Providing assistance in cases of international parental abductions

August 7, 2012

More than 1,300 children living in the United States were victims of international parental abductions in 2011 — taken to a foreign country and kept there without one parent’s permission.

As a member of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, it is Scott Renner’s job to provide assistance to the parent whose child has been taken away without their consent to either Mexico or Canada.

In this role, Renner and his staff help aggrieved parents contact the proper authorities in Mexico or Canada, get legal assistance, locate their children, negotiate voluntary settlements or begin the judicial process for the child’s return so that the issue of custody can be resolved by a court in the U.S. Renner does not make decisions on who should have custody, but steps into the breach to help parents who often have nowhere else to turn.

“We don’t judge their cases. It’s not about who is a better parent,” said Renner. “A judge in Mexico is supposed to decide if the child is to be sent back to the United States, and a judge in the United States will decide which parent should have custody.”

Renner said the cases are often difficult, contentious and emotional. They involve navigating different judicial systems, different legal definitions of custody and many other obstacles.


(U.S. Department of State)

“We don’t deal with happy families and the cases are often complicated,” said Renner. “It may not always turn out well, but we give them a voice, explain the laws and procedures and help them as best we can.”

About one-third of all reported international parental child abductions from the United States involve Mexico. According to the latest statistics, 1,367 children were reported abducted by parents and taken to foreign countries in 2011, with 465 of those going to Mexico. Mexico has been a focal point for a number of reasons, including strong cultural and social and economic ties with the U.S., many of cross-border relationships, a great deal of immigration back and forth and a very long border.

Renner said some abducted children are never returned, some cases take years to resolve and others are settled relatively quickly. He said improved cooperation with Mexican authorities has helped, with 180 children returned to the United States from Mexico in 2010 and 250 in 2011.

“One of the biggest problems we have is locating the kids. Mexico is a chaotic country,” said Renner. “Kids can be missing for eight to 10 years.”

In one case, Renner said, a child was abducted by a parent in the United States and taken to a town in Mexico that had barricaded itself from the drug traffickers. He said a local judge was “brave enough’ to pursue the matter, negotiated with the child’s grandmother and got an agreement to send the youngster back to the mother in the United States.

Renner became the first chief of a newly-created Mexico and Canada branch in September 2010 shortly after the United States’ relationship with Mexico on parental abductions hit a low point. The State Department had cited Mexico as “not compliant” with the provisions of the Hague Abduction Convention, a treaty designed to return an abducted child promptly to his country of habitual residence.

Colleagues said Renner promoted coordination and collaboration with Mexico, and helped improve a strained relationship, expedite new cases and resolve many of those that had been backlogged.

Beth Payne, director of the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues, said Renner “worked on the diplomatic level to change way we dealt with Mexican officials on child abduction issues.”

“He traveled to Mexico, worked with different groups, met with government officials, established personal relationships and strong connections, talked about what was in their interest and ours, and got positive solutions to many cases,” said Payne. “He has created the model that we are now following in the rest of the office.”

Renner, a Foreign Service Officer, joined the State Department in 1997 and has had assignments in Nigeria, Chile, Columbia and Poland. This month, he will be promoted from his current job to serve as division chief for Western Hemisphere Outgoing Abductions.

Renner said his job, like many of his other assignments, have given him a chance to “help people solve their problems.”

“I have always been motivated to make a difference on a personal level,” said Renner. “It is really rewarding for me and I am getting paid to do it.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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