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Report: DOD to give more help to troops in international child-custody disputes

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Troops who marry foreign nationals while stationed overseas will get more advice about the child custody issues that can plague international marriages gone sour.

The Defense Department has agreed to provide the military legal and family support agencies with more information on the family court systems in countries such as Japan and Germany, where servicemembers have become entangled in complicated court battles to see their children, according a congressionally mandated report issued by the Pentagon in August.

The process and procedures for handling international custody disputes — and measures to help prevent them from turning into parental child abduction cases — will jointly be developed by DOD and the State Department, the report said.

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No timeline for when and how the military will embark on such an information campaign was included in the 13-page report obtained by Stars and Stripes.

Meanwhile, that kind of information is just what troops such as 1st Lt. Andrew Carlisle could use now.

Carlisle leaves for Germany on Friday, hoping to spend his two-week break from Afghanistan with his only child. He hasn’t seen the 3-year-old for more than a year since divorcing her mother, a German national who is raising their daughter in her native country.

The 30-year-old soldier, currently deployed in Helmand Province with the 43rd Sustainment Brigade out of Fort Carson, Colo., has struggled to work out a visitation arrangement with his ex-wife. He is considering pursuing custody through the German court system while he is there next week, an avenue he said he took late last year to no avail.

“No matter what I do, I’m in the wrong,” said Carlisle, who said he spent $5,000 on a German attorney only to have a one-time Christmas visit fall through at the last minute.

But Carlisle has re-opened communication with his ex-wife and has spoken to his daughter regularly since deploying to Afghanistan earlier this year. Still, like many divorced couples with children, their relationship is rocky and navigating a foreign family court system can be daunting.

The problem is beginning to come into focus at the Pentagon, which has been under increasing pressure by members of Congress to address both foreign and domestic custody issues faced by U.S. troops.

From 2007 to 2009, the number of troops who sought help from the U.S. State Department to get visitation rights with their half-American children rose from eight to 34 in 14 countries, the report stated. A similar increase also has been seen in the civilian population, experts have said. The spike in cases in recent years can also be attributed greater reporting, they said.

However, the Defense Department report only included servicemembers who reported their custody cases to the State Department, not those like Carlisle, who is still seeking an amicable agreement with his foreign ex-spouse that can be made official by a non-U.S. court.

The August report “is nothing but a first step,” said Patricia Apy, a New Jersey international family law attorney and a legal consultant to the Defense Department.

Not only are international child custody cases extremely complex, Apy said, but tracking them is among the most difficult aspects for the Pentagon.

The military has not yet been able to grasp the magnitude of the problem that “we see anecdotally as lawyers doing this work,” Apy said.

The author of the Pentagon report was unavailable for comment Monday and Tuesday.

Troops face myriad problems when entering a foreign family court, Apy said. Language barriers, custody and divorce customs that differ greatly from U.S. standards, difficulty finding an attorney and jurisdictional issues, as well as the impact of status-of-forces agreements and treaties such as the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction often converge, making the road to resolution difficult.

The custody problems encountered by troops negatively impacts the military’s warfighting mission and is partially a result of their overseas assignments — two factors that will hopefully prompt military officials to act quickly to help, she said.

In countries such as Germany and Japan – which houses large U.S. military populations and where most of the 34 military abduction cases have been reported — family courts often favor the native parent, adding another hurdle for troops, Apy said.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who ordered the report last year, continues to push international custody issues facing troops.

On Tuesday, he was expected to introduce a resolution on the House floor for debate that would call for altering the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement to assist servicemembers whose Japanese-American children have been kidnapped by Japanese family members. A full House vote on the measure wasn't expected until Wednesday.

H.R. 1326 is “a formal, public condemnation of the abduction and wrongful retention of all children being held in Japan away from their American parents,” Smith wrote Tuesday in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. He called the issue “of paramount importance” to the U.S.-Japan military and economic alliance.

The proposed resolution, which Smith failed to gain Senate support for when he introduced it last year, does not require U.S. action but continues to raises awareness of the issue and is expected to pass this year, Smith said.

Smith said the resolution would also lay the groundwork for passage of the International Child Abduction Prevention Act, which would impose economic sanctions against countries that do not cooperate with the United States in resolving international child abduction issues. It was also introduced by Smith last year.

reedc@pstripes.osd.mil

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