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What We're Doing Now About Child Abduction

Recently, the State Department has greatly increased the attention given to the problem, though the effort is not often recognized.
By Barbara J. Greig

On a Thursday afternoon in October 1999 the State Department Children's Issues country officer for the United Kingdom participated in a conference call with the Office of International Affairs at the Department of Justice, Interpol's Washington liaison officer and an investigator from a California district attorney's office. The call concerned a nine-year-old child whose mother had abducted him to the United Kingdom. Of particular concern in this case was the mother's mental stability.

The California investigator had just learned that although the mother and child were in the United Kingdom, they planned to leave the following day. It was imperative to confirm their actual location, file a Hague Abduction Convention application immediately, and take steps to protect the child. Quickly, each agency determined what role it would play to bring about the return of the child. Interpol worked with the law enforcement authorities in the United Kingdom to determine the exact location of the mother and child and obtain details of their travel plans. The Department of Justice set in motion an extradition request for the mother (who had no claim to any citizenship other than U.S.) based on parental kidnapping criminal charges. The Office of Children's Issues alerted British officials to the incoming Hague application, and the California investigator worked with the left-behind parent to submit the application and supporting documents by fax.

Early Friday morning, the Hague application and supporting documents arrived in Children's Issues and were immediately forwarded to the U.K. central authority. A solicitor in the United Kingdom had already been appointed to represent the left-behind parent. He immediately obtained a court order prohibiting the mother and child from leaving the United Kingdom until the Hague application could be adjudicated. A "port stop" was put into effect. Law enforcement and social services organizations in the United Kingdom took the mother and child into custody. The left-behind father flew to Britain over the weekend and the child was released into his temporary custody pending the results of the hearings. In less than three weeks, the Hague hearings were held with both parents represented by legal counsel. The United Kingdom court issued an order for the return of the child under the Hague. The California investigator reported to Children's Issues that the father and child were back in California where custody of the child would be resolved by the California courts.

Does this story sound like a made-for-television drama? It's not -- it's simply one example of the type of work performed every day by the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Office of Children's Issues.

Since the late 1970s, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has taken action in over 8,000 cases of international parental child abduction. CI has provided information in response to thousands of additional inquiries pertaining to international child abduction, enforcement of visitation rights and abduction prevention techniques.

Unrealistic Expectations

It is difficult to say if parental child abduction is increasing or if the public simply has become more aware of the problem. Probably, a combination of the two is at work. Certainly the media have focused more attention on parental child abduction during the past few years.

Many left-behind parents and members of the press have unrealistic expectations of what kind of assistance the government can provide. They often assume that U.S. government representatives abroad will advocate on behalf of left-behind American citizen parents in domestic custody disputes. Another commonly-held belief is that a U.S. consular officer can simply take custody of an American citizen child who has been abducted to another country and put him or her on a plane for home. The basic premise of many news articles is that if an internationally abducted child has not been returned to the United States, then the U.S. government has not fulfilled its responsibilities.

People travel more now than ever for purposes of tourism, work and immigration, making international relationships more common. It is estimated that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of international child custody disputes involve a parent with ties to another country. Child custody laws vary widely from country to country. Countries may have a gender or nationalistic bias in favor of one parent over the other. Child custody battles can often go on for years, ceasing only when the child reaches the age of majority.

There is no doubt that the actual workload of parental child abduction cases is increasing. In 1996, the Office of Children's Issues opened 67 new cases of children abducted from the United States to other countries. The corresponding figures for 1997, 1998 and 1999 were 338, 401 and 410, respectively. As of Aug. 31, 2000, 848 cases remained open. Further, many parental child abduction cases never even come to CI's attention, since left-behind parents may not realize that government assistance is available.

Most outgoing Hague applications involve abductions from the United States to Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel and Canada. Of countries not party to the Hague Abduction Convention, cases most often involved children abducted to the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Japan.

Since March 1997, 1,842 cases have been closed. A case may be closed when (1) a child is returned to the United States, (2) a resolution has been reached and a left-behind parent requests that the case be withdrawn, (3) the child reaches his or her 18th birthday (or 16th birthday in a Hague case), or (4) there has been no contact from the left-behind parent for a long time and the contact information is no longer valid.

For many years child abduction and child custody issues were handled by individual country officers in the Office of Overseas Citizen Services. In 1994, as incidents of parental child abduction increased and the department became aware of the need for additional resources to deal with the issue, the Bureau of Consular Affairs created the Office of Children's Issues in Overseas Citizens Services to handle all parental child abduction matters. Seven officers were tasked with dealing with child custody, abduction and the American Citizen Service side of international adoption matters. In the fall of 1999, CI divided into an Abductions Branch and an Adoptions Branch and added administrative staff. The office now totals 27 employees, but the workload continues to increase.

