- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2000

Young Amanda Johnson hasn't seen the United States or the siblings and grandparents who live there in more than six years. And U.S. government agencies now busily working to return Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father are doing their best or worst to make sure she never gets back to hers.

Through neglect, incompetence or outright scorn for parents in this country, the U.S. Justice and State departments are increasing the odds that thousands of children like 12-year-old Amanda will never come home again. One parent reading through documents in a case involving her missing children discovered that a Foreign Service officer had written that she, the mother, "gives the impression of being mentally unbalanced." A father trying to get his children found an internal e-mail from a State Department official saying, "Dad's name is Bubba that should tell you something."

The irony is that officials from these same U.S. agencies are now aggressively seeking to return Elian whose mother died in a desperate ocean odyssey to bring him to the United States in the name of the very U.S. parents and families for whom they have such disregard. As Cheryl Wetzstein of The Washington Times reported, an unnamed State Department official Friday defended its efforts to return Elian, saying, "We would expect no less of a foreign government if the roles were reversed… . We think the ultimate outcome of this 'Gonzalez' case, at a minimum, would be looked at and considered in the 1,100 other cases we've got going."

The cases the State and Justice departments have "going" involve the abduction or wrongful retention of U.S. children by estranged spouses in other countries. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which the United States and some 50 other countries signed, was supposed to ensure the "prompt return" of children wrongfully removed from or retained in another country. Congress also passed a law in 1993, the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act, making it a federal crime to take or keep a child overseas in violation of a custody order. At the time, lawmakers estimated there were already some 10,000 abduction cases outstanding.

The United States has generally kept its part of the agreement, returning some 90 percent of children abducted to or wrongfully kept in this country. But numerous countries including Germany, Sweden, Austria and others quite happy to accept U.S. aid and, had the former Soviet Union decided to take up residence there, the blood of U.S. soldiers have routinely stonewalled U.S. parents. As reporters Dan Levine of Reader's Digest and Tim Maier of The Washington Times' sister publication, Insight magazine, have previously reported, those countries have done so without fear of retribution from the U.S. government.

Amanda Johnson, for example, was born in the United States in November 1987, the daughter of Thomas Johnson, himself a State Department lawyer, and Anne Franzen, then a lawyer for the Swedish Consulate. But in 1993, Ms. Franzen, by then Mr. Johnson's ex-wife, simply decided to keep Amanda in Sweden in violation of custody arrangements that dictated she be in the United States under the care of her father.

Mr. Johnson, who negotiates international accords on behalf of the State Department, would seem the sort of person capable of negotiating the likes of Hague conventions and foreign laws and to obtain the successful return of his daughter. But despite having won numerous court judgments in both the United States and Sweden, the best Mr. Johnson has been able to do is to see his daughter in Sweden for approximately 15 hours over five years, all under supervised visitation. One would have thought it was Mr. Johnson who was the criminal.

Complained Mr. Johnson in testimony before Congress last year, governments "such as Sweden that virtually encourage child abduction and retention by their citizens could not succeed without the U.S. government's silence, refusal to make them pay any price for their treaty violations and human rights abuses, and failure to protect American citizens."

Part of the problem here is sheer ignorance. Many government officials nominally involved in recovering U.S. children from abroad do not understand the complexities of a "legal Disney World" in which parents left behind find themselves bounced from one court proceeding to the next, both here and abroad, only to find that even when they win, they lose; many foreign courts have no means of enforcing orders to return children to U.S. parents, and U.S. court orders are flatly ignored abroad. But U.S. agencies exacerbate the problem when they refuse to hold foreign countries accountable for shielding kidnappers, as when the State Department opposes efforts to cite them for human rights violations, or when the Justice Department routinely refuses to issue indictments under the 1993 Parental Kidnapping act.

Critics of the departments, and even some allies such as the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, worry that U.S. officials tend to downplay these cases as merely "private legal disputes," which is an odd way to regard kidnapping. But it took only a few complaints from Fidel Castro to turn Elian's private case into a very public one. How long do parents here have to complain before the feds give Amanda and other U.S. children the same attention?

E-mail:

smithk@twtmail.com

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