The pain and suffering endured by "left behind" American parents as they work tirelessly to bring home their children who have been abducted to overseas destinations and wrongfully held was the sobering topic of a hearing held Thursday by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the House congressional panel that oversees human rights.
"The damage to the child and the left behind parent is incalculable and too often life-long," said Smith. "The children especially are at risk of serious emotional and psychological problems and may experience anxiety, eating problems, nightmares, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, resentment, guilt and fearfulness. These victims are American citizens who need the help of their government when normal legal processes are unavailable or fail."
International parental child abduction occurs when one parent unlawfully moves a child from his or her country of residence, often for the purpose of denying the other parent access to the child.
Testifying before the subcommittee were Iraqi War veteran Marine Sgt. Mike Elias, David Goldman, who is one of the few Americans to retrieve their child after an international abduction to Brazil, and other "left behind" parents of American children abducted to India, Japan, Egypt and Brazil (just a few of the thousands of U.S. children held wrongfully overseas). Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Special Advisor for Children's Issues, Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. State Department also spoke at the hearing entitled "Resolving International Parental Child Abductions to Non-Hague Convention Countries" held before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations chaired by Smith.
"I cannot think of anything more important than the fate of our children," an emotional Elias told the congressional panel. "What about all the American citizens who have been ripped from their homes in this country against their will. What about MY children? I don't know how to pick up the pieces and move on. My "pieces' are in Japan! A country that has knowingly aided and abetted the abduction of children from all over the world. A country that refused to prosecute my wife for crimes that are recognized worldwide as fundamental human rights violations."
Also testifying were Patricia Apy, attorney specializing in international abduction cases, Paras, Apy & Reiss, P.C., and Colin Bower, of Boston, Mass., father of children abducted to Egypt.
"I must be reunited with my children and I need the help of our honorable Congress to do so," said a determined Bindu Phillips, of Plainsboro, N.J., mother of two children abducted to India . "The stress under which I have labored the last 4 years has been almost unbearable at times, but I have continued on in the sole hope of being reunited with my children -- from whom I never spent a day apart from prior to their father's kidnapping of them in December of 2008 in India. I have put everything I have into my mission to be reunited with my children."
In 1983, the United States ratified the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction to try to address parental abductions via a civil framework that provided for the quick return of abducted children, and access rights to both parents. Under the convention a child is supposed to be returned within six weeks to their country for the courts there to determine custody, however most are not returned and most cases drag on for years. Even in countries where the Convention is said to be enforced, only about 40 percent of children are returned.
Ambassador Jacobs said Secretary John Kerry--who is closely familiar with the Bowen case--demonstrated his concern regarding international parental child abduction by extending my tenure as the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Special Advisor for Children's Issues to ensure high-level attention stays focused on this important topic.
"Secretary Kerry, one of the leading advocates for combating international parental child abduction during his time in the U.S. Senate, has now brought his passion and foreign affairs experience to bear as our Secretary," Jacobs said, also promising to explore all avenues, including memorandums of understanding to have a established governmental framework to address abductions and bring U.S. children home.
Goldman told the subcommittee that what left behind parents often fail to realize is that it is not incompetence or ignorance that leads to the mishandling of abduction cases, but rather a failure to enforce policy. He cited lack of progress by the State Department in addressing child abductions.
"What is required at the State Department is a complete culture change," Goldman said. "Nothing short of being extremely bold and principled is going to do much to change the status quo and the corresponding playbook for handling international child abduction cases. Left-behind parents, especially ones whose children have been abducted more recently, often make the mistake of thinking that the State Department is competently handling their cases and that countries routinely return children as expected."