 11, 2013, 12:15 PM
BY  HERB JACKSON
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
THE RECORD

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.

Michael Elias of Rutherford, in 2010, with a photo of his children.

MICHAEL KARAS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Michael Elias of Rutherford, in 2010, with a photo of his children.

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.

Doing more

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.

No improvement

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.

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.”

Email: jackson@northjersey.com
Blog: northjersey.com/|thepoliticalstate

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