The U.S. fails children abducted from America
For the millions who followed the story of David Goldman's 5 1/2 -year struggle to retrieve his abducted son, Sean, from Brazil, their Christmas Eve return to the United States was a holiday "miracle." In fact, extraordinary pressures were required to make Sean Goldman the first -- and to date, only -- unlawfully abducted American child returned to the United States by Brazil. Measures included unanimous resolutions in the House and Senate, a senatorial hold on the reauthorization of trade privileges for developing nations, hearings by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, two trips to Brazil by a New Jersey congressman, and multiple personal interventions by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The administration and Congress deserve credit for these efforts. But if that is what it takes to secure the lawful return of one abducted American child, the United States has a serious enforcement problem.
About 2,800 American children have been abducted to other nations. More cases are reported every year as binational marriages become more common in an era of globalization. Few left-behind families can hope to muster the kind of broad-based campaign that eventually persuaded the president of the Brazilian Supreme Tribunal to order Sean Goldman's return to the United States. Nor should they be expected to.
This issue was supposed to have been resolved by the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abductions, which came into force in 1983 and now has 80 signatories, including Brazil and the United States. Under its terms, a child abducted across international borders by a parent or relative must be returned within six weeks to his or her country of habitual residence, where custody issues can be adjudicated lawfully. It is the international equivalent of the interstate compacts that prevent an unhappy father or mother residing in Maryland from taking his or her children to Nevada and contesting for custody there.
But signatories repeatedly refuse to return abducted American children as required by the treaty, and they suffer no consequences. Other nations, including close allies such as Japan, which harbors 99 abducted American children, have refused even to sign the treaty, let alone cooperate in its implementation.
This is not a new problem. In October 1998, Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, decried "the failure by the United States to initiate vigorously diplomatic and law enforcement tools seeking the return of these children." Then-Sen. Joe Biden said at the same hearing: "The act of taking a child in violation of a custodial order . . . across international borders is a heinous crime."
Today, what left-behind parents need are not more declarations of concern but concerted action by Congress and the executive branch to bring their children home. Hopefully, the secretary of state, who raised David Goldman's case in her first meeting with Brazil's foreign minister and whose professional career began as an advocate for children, will override any bureaucratic resistance within the State Department and support much-needed reforms.
First, left-behind families need a high-level advocate in the State Department -- appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and reporting directly to the secretary -- who will ensure that the issue of abducted children is central to U.S. diplomatic deliberations. Today, this issue barely registers, if it appears at all, in most bilateral discussions. An ambassadorial-rank official should be required to report regularly to Congress about every newly abducted child and the status of pending cases in all members' districts and states.
Second, Congress should empower the secretary of state to impose a range of diplomatic, economic and trade sanctions on countries that flagrantly and repeatedly refuse to return children abducted from the United States. The sanctions must have teeth and the department must be willing to employ them. If the threat of sanctions were credible, in fact, it is unlikely that they would have to be employed.
Third, in its annual budget requests for foreign assistance, including military aid, the State Department should be required to report to Congress whether each proposed recipient is cooperating in returning abducted American children.
Finally, Congress should expand programs by the international divisions of the American Bar Association to educate judges and lawyers in other nations about the Hague Convention requirements.
The Goldmans and other left-behind families will never regain the years that have been stolen from them. But Congress and the administration have the power to apply real pressure to nations harboring abducted American children today and make it far less likely that other American families will have to endure such a nightmare in the future.
The writer served as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993. He was an unpaid adviser to David Goldman.