Friday, March 24, 2000

Parental abductions spur action

Tougher stance sought

Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The United States should exert more pressure on foreign governments that fail to honor an international treaty against parental kidnappings, three Ohio lawmakers said Thursday.

        The State Department is investigating cases involving more than 1,000 children in which a parent has fled the country or refused to grant appropriate visitation to his or her spouse. Some foreign courts view such cases as family disputes.

        Under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, signed by the United States and 47 other nations, countries in most instances must agree to let children return to their home country so parents and the courts can resolve custody. Seventy-two percent of Hague cases end with a child's return or a parent obtaining visitation rights, according to the State Department.

        In a report last spring to Congress, the State Department criticized Austria, Honduras, Mauritius, Mexico and Sweden for a “pattern of non-compliance” and faulted Germany as inconsistent.

        Several lawmakers, including Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Cedarville; Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati; and Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, urged the State Department on Thursday to be more vigilant. A resolution introduced in Congress calls on foreign leaders to comply with their international legal obligations.

        The resolution has no legal authority, but provides a platform for lawmakers and American parents who feel they are victims of foreign injustice.

        “I think it's about time we go after other countries for supporting the theft of American children,” Mr. DeWine said.

        The State Department has described the Hague convention as an “imperfect instrument,” complicated by nationalism, judicial discretion and gender inequality. As many as 70 percent of international child abductions are committed by a child's mother, the department found; and some foreign courts are hesitant to award custody to an American father.

        Of the 1,001 children the State Department is pursuing, a majority — 632 — are in countries that have not signed the Hague convention.

        The United States may have undermined its moral authority on the issue, some analysts and parents believe, by its mixed response in the case of Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old Cuban boy stranded off the coast of Florida in November in an attempt at illegal immigration. The boy's mother and 10 others died on the journey, but relatives and several conservative politicians in the United States argue against returning the boy to his father in communist Cuba.

        This week, a federal judge upheld a decision by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to send the boy home. His U.S. relatives are appealing.

        Tom Sylvester, whose daughter, Carina, was taken to Austria by her mother in October 1995, said the United States “could learn something from Cuba,” where President Fidel Castro made a personal appeal for the prompt return of Elian Gonzalez.

        “Where the hell was President Clinton when my daughter was abducted?” said Mr. Sylvester, who lives in Cincinnati. “Where is our will?”

        Mr. Sylvester obtained a court order in Austria for his daughter to return to the United States, but his ex-wife has resisted and Austrian courts have opted against enforcement. The State Department cited the Sylvester caselast year in condemning Austria, calling the decision “a perversion of the convention.”

        Other parents in similar situations tearfully asked lawmakers Thursday to intervene. Joseph Cooke, a New York substitute teacher, broke down in the middle of detailing a fruitless attempt to remove his two children from German foster care. His ex-wife took the children to Germany in 1992 for a visit but left them in state care after a mental-health crisis.

        “I still can't believe it,” Mr. Cooke said.


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