Between 1999 and 2009, the Government Accountability Office, an investigatory unit put together by Congress, reported 6,966 cases of international parental abduction. Most of these abductions were perpetrated by foreign-born parents who returned to their home countries — often seeking more favorable child custody decisions from their home nations’ courts. Last year, around one third of the 1,500 children who were unlawfully abducted from the United States and taken to a foreign country ended up in Mexico.
Differences in the child custody laws between countries is what makes this possible, and it was supposed to be addressed by the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty written in 1980 to which both the United States and Mexico are parties.
Although the Hague Convention is valuable, it can be difficult for an individual parent to enforce their children’s rights under that treaty. Local police often won’t act on child abduction cases arising from custody disputes, and Customs agents do not check the child custody agreements of parents departing at airports or border crossings.
Part of the problem is the lack of a shared national database of child custody orders that federal agents could refer to. However, requiring customs agents to check on parents’ child custody status at international airports and at border crossings would add substantially to the time and complication of security, which makes it unlikely that that a database check will be required.
While the Hague Convention does not involve criminal law, parental abduction is illegal under U.S. law, and the sentence for parents who are convicted of abducting their children to foreign countries is up to three years in prison. A new law in Texas taking effect on September 1 will make child abduction a state felony as well.
Unfortunately, once a parent crosses a border, the child is rarely returned. Only 578 — barely a third — of children internationally abducted last year were ever returned to their rightful parent. Even more disturbing is how easy it seems to be to accomplish a cross-border child abduction. Nearly half of parents reporting their child had been abducted by an ex-spouse said that the child was taken during a routine, court-approved visit.
The Obama administration has promised to put more pressure on foreign countries, whether they are signatories to the Hague Convention or not, to speed up the repatriation of abducted children. The chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs has also proposed legislation, which would be called the International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act, aimed at withholding developmental assistance to uncooperative countries.
If you are involved in a child custody disagreement and fear that your child could be taken across international borders — or if your child has already been abducted — it is essential to get good legal help right away.
Source: San Antonio Express, “International abductions by parents rise,” Stewart M. Powell, July 5, 2011.