WASHINGTON — The U.S. government would be able to pursue sanctions ranging from a public rebuke to trade and credit suspensions against countries that harbor children abducted by a parent, under a bill approved by a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
The bill from Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., is named The Sean and David Goldman Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act in honor of the Tinton Falls, N.J., man whose five-year fight to get his son back drew international attention.
Goldman knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
His son, Sean, was returned to him in 2009 after his wife took their then-4-year-old home to Brazil in 2004 and never returned. She remarried, then died in childbirth in 2008, and an international custody battle ensued, culminating with the emotional return of Goldman’s son, now a sixth-grader who loves basketball.
“He’s a normal, happy, typical soon-to-be 12-year-old,” Goldman said.
Thousands of parents aren’t as lucky. According to the U.S. State Department, between 2008 and 2010, parents have reported more than 3,200 abduction cases involving some 4,700 children.
One case is that of Paul Toland of Bethesda, Md. He hasn’t seen his daughter Erika since July 2003, when his wife, a Japanese native, moved out of their home on a Navy base in Japan and cut off all contact. She later died but the child’s grandmother won’t relinquish his daughter.
“My daughter is going to grow up not knowing me if we don’t have action,” he said, urging Congress to act quickly.
Nancy Elias of Rutherford, N.J., agreed.
She mourns the grandchildren she hasn’t seen in three years. Her son, Marine Sgt. Michael Elias, returned from fighting in Iraq to find his wife had been having an affair. She took their children to Japan and has refused to allow visits.
“I’m missing out on the most precious gifts of my life — my granddaughter, and my grandson,” Elias said, choking back tears.
Time to act
Goldman said it’s time for action.
“When I see these parents who are still struggling, it breaks my heart because I know what they are going through,” he said. “We need to do something. Our government needs to take this seriously. We want our kids back.”
Under the bill passed Tuesday by the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, the U.S. State Department would have more tools to enforce the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The 1980 treaty, which has 81 countries as signatories, prevents parents from fleeing with their children until a court determines custody.
Japan is the only G-8 nation not to sign the treaty. Under Japanese law, parental child abduction is not seen as a crime. When a couple splits, common practice is for one parent to take full custody of the children. To date, Japan has not enforced any court order for the return of an abducted American child.
For the first time, the Goldman Act would give the U.S. government authority to deal with countries like Japan through strict sanctions, which Smith said would take “us a step closer” to seeing the first U.S. child return from Japan.
“We cannot allow child abductions to flourish as it is,” Smith said. “It is time for an approach that backs our demands for adherence to international obligations with penalties.”
“The expectation is that the president will use all tools necessary to bring our children home in a timely manner,” Smith said.
The bill is now pending action by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It also would need to pass both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.