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International child abduction poses difficult
choices, problems for U.S. citizen parents
Edited by Boyd F. Campbell
Attorney at Law and Civil Law Notary
child abduction represents a rather small number of my cases, but the cases
I handle in this area also represent some of the most difficult circumstances
for me, as an international lawyer. My clients could not be more
devastated when they learn that their minor child has been abducted and
taken overseas, or is being prevented from returning to the United States
(which is more often the case).
I don't suppose there could be a more terrifying circumstance for a U.S. citizen parent. I receive the call. The voice on the other end of the line is full of worry and distress. "He (or she) has taken my child! What can I do?"
The first inquiry is basic: Was the child taken to a Hague treaty country? This means, was the child taken to a country that is a signatory of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction? If the country where the child has been taken is a party to the Hague Convention, there are clearly steps one can take to have the child returned to the United States.
For a list of countries that are signatories to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, click on the following link: SIGNATORY COUNTRIES.
First, you should provide your lawyer with basic information, including a certified copy of your custody decree from a U.S. (or foreign) court. You will want to tell the lawyer what steps you have taken to contact the abducting parent, or his or her relatives and friends. Your lawyer should be able to tell you whether parental child abduction is a crime in the state where you live. If so, he will want to know whether you wish to swear out a warrant against the abducting parent. He may advise swearing out a federal warrant against the abducting parent as well.
The U.S. Department of State ("DOS") considers international parental child abduction and the welfare and protection of U.S. citizen children taken overseas to be a very important and serious matter. The DOS places the highest priority on the welfare of children who have been the victims of international child abduction. Since the 1970s, the DOS has been contacted in the cases of about 11,000 U.S. children who were either abducted from the United States or prevented from returning to the United States by one of their parents.
Unless you hire legal counsel, you must direct the search and recovery operation of your child yourself.
Many cases of international parental child abduction are actually cases in which the child traveled to a foreign country with the approval of both parents but was later prevented from returning to the United States. While these cases, in the strict sense of the terms, are not "abductions," but "wrongful retentions," the effect is the same.
Proof of legal custody is important
the laws of many American states and many foreign countries, if there is
no decree of custody prior to abduction, both parents are considered to
have equal legal custody of their child. If you are contemplating
divorce or separation, or are already divorced or separated, or even if
you were never legally married to the other parent, you should obtain a
decree of sole custody or a decree that prohibits the travel of your child
without your permission or that of the state court, as soon as possible.
If you prefer a joint custody decree, make certain that the decree prohibits
your child from traveling abroad without your permission or that of the
Obtain several certified copies of your custody decree from the court that issued it, and give a copy to your child's school and advise school personnel to whom your child may be released.
You may learn from the DOS whether your child has been issued a U.S. passport. You may also ask that your child's name be entered into the DOS passport name check system. This will enable the DOS to notify you or your attorney if an application for a U.S. passport for your child is received anywhere in the United States or at any U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. If you have a court order that either grants you sole custody or prohibits your child from traveling without your permission or the permission of the court, the DOS may also refuse to issue a U.S. passport for your child. The DOS may not, however, revoke a passport that has already been issued to your child.
Many U.S. citizen children who fall victim to international parental child abduction possess dual nationality. The DOS cannot prevent another country from granting a passport to a child who possesses the nationality of that country.
State Department assistance
cases where the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International
Child Abduction applies, the DOS may assist parents in filing an application
with foreign authorities for return of the child. In other cases,
the DOS may help you attempt to locate the child, visit the child, or report
on the child's general welfare. The DOS can also provide the parent
in the United States with information about the legal system of the country
to which the child was abducted, and a list of attorneys there who
are willing to accept American clients.
The DOS will monitor judicial or administrative proceedings in the foreign country for you and assist you in contacting local officials in foreign countries or contact them on the parent's behalf. The DOS can also provide information on the issuance of federal warrants against an abducting parent, provide information on passport revocation, and advise you on extradition from the foreign country to effect the return of the child to the United States.
The DOS cannot, however, intervene in private legal matters between parents, and it will not do so. Neither can it enforce an American child custody decree overseas because U.S. decrees are not automatically enforceable outside of U.S. boundaries. Neither can the DOS force another country to decide a given child custody case or enforce its laws in a particular way. The DOS may not act as the U.S. parent's lawyer or represent the parent or in court.
