Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Maureen Dabbagh thinks Attorney General Janet Reno did the right thing in using force to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father. She just wishes the Clinton administration would show as much interest in her custody case.

Mrs. Dabbagh has been fighting an international court battle for years to regain custody of her daughter Nadia, who was taken out of the United States by her father in 1992.

Since then, the Virginia Beach mother has become a spokeswoman for thousands of American parents fighting foreign courts and spouses to reclaim their children.

This week, she brings her plea to Washington. She and 200 members of the “parental abduction community,” as they call themselves, will gather for a conference beginning tomorrow and ending Saturday with a candlelight vigil outside the White House.

“My government hasn’t helped me at all … but I’m being taxed to death to pay for Elian Gonzalez,” Mrs. Dabbagh said. “I’m not begrudging the boy. What I’m saying is, how come [the same effort] is not being made for American parents?”

Mrs. Dabbagh is the founder of PARENT International (Parents Advocating for Recovery Through Education by Networking Together), which helps parents with the ins and outs of recovery something Mrs. Dabbagh says the government can’t or won’t do.

Mrs. Dabbagh, 41, didn’t start out a crusader. That began in 1992 when her daughter Nadia was 2, and her father, Mohamad Hisham Dabbagh, spirited the child away to the Middle East.

Mrs. Dabbagh found there was nowhere to turn to for help. So she became the help others can turn to.

She’s done just about everything possible to regain her daughter. She even did the unimaginable got a Syrian court to acknowledge that she, an American Christian, has legal custody of her daughter instead of Mr. Dabbagh.

Still, it’s been eight years and Nadia remains overseas. Most of the time, the girl isn’t even with her father. Instead, she is shuttled from place to place in Syria and Saudi Arabia, staying in the homes of people who are helping Mr. Dabbagh keep the girl away from her mother.

The inability of the federal government to help American parents while throwing the full force of the U.S. Justice Department behind the effort to seize Elian Gonzalez left Mrs. Dabbagh and others in her group bitter.

For the federal government, it’s never about the child, Mrs. Dabbagh said.

“It’s always politics. American kids are expendable. What’s two kids compared to billions of dollars in oil?” she said.

But for Mrs. Dabbagh, the fight goes on.

She has had Sen. Charles S. Robb, Virginia Democrat, sponsor a resolution in the Senate calling for the return of her daughter the only such resolution ever. So far, the Clinton administration has ignored it.

More than 1,100 active cases of child abduction are now filed with the State Department.

Accurate numbers for international cases, however, are very difficult to come by, according to Nancy Hammer, director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s international division.

The most recent figures for all abductions are from a 1990 Justice Department study, which showed about 160,000 serious cases a year. One separate study found 10 percent of a sampling of those cases involved international abduction, while another sampling found 20 percent were international.

The lack of hard numbers is one reason the government has been slow to act, Ms. Hammer said.

A State Department spokeswoman said the United States tries to convince other countries to abide by international conventions, and tries to exert diplomatic pressure in individual cases.

The Justice Department was able to act so strongly in the Elian case because the boy was on American soil, she said. But the State Department doesn’t have the resources to put the same effort into each case that the Justice Department was able to give to Elian.

That attitude doesn’t surprise Mrs. Dabbagh, who said the State Department is “way out of its league” in terms of handling the cases and said her organization has documents of cases the department refuses to acknowledge or cases where they’ve just dropped the ball.

Ms. Hammer said many parents who turn to the State Department come away discouraged.

But she said one good thing about the Elian Gonzalez case is it has given Americans a frame of reference so they know what parents are talking about when they talk about abduction fights.

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