State Department: International Parental Abductions of Children ‘Sharply on the Rise’

The U.S. State Department reports international parental child abductions are “sharply on the rise.”  Read about it here (Houston Chronicle, 7/4/11).

Last year, at least 1,500 children were unlawfully taken to foreign countries by a parent who had been living in the United States, including children who were taken even while a parent was serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Only 578 abducted children were returned to the United States.

And, as I’ve reported before, Mexico continues as the prime culprit in the failure to rapidly return children to their left-behind parents in the United States.  Mexican family law favors maternal custody and, when a father in the U.S. seeks his child’s return from there, years can go by with no action taken by Mexican courts.

That’s in spite of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction that calls for return of abducted children within 60 days.  Mexico and the U.S. are both signatory nations to the Convention, but Mexico routinely violates its speedy return provision.

That’s been true in Greg Allen’s case.

For nine gut-wrenching years, Texan Greg Allen has been trying to track down his daughter after her mother absconded to Mexico with the 4-year-old during a rare unsupervised visit after the couple’s contentious divorce.

“When it first happened, I was unable to function,” recalls Allen, 42, an electrical engineer and sonar expert doing doctoral research at the University of Texas’ applied research laboratories in Austin. “I went from being a single parent whose whole life revolved around raising my daughter to being a left-behind parent whose purpose in life was gone.”

He still hasn’t seen his daughter and has no idea of where she and her mother are.  Allen’s remarried with three kids here in the States, but he still holds out hope of someday reconnecting with the girl.  She’s now 14 and he figures she’s probably an Internet addict, so he hopes she’ll find him that way.  Otherwise, he’s pretty much given up on the legal process as a means of getting his daughter back.

He’s not alone.  When legal channels don’t do the job – and in the case of international child abduction to Mexico, they clearly don’t – people often turn to what attorneys call “self help.”  That means taking the law into one’s own hands.  After all, a child abducted can be re-abducted.

Some parents resort to rescue teams assembled by activists such as Mark Miller, who founded the American Association for Lost Children in 1987.

Miller says he has rescued five children from Mexico over the past five years, relying on notarized copies of U.S. custody orders and U.S. birth certificates carried by an ad hoc team of drivers, a private investigator, an interpreter and even a person dressed as a priest to help persuade local authorities to cooperate with the recovery.

“We are going in on our own,” says Miller. “We pick up the child and hurry up back to the border as quickly as possible.”

That’s not legal of course, but parents turn to it as a last resort when legal channels don’t work.

And speaking of laws, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey and others are attempting to sharpen the teeth of existing federal law.

Alarmed by mounting abductions and inadequate cooperation from foreign nations, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. – chairman of a House Foreign Affairs Committee panel that tracks the issue – and eight House colleagues have proposed the International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act. It would require an annual presidential report on unresolved cases and threaten U.S. development assistance and preferential tariffs for nations that demonstrate “a pattern of non-cooperation.”

My guess?  That’s a non-starter.  The idea that the U.S. is going to tie its own hands in international commerce for the sake of a few parents and kids just doesn’t have the ring of truth to me, but we’ll see.  In the meantime I’ll applaud Smith for his efforts.

The State of Texas, with its long international border has recently passed a law making child abduction a felony.  It takes effect September 1st.  That too is a good idea, but of course enforcement of the law would mean locating the abducting parent and returning him/her to the state.  That’s exactly what Greg Allen has been unable to do in nine years, although others have succeeded.

Finally, in twist that’s new to me, it seems the ongoing War on Drugs has its impact on child abduction to Mexico.  In some states where the big Mexican drug gangs are most active, judges are afraid to take action against an abducting parent because  he/she might have ties to one of the local drug lords.

But court proceedings often get sidetracked, particularly in Mexican states engulfed by the drug wars such as San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas.

“We have judges who are afraid to do anything,” says attorney Pamela Brown of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Weslaco, who handles about 20 international child abduction cases a year to and from Mexico. “Judges are terrified that the taking parent might have ties to the cartels so they won’t step in.”

Adds Allen: “With a civil war going on down there, child abduction is just not a high priority.”

In truth, it’s not a high priority here either.  American parents have complained for years about the inaction and seeming indifference of our own State Department that’s tasked by law with assisting them.  “Just going through the motions” was the common complaint made by several left-behind parents who testified before Chris Smith’s subcommittee earlier this year.

So while the number of abductions is rising, efforts to combat or rectify the practice remain depressingly the same.

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