File a 'missing person' report with police
you believe your child has been abducted, you should immediately file a
"missing person" report with your local police department and request that
your child's name and description be entered into the "missing person"
section of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer.
This service is provided for under the Missing Children's Act of 1982.
Through INTERPOL, the international criminal police organization, your
local police department can request that a search for your child be conducted
by the police in the country where you believe your child may have been
taken. All of this may be accomplished without a child custody decree.
Next, you should contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678. With your permission, your child's photograph and description may be circulated to news media in the country where you believe your child has been taken. You should also contact a lawyer to obtain a custody decree, if you do not already have one. In many states, a parent may obtain a temporary custody decree if the other parent has taken the child.
Next, you should request information from DOS about a possible U.S. passport in your child's name, and you should request that your child's name be entered into the U.S. passport name check system. A U.S. passport for a child younger than 18 expires after five years. All U.S. passport agencies and almost all U.S. embassies and consulates overseas are on-line with the name check system.
Finally, you should request that the DOS conduct a welfare and whereabouts visit. The Office of Children's Issues communicates such requests to the U.S. embassy or consulate responsible for the area where you believe your child was taken. Your written request should include:
The child's full name, and date and place of birth
2. The child's passport number, date, and place of issuance
3. Copies of any court orders or police reports
4. The full name of the child's abductor, along with his or her date and place of birth
5. The abductor's passport number, date, and place of issuance
6. The abductor's occupation, probable date of departure, and flight information
7. Details of the abductor's ties to the foreign country, such as the names, address, and telephone numbers of the abductor's friends, relatives, places of employment, or business connections there.
information, you may contact the Office of Children's Issues by telephone
at 1-888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444 . Please be advised that a recent General
Accounting Office report shows that this office's success rate is very
low. ["Specific Action Plan Needed to Improve Response to Parental
Child Abductions," GAO Report No. GAO/NSIAD-00-10, March 2000] It
would be wise to hire your own international lawyer in the United States
or overseas to get the matter handled properly.
The U.S. consular office overseas will try to confirm the location of the child and may request information from local officials on the child's entry or residence in the foreign country. The consulate may ask for a photograph of the child and the abducting parent.
Countries not signatories of Hague Convention
your child has been abducted to a country that is NOT a signatory to the
Hague Convention, you should seek out an international lawyer in the United
States to assist you, and rely upon the assistance of the DOS. Remember,
the DOS cannot act as your attorney or agent in your case. To obtain
authoritative legal advice on the laws of a foreign country or to take
legal action in that country, you should seek out and hire an attorney
in that country, or have your U.S.-based lawyer do it for you. Attorney's
fees may vary widely from country to country. The fee agreements
that you make with your local attorney and with the attorney you hire in
the foreign country should be put into writing as soon as possible to avoid
No matter what you do, you should obtain authoritative guidance as soon as you suspect that your child has either been abducted to a foreign country or is being denied permission to return to the United States. There are also measures non-U.S. citizens can take when their children are abducted overseas and brought to the United States.
Here is our warning again: Your friends, relatives, and co-workers are good sources of bad advice about immigration law and procedures. If you really want to know what to do about an immigration or visa situation, please consult a qualified immigration lawyer. If you don't know one, call the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in Washington, D.C., at (202) 216-2400.
Boyd F. Campbell practices private international law and immigration and nationality law in Montgomery, Alabama, and is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He is a past Chair of the Immigration Law Committee of the American Bar Associationís General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Section, and serves as Chair of the International Law Section of the Alabama State Bar. From 1994 to 1998, he served on the ABA's Coordinating Committee on Immigration Law. Mr. Campbell is listed in The Best Lawyers in America Consumer Guide, published by Woodward/White, Inc. He is a civil law notary, having been appointed by the Alabama Secretary of State to this official position in August, 2001. He is also general counsel of the Alabama Center for Foreign Investment, L.L.C. , Alabama's federally designated, statewide Regional Center. For more information about Mr. Campbell, CLICK HERE.
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