Parents whose spouses flee overseas with their children called Thursday for the federal government to put sanctions on countries that don't help get those children returned, saying it should be considered a human-trafficking issue, not merely a family dispute.
"I am here today for one reason — to ask the U.S. government to please stop giving Egypt billions of dollars until they release my two American kidnapped children," Colin Bower, a Boston man who has obtained support from Secretary of State John F. Kerry but no help from Egypt's "Arab Spring" revolution, told a House subcommittee on human rights.
Chairman Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said the U.S. needs to beef up its diplomatic options in fighting parental abduction, a common problem that walks the delicate tightrope of cultural nuances, legal delays and diplomatic ties.
Mr. Smith singled out countries like Japan and India for confounding American parents who gained legal custody of their children, but can't get them back from a parent abroad.
He said he will introduce a bill that proposes sanctions on noncompliant nations, such as cutting off foreign aid, canceling state visits and limiting trade with the nation.
Spectators in the sparsely attended hearing room were visibly shaken as, one by one, a quartet of parents narrated the wrenching tales of how they were separated from their children.
"I have done everything that I can think to do in this nightmarish situation, and I will never give up on my children," testified Bindu Philips, whose former husband took her twin boys during a vacation to India in 2008. "Yet, I am here because I can no longer fight the good fight on my own."
Witnesses and members of Congress said the issue is complicated by cultural attitudes and mixed international support for The Hague Convention, a treaty designed to resolve parental abduction cases that cross national borders.
Ambassador Susan S. Jacobs, a special adviser for children's issues at the State Department, said The Hague Convention remains the best channel for negotiating the children's return, though that means constant discussions with many countries.
"I think that sanctions are a two-edged sword," Ms. Jacobs said. "I think that threatening countries is often an unsuccessful way to get them to cooperate with us, because most of the relationships that we have are very complex and involve many issues."
Parents and Mr. Smith disagreed, arguing the mere existence of potential sanctions could spark better cooperation.
They urged the State Department to view parental abduction as a crime on par with child abuse, and not a mere civil matter.
Mr. Kerry has been a champion for Mr. Bower in his struggle with Egypt.
The former senator from Massachusetts got his colleagues to pass a resolution last year that called on the country's courts and government to do everything they can to bring Noor and Ramsay Bower home.
David Goldman said his fight to return his son, Sean, from Brazil to their home in New Jersey is proof that financial leverage can compel action.
Mr. Smith traveled to South America during the widely publicized battle and obtained results when it became clear that resistance in the case could influence trade between the nations.
In an interview, Mr. Goldman said ex-spouses enjoy "home court advantage" in the nations they flee to by spinning tales of abuse and taking advantage of cross-border views on divorce and child custody.
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