Imagine how helpless any parent would feel if his or her child were abducted by an estranged spouse. Now think about how much more horrifying it would be if the child was whisked away to another country.
A recent study estimated that between 2009 and 2020, there will be more than 50,000 reports of children involved in custody arrangements being smuggled out of the U.S. The study goes on to say that the number of unreported cases will likely equal or exceed the reported total.
What can the other parent do to try to get their child back? Hiring a lawyer might help.
But few attorneys are trained to do this sort of work. That’s why a non-profit group called the I CARE Foundation is on the recruiting trail.
An agency spokeswoman said Connecticut is among the places where volunteer attorneys are needed because “a large international migratory population” lives in the state. Other “hotbed” states include New York, New Jersey, Texas and California.
“The statistical increase in abduction will continue to rise due to multi-cultural relationships and as individuals embrace global citizenship,” said I Care’s Maria Gina. “Many individuals who originate from a foreign country and see their marriage or partnership end typically seek to return back to their country of origin. If there is a child involved, they often attempt to take the child with them without court order.”
Gina said “there are simply not enough lawyers familiar with the [legal] issues, and this is true in Connecticut.”
|I CARE Foundation Director
Patricia M. Lee
One lawyer who specializes in these kinds of cases spoke of the difficulty in finding an attorney to handle these complex cases. “You get a call out of the blue to help someone for free or for very little money. Would you be willing to take on a case you know very little about?” said Patricia Lee, a Florida attorney. “Very few attorneys know how to do it… I think of the experienced attorneys that I’ve spoken to, it may be they’ve had an issue arise in their family law practice once in a lifetime.”
The cases often fall under the jurisdiction of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The international treaty, signed in the early 1980s, has provisions for punishing the kidnapping parents and returning children to the pre-abduction status quo.
In 2008, the Office of Children’s Issues in the U.S. State Department assumed responsibility for all new cases, and for overseeing a network of volunteer attorneys. The government partnered with the I CARE Foundation to recruit lawyers willing to be trained to become part of the Hague Convention Attorney Network.
Lee was one of the early enlistees. In one of her memorable cases — a child abducted in Europe had been brought to the U.S.
A Belgian man had married an American woman. They had a child, and then the relationship deteriorated. The wife’s mother lived in Florida; on a visit there with the child, the woman decided to get a divorce and stay.
After federal officials found the woman, Lee was contacted. She filed a Hague petition, which can be done in federal or state court. Lee recommends state court, because there is usually less delay. “We had a trial relatively quickly and the judge ruled that the child had to be returned to Belgium,” Lee said.
Back in Europe, the couple went ahead with a divorce, and the woman and child were eventually allowed to move to the U.S. But the father was guaranteed parental and visitation rights.
In most cases, Lee said, the fleeing parent claims to be a victim of domestic violence. That is not a legitimate excuse for abducting a child. “The Hague Convention assumes the signatories have laws in place to address domestic violence so persons victimized should avail themselves to the laws in the country they live,” said Lee.
Lee warned that the longer a parent waits to try to track down the estranged spouse and to file a Hague petition, the tougher it is to regain custody. She said the defense is allowed to present evidence that it is in the child’s best interest to remain in the foreign country if the child is well settled into his or her new environment.
Lee had one client who learned the hard way. A U.S. male married a German national who fled back to her homeland with the kids. She filed for divorce there. Meanwhile, the man had hired a family attorney unfamiliar with the Hague Convention who simply initiated divorce proceedings in the U.S.
Eventually Lee, who speaks German, became involved when she was asked to translate legal documents. More than a year had gone by and a German court gave the woman sole custody. She had told the German court the father was an abuser who neglected his family. She also had time to convince the children of this, too.
Ultimately the father couldn’t afford to pay attorneys in both the U.S. and Germany and the cost of repeated air travel between the two nations. So he gave up his attempt to regain custody. “Basically, he lost the kids,” said Lee. “It’s a very sad story, but it’s not unique. That happens all the time.”
Lawyers interested in finding out more about the Hague Convention Attorney Network should visit http://www.travel.state.gov/childabduction and click “For Attorneys & Judges;” contact HagueConventionAttorneyNetwork@state.gov; or call 202-501-4444.