Many children are abducted because a taking parent with a claim to citizenship in another country feels he or she has a better opportunity to gain custody of a child in his or her country of origin. An abductor may fear losing custody of a child in an upcoming divorce case. Depending on court-ordered custody and visitation arrangements, an upcoming remarriage or job transfer involving one of the parents can lead to an abduction. Sometimes a taking parent may be joining a person they first encountered on the Internet. A parent may be fleeing a domestic violence situation. CI finds that in many of our cases, parents who abduct their children have a proprietary attitude ("this is my child") or may be using the child as a weapon against the other parent.

How the Hague Convention Works

The most important remedy for parental child abduction is the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The basic premise of the convention is that child custody issues should be resolved in the country where the child was "habitually resident." In other words, the convention does not involve custody per se, but determines the country where custodial issues should be adjudicated. Unless a voluntary return can be arranged, the case is presented to the appropriate civil court in the country where the child is located.

The Hague Convention was signed in 1980 and is now in force between the United States and 49 other nations. Following the 1988 passage of the International Child Abduction Remedies Act, which implemented the convention in the U.S., the president designated the Department of State to fulfill the responsibilities of the "central authority."

Article 3 of the convention defines the conditions under which a left-behind parent may file an application for the return of a child. These include that (1) the convention must be in force between the two countries at the time the child is abducted; (2) the child must be under the age of 16; (3) the child must have been "habitually resident" in the country from which taken and to which the return is sought prior to the wrongful removal or retention; (4) the petitioner must have had some form of custodial rights to the child at the time of the removal or retention; and (5) the petitioner must have been actually exercising those rights. The convention also provides for access, or visitation, to children when for some reason the child is not returned.

There are a few special circumstances in which, under the convention, the child is not returned. For example, if the court determines that the return of the child will cause grave physical or psychological harm, a return can be denied. If more than a year has elapsed, a court can find the child is "resettled" in the new environment. A return can also be denied if the child strongly objects and is "of sufficient age and maturity" to have his or her wishes taken into consideration by the court.

In one case, a 12-year-old child was ordered returned, but en route to the airport, he jumped out of the car at a stoplight and ran away. In that case, the left-behind parent wisely considered how insisting on a return would affect his relationship with his child and withdrew his application. He was awarded liberal access and visits his child on a regular basis in the other country.

Because of its outstanding capability to locate missing children in the United States, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private non-profit group, has been designated to process incoming Hague applications for children who are abducted to the United States.

The Hague Convention is certainly not a cure-all. During the past 10 years, many problems with its implementation have come to light. A number of party nations have never enacted laws that would make the convention take precedence over local laws and customs. The courts of some countries have a definite gender or national bias; in others, the judiciary may be subject to political or financial pressure. Some countries have failed to enforce civil judgments issued by their own courts. Some countries, including the United States, have taken exception to the provision of the convention that provides for free legal assistance, and left-behind parents find they do not have sufficient financial resources to pursue an application for return. The central authorities of some nations do not have adequate resources to locate taking parents and children.

Taking it to the Top

The U.S. government, including its most senior officials, takes this issue very seriously. In May 2000 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to discuss the resolution of U.S.-German cases. Soon thereafter, in a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schršder, President Clinton raised concerns about German compliance with the convention. Both leaders agreed to establish a bi-national working group to address Hague implementation issues and specific cases. To date, there have been three meetings of the working group.

In addition, high-level State Department officials have met with Australian and Japanese officials to discuss the abduction problem. Each year, top embassy officials are asked to raise with the governments of prospective member nations the advantages of implementing the convention.

CI also works closely with various law enforcement agencies, to make sure we're using government resources efficiently. In many cases, CI requests the assistance of International Social Services, a network of social services agencies in approximately 180 countries. The U.S. branch is a private, nonprofit organization that coordinates services in social work cases that cross international boundaries. In one case where a 14-year-old child alleged he had been abused by the left-behind parent, the foreign court issued a conditional order for return. The court required evidence that arrangements had been made for the child to stay with a grandparent while a local social service agency investigated the allegations of abuse by the left-behind parent. The final report from the child protection agency stated that the actual "abuse" turned out to be nothing more than a denial of TV privileges until the child's grades reached an acceptable level.

The convention is not available to parents whose children are abducted to non-Hague nations. In those cases, left-behind parents need to pursue custody through the courts of the particular country. CI can provide information on retaining foreign attorneys and also furnish lists of attorneys who practice in the country involved. CI also has public resource flyers for a number of countries containing general reports on child custody issues and precedents.

