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House passes bill to aid parents in international custody disputes

Two Canadian men, who asked not to be identified, hold a sign during a demonstration in Tokyo advocating dual custody rights for divorced parents in Japan.

WASHINGTON -- One by one, they told similar stories of agonizing discoveries followed by frustrating battles in foreign justice systems to get back children taken overseas by a spouse or ex-spouse. Some choked back tears, others gave in to them.

The twin sons of Bindu Philips of Plainsboro, N.J., are in India. So are the son and daughter of Arvin Chawdra of Edison, N.J. Or at least he thinks so. He’s really not sure where his ex-wife has the children, so he placed an ad to run in an Indian newspaper next week on his daughter’s birthday looking for information.

"The moment I won the custody case, my wife fled on her own," Chawdra said.

The setting was a House hearing room for a Wednesday news conference with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., shortly before the House unanimously approved Smith’s bill giving the State Department and president new diplomatic tools to pressure countries over international custody disputes.

"We hope this elevates it from a David vs. Goliath to a country-to-country process where we hold countries to account," Smith said. "It is a full-court press to finally elevate this issue."

Today, Smith said, there are no consequences if other countries ignore or even try to thwart American parents’ legitimate rights to custody or visitation. His bill, modeled after laws designed to press countries over human trafficking and religious persecution within their borders, sets out a series of punitive measures ranging from private requests up to economic sanctions.

It also requires the State Department to assign people in every embassy to child abduction cases, and produce clear data on where cases stand.

"Today, we have hope," said David Goldman of Monmouth County, N.J., calling the bill a sign that government really will respond to people in great need.

Goldman’s story is one of the few with a happy ending. His son was returned from Brazil in 2009 after a five-year battle that included national media attention, two trips with Smith to Rio de Janeiro, and finally Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., holding up a trade agreement to get young Sean Goldman back. Goldman continues to assist other parents like him through a foundation that was created in Sean’s name, and Smith put the father’s and son’s names on the bill.

As Goldman introduced the other parents who came to Washington for the vote, he also called attention to a photo on an easel nearby of Michael Elias of Rutherford, N.J., whose ex-wife used illegally issued passports to take their son and daughter to Japan.

An Iraq veteran, Elias is wearing his Marine camouflage uniform and holding daughter Jade. Unable to make the trip on Wednesday, Elias said in an email that passage of the bill gave him "a newfound hope for my family and I to someday reunite."

Smith mentioned Elias during debate on the bill on the House floor, and Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., who represents Elias, recounted his story in detail in a statement submitted to the Congressional Record.

"Our State Department must be on the front lines for people like Michael, who have literally put their life on the line for this country," Pascrell said in the statement.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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