Law firm offers free aid in child abduction cases

Of the roughly 1.9 million children who disappear each year in the United States, a small but startling number of them -- about 204,000 -- are abducted by family members, including parents, grandparents, siblings, and other close relatives.

An even smaller number are then taken to foreign countries, but a tangled web of international laws makes efforts to recover them extremely complex. Without highly specialized legal help, the handful of parents whose children have been spirited across international borders stand little chance of getting them back.

To help provide that niche legal assistance, the Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester has launched a project that will do free legal work for parents of limited financial means whose children have been victims of international abductions. Called the S&W International ChildFind Program, it will help families navigate foreign laws, enlist aid from foreign government officials, take cases to trial, and appeal court decisions.

``Picture what it's like for parents who turn around in a mall and notice that their child is missing for 20 seconds, and the kind of worry they go through until they see the child 20 feet away behind some counter," said partner Barry S. Pollack, who will head the project.

``Then think about parents who go months or years without their children, looking for them, and sometimes not even knowing whether they're still alive.

``Any role we can play in helping reconnect those left-behind parents with their children is something we will feel honored to accomplish."

International child abductions are relatively infrequent, but they are devastating for the families involved.

So far this year, the US Department of State's Office of Children's Issues has opened 539 international child-abduction cases involving 759 children.

Overall, it has 1,317 active cases -- many international kidnapping cases remain open for several years -- involving 1,856 children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va., currently has 1,700 active cases involving international abductions.

Because of the difficulty and high cost of resolving such cases, ``there's absolutely zero chance of parents getting into court and filing any sort of petition that would allow them to get their child home unless we have attorney volunteers who are taking on these cases," said Julia Alanen, director of the center's international division.

Indeed, 137 countries worldwide have no civil legal mechanism in place to secure the return of children taken abroad, and some countries do not recognize parental abduction as a crime, Alanen said.

As a result, the center relies on private lawyers who do free legal work for it. The 200-lawyer Sullivan and Worcester firm, which is based in Boston and has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., already belongs to that attorney network; the S&W International ChildFind Program will supplement that ongoing work.

``There may be no relationship more fundamental than that of a parent and child, and once a parent removes a child across international borders it can become extremely difficult for left-behind parents to have any form of meaningful access again," said Pollack, who has represented parents and children in more than a dozen international child-abduction cases. ``We want to try to remedy that."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at  

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company