However, we try to make clear to left-behind parents in all cases that U.S. government employees abroad cannot reabduct a child or assist a parent in violating host country laws. No refuge can be provided to anyone involved in a reabduction attempt; nor can a government employee take physical custody of a child. The U.S. government cannot pay legal expenses or court fees and cannot act as an attorney or represent a left-behind parent in court, but judicial or administrative proceedings overseas can be monitored. The government can alert foreign authorities to any evidence of child abuse or neglect.

All of our embassies and consulates now have a designated CI post officer. More attention is being focused on training consular officers to deal with child custody and child abduction issues. The Advanced Consular Courses held during the summer of 2000 featured a panel of actual left-behind parents. One parent described how her child was recovered; another talked about the efforts she made to stay in contact with her child until he reached adulthood and re-established a relationship; and the third told about the anguish he faced as the parent of a still-missing child. The question-and-answer period following the presentation was an eye-opener to parents and consular officers. These efforts to breach the communication gap will continue.

In the field, consular officers are often asked to arrange welfare visits with abducted children and furnish a report for the left-behind parent. One left-behind parent recently told CI that those reports were his lifeline, since he had been denied any contact with his child for almost two years. This is particularly true in non-Hague countries where realistically there may be little hope of a left-behind parent's ever regaining custody or even having access to the abducted child. During a welfare visit in one Middle East case, a consular officer succeeded in obtaining photographs of the children for a left-behind mother -- the first time in seven years she had seen what her children looked like!

Preventing Abduction

The prevention of abduction is of utmost importance, and CI has a wealth of materials available to potential left-behind parents, their attorneys, government officials, and educators. Speakers from CI are available to participate in conferences, seminars and continuing education workshops.

In the spring of 2000, CI assumed responsibility for the Children's Passport Issuance Alert Program, a database of over 28,000 names. While an already-issued passport for a child cannot be revoked, a parent can be told if a passport has been issued to a child or if an application is pending. A parent can also be notified if an application is made by the other parent, and passport issuance delayed long enough for a concerned parent to bring the application to the attention of the appropriate court. If there is either a sole custody order, or an order on file prohibiting the removal of a child, passport issuance may be denied. This lookout is available to any parent regardless of nationality.

Unfortunately, many parents do not understand the concept of dual nationality and that a child may have more than one passport. Similarly, many parents expect that CI has some magical means by which we can prevent a child who is the subject of a custody dispute from leaving the United States. The U.S., however, has no exit controls.

The Reid Amendment, a 1999 law requiring the signature of both parents on a passport application for a child under the age of 14, will go into effect within the next six months. It remains to be seen if this remedy will have a significant effect in preventing the removal of American citizen children from the United States.

Many of CI's abduction materials are on its Web site, http://www.travel.state.gov/children's_issues.cfm . These days, CI officers observe that many interested parties have already researched the Internet for information about child abduction and custody before they contact our office. CI officers receive an average of 15 to 20 calls each workday and no two situations are ever alike. Each of the 11 country case officers works with approximately 60 to 100 open active cases at any one time, both Hague and non-Hague. Some cases can be resolved in a month or less; others may continue for years or even until the child reaches the age of 18.

Recently, a 17-year-old walked into a U.S. consulate in a Middle Eastern country and applied for a U.S. passport. His American mother had sent him abroad to visit his foreign national father 11 years previously and the father never allowed him to return. The young man asked the consular officer for assistance in locating his American citizen mother. Although there had been no contact with CI by the mother since 1996, the country case officer was able to track her down through clues in the old case file. When the CI officer called her, she burst into tears of joy. It was even more thrilling when she described to the CI officer her eventual reunion with her son.

CI work is definitely crisis-oriented and requires officers to be knowledgeable, resourceful, empathetic and patient in extremely stressful and emotional situations. Being impervious to expressions of anger and frustration aimed at the U.S. government is also an asset.

CI employees agree that their work, while demanding, is endlessly fascinating. As one officer commented, the work is "more interesting than all the talk shows and soap operas combined." For the officers of Children's Issues, the work has a meaningful reward -- the satisfaction of helping to make a positive difference in someone's life.

Barbara J. Greig is a citizens services specialist who works on child abduction cases in State's Office of Children's Issues.

Other Pages on Parental Kidnapping

Father Tries to Get Sons Back From the Philippines

Using the Criminal Justice System - Child Abduction by a Parent


What We're Doing Now About Child Abduction

Custody and Visitation Index Page