Imagine for a second that you’ve been married for several years. It has not been a happy marriage, though, and you and your foreign-born spouse decide to divorce. You agree to share custody of your 6-year-old son. But out of the blue, you wake up one morning and realize that your former spouse has stolen your child and gone back to his or her homeland in the hope of starting a new life apart from you and the United States. As a parent myself, I cannot begin to imagine living through this nightmare. But, tragically, this is a very real and daily nightmare for hundreds of parents right here in America.
Currently, the State Department has on file at least 1,100 cases of international parental kidnapping, when one parent illegally took his or her child out of the United States and right out of the life of the parent left behind. These kidnappings and ensuing custody battles devastate families. They are devastating not only for the left-behind parent, but also for the child, who is denied the love from that parent.
The international custody fight over young Elian Gonzalez the 6-year-old Cuban boy whose mother died in her attempt to leave Cuba and start a new life for her son in America is front-page news. The courts, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the State and Justice departments are confronting several difficult issues over what is in Elian’s best interests.
Elian’s case is certainly important, especially to his family, and government officials at the highest levels have been working overtime to seek a resolution. But, both the State and Justice departments are using young Elian’s case as a public relations ploy to create the false impression that international parental kidnapping cases are a top priority. Don’t believe for a minute that if the tables were turned and Elian were an American child taken across the ocean to Cuba, our federal government would stop at nothing to gain his return. That’s just plain fantasy.
In one recent media account, a State Department official said that in cases of international parental kidnapping: “We don’t take no for an answer.” Tell that to Tom Sylvester of Cincinnati, the father of a little girl named Carina, whom he has seldom seen since his ex-wife abducted her from Michigan in 1995 and took her to Austria. The day after the kidnapping, Mr. Sylvester filed a complaint with the State Department and started legal proceedings under the terms of the Hague Convention Treaty an international treaty setting forth a process for the timely return of children wrongly removed from their home country. An Austrian court heard his complaint, and the court ordered the return of Carina to Mr. Sylvester. Eventually, though, the Austrian courts reversed their decision on returning Carina to her father a decision clearly contrary to the terms of the Hague Convention.
A criminal warrant is outstanding for Carina’s mother pursuant to the International Parental Kidnapping Act (IPKA), a 1993 U.S. law that makes international parental kidnappings a federal crime. But, neither the State nor Justice departments have taken any real action on the criminal warrant. The bottom line in the Sylvester case is that the Austrian government refuses to enforce the terms of the Hague Convention, and our State Department is unwilling to put any pressure on the Austrian government to bring Carina home where she belongs.
The troubling message these actions send to Mr. Sylvester and the countless other parents just like him is that once children are abducted and taken out of the United States, they are not a priority of our federal government. The Justice Department rarely pursues prosecution under the IPKA. In fact, in the last five years, just 62 indictments and 13 convictions have resulted from thousands of cases of abductions.
The excuses are endless. Sometimes, State and Justice blame their inaction on complicated extradition laws. Other times, they say that these cases are private legal disputes between parents, and so the federal government should be left out of such matters. They figure, too, that these children are not being kidnapped by strangers; they are with a parent, after all, so what’s the big deal? Taken together, these factors suggest that the State Department is more interested in maintaining positive relationships with foreign governments than in helping American parents. In fact, officials from State and Justice have testified at House hearings that they believe the IPKA is not warranted. They never wanted the law, so they aren’t enforcing the law.
Watching the nightly news segments from Havana, one thing becomes clear: Our State Department could learn a few things from the Cuban government. Fidel Castro’s regime has been more aggressive in insisting that its children be returned than our own government. The fact of the matter is that U.S. government agencies are usually of no help in overcoming the legal and bureaucratic obstacles that left-behind parents have encountered. In essence these agencies are sending a message that says: You may steal American kids and get away with it. That is an outrage.
It is my hope that the case of Elian Gonzalez will bring more national attention and concern to the plight of parents like Tom Sylvester. When it comes to a stolen child, there are no excuses. Our federal agencies must make these abductions a priority. They need to coordinate efforts to offer more assistance to distraught parents seeking the safe return of their children from abroad. They should begin a training program for U.S. attorneys and designate one attorney in each of their offices to be responsible for these international abduction cases.
Our government has an obligation to these parents and to the children who are kidnapped. It’s time our government agencies put American parents and their children first.
Sen. Mike DeWine is an Ohio Republican.