- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2001

More than 10,000 American children are illegally transported or detained abroad every year, according to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Just over a year ago, Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met to map out a plan for resolving disputes involving abducted children specifically from German-American marriages that ended in divorce. In the wake of that meeting, a working group was set up to ensure cases were handled quickly and with strict compliance to The Hague Convention, an international treaty designed to return children to their country of residence and protect them from wrongful removal. A year later, there has not only been a change in the way German courts handle the cases, but the working group has witnessed a number of returns of children after abduction under The Hague Convention, according to the German Ministry of Justice. The German-American Expert Group can serve as an example of a force that can streamline bureaucracy from judicial proceedings so that future cases can be handled in a just manner.

First, cases in which German courts had unjustly invoked an amendment to The Hague Convention, which prevents prompt return in the event of "physical or psychological harm" to the child, have been "reduced considerably" in the last year, according to the German Embassy. German courts had earlier wrongly invoked the amendment to claim that children would suffer psychological or cultural stress, such as "language shock" in the United States. Now, judges are receiving special training to ensure they are in strict compliance.

The family courts for Hague cases were also reduced in 1999 from 600 to 24 to ensure cases are handled more quickly. Now, applications for the return of children are forwarded to the proper court within about seven working days. The number of cases in which German courts have rejected applications of parents wanting their children to be returned has decreased from 29 percent in 1995 to 4 percent in 1999. And as of this January, there had been only about 50 cases in which American parents had been unsuccessful in getting custody of their children once they were in Germany.

The working group still has room for improvement, though. Parents should be able to have a more direct influence on the working group in order to see a discernable difference in progress, said Nancy Hammer, director of the international division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Key differences in legal culture will also warrant many more meetings of the working group. Whereas U.S. law prioritizes parents' rights, German law focuses on the rights of children. For example, German courts do not have the authority to force a child to return to a parent if the child refuses physically to go with the parent who is to receive custody. American courts, as the nation saw in the case of Elian Gonzalez, have that right.

Each case of child abduction is a tragic one. While the judicial process to prevent such occurrences is improving in Germany, thousands of children still go unprotected every year. While court reform is a good first step, the hardest one lies at home keeping parents together in a loving relationship so that children have no reason to feel abandoned.

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