Heartache for parents caught in overseas custody battles
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — It often happens like this:
A U.S. soldier stationed overseas meets and marries a non-U.S. citizen. They have a child, then a falling out.
Who gets custody of that child hasn’t been settled — but one parent takes the child to live elsewhere without the other’s consent.
Sometimes it might be the soldier’s home in the United States. Sometimes it’s the spouse’s home in her native land.
Either way, the left-behind parent must navigate a maze of international and local legal procedures to have any chance at a parental relationship with the absent child.
U.S. military parents serving overseas are involved in numerous such child custody disputes and resulting parental abductions, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Stars and Stripes contacted NCMEC — which works with the U.S. State Department on international cases — after learning of three incidents in recent months of U.S. military parents or spouses in South Korea taking children from the other parents in unresolved custody disputes.
Unknown is how widespread the problem is throughout the entire U.S. military. Julia Alanen, NCMEC’s International Division director, said her organization is working about 1,350 parental abduction cases outside the United States but could provide no exact numbers on how many servicemembers are involved.
“We see numerous cases involving U.S. servicemen and women residing abroad,” she said. “Unfortunately, I suspect that actual numbers are much higher, particularly involving countries whose officials are unaware of our resources and/or lack their own.”
U.S. Forces Korea spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Budzyna said USFK keeps no statistics on international child custody disputes involving servicemembers stationed on the peninsula.
But, he said, “There is an active and ongoing command information campaign to educate our soldiers of the administrative or legal requirements that need to be met when marrying a non-U.S. citizen.”
A soldier or spouse having marital problems is entitled to see a legal-assistance attorney, who advises and helps either or both on matters such as divorce, separation and a soldier’s family support obligations, he said. Also, counseling and chaplain’s programs can offer help toward reconciling marital disputes.
“In either of these instances, the matter is respected by the Army as private,” Budzyna said.
Improved communication systems and more overseas travel have meant more international relationships and increased cases of parental child abduction, Alanen said. Often the parent taking the child is doing so thinking it is an act of love and not harmful to the child, she added.
Not so, according to an NCMEC study that asked adults who were parentally abducted as children to share their experiences.
“We learned that these individuals felt profoundly traumatized by the experience, and that the trauma continued to affect them into adulthood,” Alanen said. “Parents typically told the children that the other parent was dead, disinterested or dangerous, then ripped the child from his/her home, school, friends, relatives, toys, pets and cut off all contact with the other parent.”
She said a parent should obtain permission to move away from the local family court before uprooting the child from his or her home and the other parent.
U.S. military personnel serving abroad who are concerned their spouses might take their children to other countries can take preventive measures, Alanen said.
“I would strongly encourage any concerned parent serving abroad to immediately contact the U.S. embassy or consulate in their host country, contact base legal, and contact NCMEC’s International Division for abduction prevention assistance and legal technical assistance,” she said. “There are preventive measures that a parent can take to protect his/her child from being parentally abducted, and certainly we prefer to hear from the parent before an abduction has occurred.”
Getting back a child a parent has taken to another country can be tough, she said. “It can be quite complex in the case of U.S. servicemen and women stationed abroad because their child may never have resided in the U.S. and may possess dual citizenship.”
The parent who is a U.S. citizen may have a birth certificate and passport for the child, she said, but the other parent — acting without the spouse’s knowledge or consent — sometimes can obtain a passport for the child from another country and use it to travel internationally.
Obtaining the return of a child from another country is much easier if that country is among the 75 nations which signed the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, she said. South Korea, the Philippines and Japan have not signed the pact.
“Where two Hague signatory countries are involved, the legal mechanism is fairly uniform for securing the prompt return of the child where the child has been wrongfully removed or retained,” Alanen said.
But lacking such a formal mechanism, she said, the recovery rate is “considerably lower.” Child abduction laws vary from country to country and some countries don’t consider parental child abduction a crime, Alanen explained.
“We have seen a few left-behind parents successfully litigate in the foreign family courts but this has been the exception rather than the rule,” she said.
NCMEC maintains the International Child Abduction Attorney Network for parents overseas whose children have been taken to the United States. It gradually is adding names of attorneys who can litigate in foreign courts in cases in which a child of a U.S. parent has been taken to another country.
Parents’ free guide
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children publishes a free guide for parents, “Family Abduction: Prevention and Response.” It’s available at the organization’s Web site, missingkids.com. The guide addresses such things as risk factors, warning signs an abduction may be forthcoming, family court procedures and civil and criminal remedies.