By STEWART M. POWELL HOUSTON CHRONICLE – July 4, 2011, 7:19AM
International parental abductions are on the rise, and many of the children never return
WASHINGTON — For nine gut-wrenching years, Texan Greg Allen has been trying to track down his daughter after her mother absconded to Mexico with the 4-year-old during a rare unsupervised visit after the couple’s contentious divorce.
“When it first happened, I was unable to function,” recalls Allen, 42, an electrical engineer and sonar expert doing doctoral research at the University of Texas’ applied research laboratories in Austin. “I went from being a single parent whose whole life revolved around raising my daughter to being a left-behind parent whose purpose in life was gone.”
Last year, at least 1,500 children were unlawfully taken to foreign countries by a parent who had been living in the United States, including children who were taken even while a parent was serving in the U.S. armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Only 578 abducted children were returned to the United States.
Many of the children – roughly one-third – ended up in Mexico because of the parent’s ties to extended family or Mexico’s proximity.
International parental abductions are “sharply on the rise,” cautions the State Department’s top official on the issue, Ambassador Susan Jacobs. “When an international border is involved, an already tragic situation for the children and left-behind parents is infinitely compounded.”
Congress’ investigative Government Accountability Office has documented at least 6,966 cases of international parental abduction over the decade ending in 2009, most by foreign-born parents returning to their country of birth.
Yet, as Allen learned only too late, chronic ambiguities routinely enable parents to abduct their children and get away with it. Local police rarely take missing child reports arising from custody disputes. Customs and Border Protection agents do not check departing parents or children at airports or border crossings. Fully half of left-behind parents surveyed by the American Bar Association, for example, said ex-partners abducted their children during routine court-approved visits.
No national database
Federal authorities do not maintain a national database of child custody orders from local courts that might help suspicious immigration officers determine the status of a departing child.
Even if the paperwork were available, international airlines routinely have no more than 30 minutes to match a passenger manifest against a missing child report or a court order barring departure.
Abducting parents can face up to three years in prison for taking their child to a foreign country “with the intent to obstruct a parent’s custodial rights.”
A Texas law taking effect Sept. 1 makes the abduction a state felony, as well.
“The reality is, once an abducting parent gets a kid to the departure gate, they’re gone,” says Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, a former criminal court judge and prosecutor who has been working for more than five years to help Houston resident Marty Pate recover his daughter Nicole from Brazil. “Once a child leaves the United States, it’s very, very difficult to get them back.”
Allen miraculously spied his daughter Sabrina in Mexico City in 2003 and subsequently visited her school to talk with her teacher. But the girl and her mother, Dara Marie Llorens, fled and have not been seen since.
Even in the 71 nations such as Mexico that have signed the 1980 Hague Convention on child abduction, local court proceedings can drag on. The accord is designed to speed repatriation of abducted children under the age of 16 to their “country of habitual residence” to resume court-ordered child custody arrangements.
But court proceedings often get sidetracked, particularly in Mexican states engulfed by the drug wars such as San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas.
“We have judges who are afraid to do anything,” says attorney Pamela Brown of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Weslaco, who handles about 20 international child abduction cases a year to and from Mexico. “Judges are terrified that the taking parent might have ties to the cartels so they won’t step in.”
Adds Allen: “With a civil war going on down there, child abduction is just not a high priority.”
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