The Harry S. Truman Building at the State Department. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

EVER SINCE his ex-wife wrongly took his son, now 11, to Japan five years ago, Jeffery Morehouse has been fighting for the boy’s return. Mr. Morehouse had been recognized as the sole custodial parent in Washington state, and a Japanese court affirmed that the ruling applies in Japan. Nonetheless, there has been no reunion, no visits, no contact of any sort.

Mr. Morehouse sadly is not alone. Nearly 1,000 children are abducted each year from the United States by a parent and taken to a foreign country; fewer than half of them ever come home. Recognizing the need to help the American parents left behind and bereft, Congress last year gave the State Department more tools to deal with abduction cases by passing the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act. The measure aims to put teeth in U.S. diplomacy by identifying a series of actions — increasing in severity from official protests to suspension of assistance — the State Department may take in bringing abducted children home or getting their cases fairly adjudicated.

A key requirement of the law is that the State Department compile and release an annual report to quantify unresolved cases and identify problem countries. But release of the first report revealed shortcomings in the State Department’s willingness to hold foreign governments to account. Recent hearings held by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who sponsored the Goldman act, spotlighted what he called major gaps, even misleading information, in the report.

Countries were listed as having zero pending abduction cases even when there were cases that had been discussed in previous hearings and the State Department was involved with affected parents. Most notable, as Mr. Smith pointed out, was that in the key section of the report Japan was recorded as having no unresolved cases when there are more than 50 outstanding. The State Department gave Japan a pass for signing on last year to the Hague Convention that governs cross-border child custody disputes, not cataloguing the prior cases. That, of course, is of no help to parents such as Mr. Morehouse.

State Department officials acknowledged the report had gaps; it “did not meet all expectations,” said Susan Jacobs, the department’s special adviser for children’s issues. After Mr. Smith conducted two hearings on the matter, the department revised its report, acknowledging the unresolved cases in Japan. But Mr. Smith said the law demands more than scorekeeping. “With more accurate data reported, it is incumbent upon the Administration to make the other critical adjustments,” he said in a statement, “such as naming Japan along with the 22 other ‘non-compliant’ countries that are now subject to a strong response by the State Department.”

These reports are not academic exercises. They provide guidance to family court judges and parents assessing the risk of abduction in a child’s travel, and they inform congressional decisions about foreign assistance. If the State Department fails to call things as they are, it sends a message that nothing really needs to change after all.