Today, nearly five years after U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced his first bill to prevent international parental child abduction standing alongside "left behind" parents in front of the Capitol, Congress gave final approval to his legislation, The Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act, House of Representatives Bill 3212 (H.R. 3212).
Smith wrote the original proposed legislation in 2009 subsequent to his personal intervention in the fight to bring Sean Goldman home to New Jersey, years after he had been abducted to Brazil by his mother. Smith's successful work with Sean's father, David, and a team of lawyers--including Patricia Apy, of Red Bank, NJ--and volunteers helped bring Sean home, but also uncovered gaping weaknesses in U.S. law and the need to codify best practices so that other Americans will also see their children returned home.
"In the five-year push to turn this bill into law, we have seen a sea of change in the Congress' and State Department's understanding of international parental child abduction--an understanding that these abductions are a form of child abuse and a human rights violation. There are many heartbroken parents waiting for this bill to help them in their fight to see their children again.
"Many children and parents have tragically lost years separated from each other in violation of U.S. and international law," Smith said. "They have missed birthdays, holidays, and family time--that they can never get back. H.R. 3212 ensures that they will now receive significant help from the U.S. government in their fights to recover their children. Every day a child is separated from his or her rightful parent and home in the United States brings immense suffering to both parent and child. The Goldman Act is designed to right the terrible wrong of international child abduction and heal enormous pain and suffering and bring abducted children home."
David Goldman watched the final House approval on television today with excitement. He stood by Smith in 2009 when the legislation was first unveiled.
"It was a long road, nearly five years, thanks to a tremendous effort of Congressman Smith and his staff," Goldman said. "It was a great thing to do. It was the right thing to do. It's another step closer to reuniting families. Next step: the White House."
At its core, Smith's legislation will give the State Department a variety of tools to pressure foreign governments to send home American children abducted to overseas destinations. The bill also requires better reporting and support from the State Department so that left-behind parents are not on their own in overseas battles to win the return of their abducted children.
During his five year struggle, Smith has authored four versions of the bill (HR 3240; HR 1940; HR 1951 and HR 3212) using each to educate his colleagues and make modifications aimed at winning widespread support in an increasingly partisan Congress. In December 2013, the House passed Smith's bill, 398-0. Smith noted the work of Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Menendez and Ranking Republican Bob Corker when the bill passed the Senate on July 16th, with some final modifications.
Smith named the bill after David and Sean Goldman who have been reunited in Monmouth County for nearly five years. Following Sean's return to New Jersey, David Goldman has stayed active in promoting the legislation in an effort to spare other parents and children the painful, illegal separation he and his son endured for five years.
Smith has held multiple hearings on the heartbreaking cases of left-behind parents of American children abducted to India, Japan, Egypt, Brazil, Russia, England and other countries, from which few are returned. Not all countries have signed The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, the main international treaty to address parental abductions. The Hague provides a civil framework for the quick return of abducted children to their home country, and facilitation of visitation and contact between parents and children during the pendency of the case and after the resolution. Unfortunately, many Hague signatories, like Brazil, fail to consistently enforce the Hague Convention provisions.
Among its many provisions, H.R. 3212 provides eight steps the Administration should take, increasing in severity, when a country refuses to cooperate in the resolution of overseas abduction and access cases involving American children:
> a demarche (a petition or protest through diplomatic channels);
> an official public statement detailing unresolved cases;
> a public condemnation;
> a delay or cancellation of one or more bilateral working, official, or state visits;
> the withdrawal, limitation, or suspension of U.S. development assistance;
> the withdrawal, limitation, or suspension of U.S. security assistance;
> the withdrawal, limitation, or suspension of foreign assistance to the central government of a country relating to economic support; and
> a formal request to the foreign country concerned to extradite an individual who is engaged in abduction and who has been formally accused of, charged with, or convicted of an extraditable offense.
The bill also--for the first time--urges the Administration to enter into Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) or other bilateral agreements with both Hague Convention and non-Hague Convention countries, to locate and foster the return of abducted children and protect the access of the left-behind parent to the child. In order to ensure better accountability of the Administration and to warn U.S. judges who may allow a child to visit a country from which return is difficult, the bill significantly enhances reporting on country-by-country performance. Smith noted that countries that have signed the Hague Treaty, like Japan, may still need an additional MOU to help those left-behind parents that were separated from their children prior to treaty accession.
H.R. 3212 also requires the Administration to inform Members of Congress when a child has been abducted from their districts. It also directs the Secretary of Defense to designate an official within the Department of Defense to coordinate with the Department of State on international child abduction issues and "oversee activities designed to prevent or resolve international child abduction cases relating to active duty military service members."
"Currently, if you have a child who is illegally taken to a non-Hague country, the State Department position is that there's nothing it can do to help," Smith said. "That's totally unacceptable. With this bill, for the first time ever, parents with children held in non-Hague countries can work with the State Department. They won't be on their own, far from the United States, desperately trying to get their children back. The Act also ensures that the Department of Defense will assist our men and women in uniform who find themselves facing parental child abduction."
More than one thousand international child abductions are reported to the State Department's Office on Children's Issues each year. Between 2008 and 2013, at least 8,000 American children were abducted, according to the State Department. Earlier this year, the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children reported that there have been at least 168 international child abductions from New Jersey since 1995.