Cuban Case Throws Spotlight on Abducted Children Taken Overseas

While politicians and diplomats wade into the custody battle for Elian Gonzalez under the bright glare of publicity, thousands of American parents are being left in the dark about the fate of their own children abducted by a family member and taken overseas.More than 350,000 American children are abducted or prevented from returning home every year, and many of them end up being taken abroad. The U.S. Department of State says it is tracking 1,200 active cases of children who've been abducted by a parent and taken overseas, but other agencies involved with children say the overall figure is probably much higher.Nancy Hammer, director of the international division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said studies show that between 10 and 20 percent of the more than 150,000 abductions intended to permanently alter custody arrangements end up with a child being taken out of the country.Unfortunately, these youngsters do not receive the same kind of attention that's being showered on Elian. Instead, Hammer said, "Parents really feel like no one is listening." For the past four months, worldwide attention has focused on the 6-year-old Cuban boy who was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida. His mother drowned in an attempt to flee Cuba for the United States. The boy's U.S. relatives say returning him to the Castro dictatorship would destroy his life. His father in Cuba wants his son returned.Since 1995 the U.S. government has contracted with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to act as a case manager, both for children who are abducted and brought to the United States and for American children who've been abducted and taken abroad. American officials hoped that making the return of foreign children a priority would prod other countries into doing more to return U.S. children to their homes.It hasn't always worked, Hammer said.Only 54 countries, including the United States, have signed an international treaty that provides a legal mechanism for parents to seek their children's return and requires countries to honor each others' judicial custody decisions. And even nations that did sign the 1988 Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, including Sweden, Austria and Mexico, do not always comply with the agreement, according to a State Department official who recently testified before Congress.There have been some successes. Since the treaty was ratified, more than 2,000 children have been returned to their families in the United States. The rate of return for children who've been abducted and brought illegally to this country is 90 percent. But some children's advocates fear that the politically-motivated delay in deciding the Gonzalez case may tarnish that record and bolster the arguments of nations that aren't already complying with the Hague agreement."We have so many good reasons to feel good about kids who have been wrongfully taken to the United States," said Hammer. "Then we have this 500-pound gorilla that makes it difficult to have a conversation about it."Complicating abduction cases is the fact that many of the children are from multicultural families and may have citizenship both in America and in the country where they are taken. Ultimately, the courts in the country in which they're being held decide their fate.And that presents the parents left behind with a double whammy, Hammer said. On top of the anguish of having a child snatched away, parents are forced to learn the intricacies of both the U.S. legal system and that of a foreign nation. And those are the lucky ones, the parents who know where their children are. Some parents remain in the dark for years about their children's whereabouts. Georgia Hilgeman is one such parent. Founder of the Vanished Children's Alliance, Hilgeman's 13-month-old daughter disappeared in the late 1970s while in the custody of her ex-husband. He claimed he didn't know what happened to their daughter, and for 4 1/2 years Hilgeman lived with the possibility that she might be dead. She finally located her daughter in Mexico, where she had been living with her husband's relatives. But by then, as in so many abduction cases, the child had acclimated to her new environment and thought the relatives were her parents. Having to wrench her daughter from all that she knew was excruciating, Hilgeman said. Nevertheless, after smoothing the way with a $21,000 "donation" to the Mexican government, Hilgeman brought her daughter home. Her husband was tried and went to jail. Hilgeman said the rationale behind her daughter's abduction was her ex-husband's desire for revenge. That's a common theme, she said: Power, control and revenge are the three main motives in all the abduction cases she works on. She cited another case she worked on involving an Iranian woman who had taken her two children back to Iran. She went to jail for more than four years rather than allow her American husband custody rights."It's been a nightmare," Hilgeman said. "The kids lost both parents."Some think the American legal system shares some of the blame. David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, D.C., said some child abductions could be prevented if judges took the parental rights of both mothers and fathers seriously."We have focused so much attention on financial child support but have ignored the parenting," Levy said. "If both parents knew they'd be actively involved in the children's lives (after divorce), there would be less incentive to want to kidnap."While guaranteed access may prevent some abductions, Hilgeman said she thinks a national database of custody orders would be a more active deterrent. Information on any child being taken out of the United States could be run through it to determine which parent had custody and whether there was a risk of abduction. "The typical motivation is about the other parent, it's not about the child," she said. Abductions tend to happen around the time of a custody hearing or separation, when emotions are running high, jealousies abound and financial issues cloud judgment. "No amount of contact or access is going to solve that problem," she said.

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