- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has just taken a step toward helping his country rejoin the civilized world: His government plans to implement measures that would allow American parents to visit children taken read: kidnapped by German nationals who have lost custody of them. It's a long way from restoring children to the rightful parents, but given Germany's atrocious record in such matters, almost any improvement is noteworthy.

Up to now, a substantial number of persons absconding with children in violation of U.S. court orders could count on refuge in Germany. In cases involving Americans, German officials returned children just 65 percent of the time. U.S. officials, by contrast, complied with orders to return children to Germany 93 percent of the time. Thus Joseph Cooke of New York, whose wife took their two children to Germany, then turned them over to foster parents claiming she was too mentally ill to care for them, hasn't been able to get them back after seven years of legal work.

There are two reasons why Germany's appalling record is big news these days the record itself having been insufficient to do so. The first is the case of Elian Gonzalez, whose mother died in the process of bringing him out of Cuba to this country. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno highlighted the plight of American parents whose children had been kidnapped and taken abroad as a pretext for returning Elian to his father in Cuba. (Never mind that no one suggested he had been kidnapped or that the father would not be permitted to see his child in this country.) "If we got into a situation where American children ended up abroad and American parents wanted them returned and a foreign country made them a citizen so they did not return," said Miss Reno in January, "I don't think people in the United States would be very happy about it."

The problem for Miss Reno is that there was no "if" about it. American children have routinely been taken abroad in violation of U.S. court orders and neither the U.S. Justice Department nor the U.S. State Department has been able to obtain their return. Neither applied pressure to Germany or other countries who had agreed to international pacts to return kidnapped children as swiftly as possible. Having raised the issue in connection with Elian's case, the agencies found themselves in the awkward position of having to enforce the standards. Under pressure from lawmakers sympathetic to the complaints of U.S. parents, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms and House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, they belatedly did so.

The second reason for Germany's new willingness to deal with the controversy is Mr. Schroeder's meeting with President Clinton this week. Eager to get to matters like U.S.-German relations, Mr. Schroeder found the kidnappings issue blocking his path. The controversy threatened to poison ties between the two countries, German diplomats warned the chancellor, according to an account in The Washington Post. Hence his promise to do more to allow U.S. parents to see their children.

The controversy doesn't end here. Mr. Schroeder did not release details of his plans. Those plans don't restore the children to their parents. And there are other countries which are also failing to abide by international kidnapping statutes. Still, getting the Justice and State departments to act in the interests of their own citizens should encourage all parents and their missing children who have been victimized to date.

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