U.S. may up child custody pressure

Posted on January 20, 2011. Filed under: Child Abduction, Child Custody and Visitation, Japanese Family Law | Tags: , , , , , , |

Japan and India are among America’s key allies. Yet to scores of embittered parents across the U.S., they are outlaw states when it comes to the wrenching phenomenon of “international child abduction.

The frustrations of these “left-behind” parents run deep. They seethe over Japan’s and India’s noncompliance with U.S. court orders regarding children taken by the other parent to the far side of the world, and many also fault top U.S. leaders for reluctance to ratchet up the pressure for change.

More than 80 nations have signed an accord aimed at curtailing such incidents, but only a handful of Asian countries are among them. Of the continent’s nonsignatories, Japan and India pose the biggest problem for the U.S. — accounting for more than 300 cases, involving more than 400 children, opened by the State Department since 1994. The State Department says it cares deeply about international parental child abductions, and a surge is expected.

The department’s special adviser on children’s issues, Susan Jacobs, and its top official for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, have raised the topic on multiple occasions.

Campbell used the word “kidnapping” in protesting the many cases in Japan where mothers living overseas with foreign husbands returned home with their children and kept the fathers from having contact with them.

“This is a hard job — we don’t get as many successes as we want,” said Stefanie Eye, chief of the State Department’s Eastern Hemisphere abductions division. “We want every child in the right place.”

Yet many of the parents feel current U.S. efforts are inadequate, as does their most vocal champion in Congress, Republican Rep. Chris Smith.

After Republicans take control of the House in January, Smith hopes to become chairman of a subcommittee with oversight of human rights issues and use that post to push a bill that would toughen the U.S. approach to child abductions.

The bill would establish the Office on International Child Abductions within the State Department, and create a mechanism for imposing sanctions on uncooperative countries.

“We need the full weight of the federal government behind each and every one of these left-behind parents,” Smith said. “My bill doesn’t guarantee success, but it guarantees their cases will not be ignored. . . . We’re not going to quit until it’s law.”

Smith wrote to President Barack Obama on Nov. 10 — prior to Obama’s recent Asia trip — urging him to step up pressure on Japan to resolve the pending cases. Simply encouraging Japan to join the Hague Convention isn’t sufficient, Smith said, because it wouldn’t be retroactive and thus wouldn’t help parents like Patrick Braden and Scott Sawyer.

Another frustrated father is Michael Elias, 26, a former marine who served in Iraq and now works as a sheriff’s deputy in New Jersey. According to his testimony to Congress, Elias obtained a court order in October 2008 awarding him joint custody of his two children amid the breakup of his marriage to a woman he had met in Japan. He said the woman flew to Tokyo with the children two months later, in defiance of the order, and he has been unable to see them or speak to them by phone even though he has now been awarded full custody by a U.S. court. Elias — whose son is 3 and daughter almost 5 — has attended several informational meetings convened by the State Department for left-behind parents. “Every meeting I’ve ever been to, everybody tells me they’re working better, but I don’t see any progress at all,” he said.

Smith, in September, helped push a resolution through the House of Representatives urging Japan to sign the Hague Convention and return abducted American children. “Americans are fed up with our friend and ally Japan,” Smith said at the time.

In response, the Japanese Embassy in Washington said Japan is making “sincere efforts to deal with this issue from the standpoint that the welfare of the child should be of the utmost importance.”

Many times previously, Japan has said it would consider signing the Hague Convention, but it also has expressed concern that doing so might leave some Japanese women and their children vulnerable to abusive foreign husbands.

Stefanie Eye said that in Japan, unlike many Western countries, it’s accepted practice that only one parent — usually the mother — has custody of a child after a divorce. That leaves many fathers, including foreigners, unable to see their children until they are grown up because of lack of visitation rights. “Part of what we’re doing is offering the Hague country perspective of why it’s important for children to have access to both parents,” Eye said.

The State Department says it knows of no cases where a child taken from the U.S. to Japan by one parent has been ordered by a Japanese court to return to the U.S.

Despite the slow movement in Asia, Eye said she found cause for encouragement: The Foreign Ministry recently opened an office to deal with abduction issues and has been asking “good questions” about the impact if Tokyo signed the Hague Convention.

By DAVID CARRY
The Associated Press

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