New York Times Op-Ed Substitutes Faith for Facts About International Child Abduction

March 14th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Every so often, the mainstream news media awake from their slumber long enough to notice international child abduction by parents.  They should’ve stayed asleep.  A couple of years ago it was Time Magazine that ran a piece on the subject and the legal regime that’s supposed to deal with it, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.  The results were spectacularly bad as I elucidated here (Fathers and Families, 12/27/10).

Basically, the Time piece said that the Hague Convention, that’s meant to return abducted children to their country of primary residence as soon as possible, is defective because it does just that.  In the article’s view, that’s a problem because the great majority of child abductors are mothers, many of them claim to have been abused by their husbands, any mother who claims abuse must be telling the truth and therefore the Convention creates problems because it forces the children to go back home to an abusive father.

Now, the defects in that line of “reasoning” are many.  Most obvious is the fact that all the signatory nations to the Convention have courts that deal with custody cases, including those in which abuse is alleged.  So, unless there’s some strange and unsuspected reason why the courts of the country from which the child was taken can’t or won’t deal effectively with the custody issue, the Hague Convention requires return.

Another major defect is that mothers seeking custody have been known to lie about abuse in order to gain an advantage in the custody case.  It’s a concept well known to family court judges, but one apparently completely unknown to the author of the Time article.

Then, as I stated in my piece two years ago, Time relied on a study by Jeffrey Edleson and Taryn Lindhorst to support its thesis that the Convention must be changed in order to accommodate abducting mothers who claim abuse.  To put it mildly, no reading of the Edleson study can justify any such conclusion.  In the first place, the study is so badly done it could reasonably qualify as a joke, although I don’t think it is.  I’ll do a piece later that goes into more detail about the study, but for now suffice it to say that, even by its own shoddy terms, the study makes no pretense that its findings should result in major changes to the Convention.

Fast forward to March 5 of this year and we find this op-ed in The New York Times (New York Times, 3/5/13).  It’s nothing but a retread of the Time piece.  It offers nothing new and its argument is if anything weaker and less persuasive than Time’s.

It’s by George Washington Law Professor Joan Meier and would disgrace a scrupulous intellect.  Its theme is the usual.

However, in practice, [the Convention] often has a dark side: in many cases children and custodial mothers are being sent back to a dangerous or abusive father from whom they fled…

In short, many abductions are actually flights to safety, necessitated by the home countries’ failure to protect victims from domestic violence and child abuse. In these cases, rather than returning children to loving and safe parents, the convention actually reunifies children and mothers with their abusers…

But too often, the convention’s nuanced awareness of the potential harms of returns has been ignored by courts and the legislative and diplomatic supporters of return at all costs…

But the reality is that jurisdiction tends to dictate outcome: courts understandably look askance at abductors, regardless of their professed motives, and often punish them, and unfortunately also the child, with loss of custody.

All of that could be compelling if it were true.  The only problem with Meier’s assertions is that there’s no support for them and she herself offers none.  With two exceptions, her piece is nothing but a series of unsupported claims.  That wouldn’t be good enough for a high school sophomore class, but it seems to be fine for the New York Times.

“Many” mothers and children are sent back to abusive fathers?  Meier offers not a hint of proof.  Potential harm to children is “ignored by courts” construing the Convention?  Her evidence?  None, not a whit.  A court’s jurisdiction dictates the outcome of the case?  Ditto.  A claim with no pretense of factual support.

What Meier does is attempt, like the Time article before it, to recruit the Edleson/Lindhorst study to her cause.  Maybe she should have read it first, but I confess I don’t blame her for not having done so.  After all, it’s 404 pages of some of the most tedious prose ever to ooze out of academia.  Worse, it only looks at 22 cases of mothers abducting their children to the United States.  No sensible person concludes from a sample of 22 anything about the overall working of the Hague Convention that deals with many thousands of parental abductions each year.  And Edleson and Lindhorst as much as ask readers not to generalize their findings.  So what does Meier do?  She generalizes their findings.

But she does far worse than that; she utterly misrepresents them.

Research by Jeffrey Edleson, the dean of the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues shows that courts typically order children returned to fathers known to have physically abused the mother, even though such violence is an indicator of significant risk to children.

Put simply, that is not true.  The study shows no such thing.  As I said, the study deals with 22 abducting mothers who claimed they, their children or both were abused by the children’s father.  From Meier’s statements, you might be surprised to learn that in 20 of those cases no abuse was found by the courts or no evidence of abuse was produced on which a court could base a ruling of abuse.  In one case in which abuse was found, the father’s petition was denied and the children were not returned to their country of origin.  In a single other case, some abuse was found, but not of sufficient severity to warrant keeping the children away from their father, their country and their culture.

In other words, the mothers claiming abuse were either unable or unwilling to produce evidence to back up their claims and unsurprisingly most of them lost their cases (in nine cases, the petition was denied on grounds other than abuse).  Out of 22, a grand total of one case could possibly be construed to support Meier’s thesis.  But to Meier, that means that U.S. courts “typically returned children to fathers known to have” abused the mother.  Intellectual dishonest doesn’t get much more blatant than that.

Meier’s only other stab at backing up her claims comes here:

In one widely reported case, a California court sent the son of an American mother back to his European father despite acknowledging that he faced a “grave risk” of harm. (The child continues to suffer overseas.)

I asked Meier to what case she referred and she told me it’s that of Lura Calder, an American who lived for years in Italy and had a child there by an Italian man, Maurizio Rigamonti.  When the boy was four, she abducted him from his home in Parma to Los Angeles.  Needless to say, the allegations of abuse came fast and furiously, but they were all  eventually stuck down as unfounded by court-appointed mental health professionals.  Even so, it took Rigamonti years and tens of thousands of dollars to get his son back.  But get him back he did and the boy has been living with his dad since June of last year.

Again, what was the evidence that Rigamonti abused either Calder or his son?  Meier doesn’t let on and the court found none.  What about Italian courts?  They too have found no evidence of abuse and from all appearances the little boy is faring well in his father’s care.  But to Meier, Rigamonti is a known abuser and the child “continues to suffer” with his dad.  As far as I can tell, she’s just making that up.

Someone should tell Meier that just because a mother claims to have been abused doesn’t make it so.  Meier and the rest of the “believe the woman” crowd think that whenever a mother cries abuse, a child should lose its father.  So far, courts (unlike Meier) require proof of allegations.  My guess is that’s what she and her comrades in arms at Time would like to see changed about Hague Convention cases.

I hope to write more about the Rigamonti case in the near future.

Thanks to Ron for the heads-up.

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