The military will be required to submit a report on the number of troops who have been cut off from their children by family members overseas during the last two years, according to an amendment in the newly approved Defense Authorization Bill.
Though it stops short of requiring the Defense Department to implement new policies to assist servicemembers affected by international child abduction, the amendment is intended to spur such a move, according to sponsor Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
"This will be the catalyst for significant reform," Smith told Stars and Stripes on Thursday.
The report, which is due to Congress within 180 days, requires the military to document current practices to assist servicemembers entangled in overseas custody battles. Smith, however, said there appears to be no consistent policy within the DOD to address the problem.
The amendment came as good news to troops such as Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland, who has been fighting for rights to his 7-year-old daughter in Japan since she was a baby. While stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, Toland married a Japanese woman who he claims later abducted their daughter in 2003. Toland’s ex-wife died in 2007 and his former mother-in-law refuses to allow visitation, he said.
While U.S. laws provide for custody rights for both parents after a divorce, not every country protects those rights nor provides them.
In Japan, more than 100 Japanese-American children are currently being kept away from their American parent, mostly fathers and many active-duty troops or former servicemembers. Japanese courts typically award custody to mothers and do not enforce visitations for non-custodial parents, nor do those courts recognize foreign custody orders.
Troops need to understand the laws of the countries where they’re stationed, said Toland, now based in Maryland.
The State Department tracks international child abduction incidents and officials have said the caseload in Japan has doubled since last year — due to the rise of international marriage and divorce, as well as increased reporting.
Smith said there is a need to ensure the best legal advice is given to troops seeking military assistance in international divorce and custody cases.
Smith this summer also introduced the International Child Abduction Prevention Act, which has yet to make its way through the legislative process. That legislation would impose economic sanctions against countries that do not cooperate in resolving international child abduction issues.
The amendment requires the DOD to report:
The number of children abducted from military parents
The number of children who have been returned to left-behind military parents
Any DOD action to facilitate returns
Measures taken by the DOD to prevent abductions
Psychological counseling, financial assistance, legal services and leave for travel provided for left-behind military parents
How it communicates services and information related to international child abduction to left-behind military parents
Training provided to those who provide legal assistance to the left behind military parents
From the office of Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.