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Japan, India pressed to curb child abductions

Japan and India are among America's most prized allies. Yet to scores of embittered parents across the U.S., they are outlaw states when it comes to the wrenching phenomenon of international child abduction.

The frustrations of these "left-behind" parents run deep. They seethe over Japan's and India's noncompliance with U.S. court orders regarding children taken by the other parent to the far side of the world, and many also fault top U.S. leaders for reluctance to ratchet up the pressure for change.

"If they really made it an issue to solve these cases, I believe they could be resolved tomorrow. ... They don't have the will," said Christopher Savoie of Franklin, Tenn.

Savoie was arrested in Japan last year, and spent 18 days in custody, after a failed attempt to reclaim two children taken from Tennessee by his ex-wife in violation of a U.S. court order.

More than 80 nations have signed an accord aimed at curtailing such incidents, but only a handful of Asian countries are among them. Of the continent's non-signatories, Japan and India pose the biggest problem for the U.S. — accounting for more than 300 cases, involving more than 400 children, opened by the State Department since 1994.

The State Department says it cares deeply about international parental child abductions, which its experts believe will increase as binational marriages become more common.

The department has boosted the staff dealing with abduction cases from 18 to 65 over three years, and says it is working harder than ever to convince Japan and other Asian allies to sign the 1980 Hague Convention on international abduction.

The department's special adviser on children's issues, Susan Jacobs, and its top official for Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, have raised the topic on multiple occasions. Campbell used the word "kidnapping" in protesting the many cases in Japan where mothers living overseas with foreign husbands returned home with their children and kept the fathers from having contact with them.

"This is a hard job — we don't get as many successes as we want," said Stefanie Eye, chief of the State Department's Eastern Hemisphere abductions division. "We want every child in the right place."

Yet many of the affected parents feel current U.S. efforts are inadequate, as does their most vocal champion in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

After Republicans take control of the House in January, Smith hopes to become chairman of a subcommittee with oversight of human rights issues and use that post to push a bill that would toughen the U.S. approach to child abductions.

The bill would establish an Office on International Child Abductions within the State Department, and create a mechanism for imposing sanctions on countries that don't cooperate on such cases.

"We need the full weight of the federal government behind each and every one of these left-behind parents," Smith said. "My bill doesn't guarantee success, but it guarantees their cases will not be ignored. ...We're not going to quit until it's law."

Smith wrote to President Barack Obama on Nov. 10 — prior to Obama's recent Asia trip — urging him to step up pressure on Japan to resolve the pending cases. Simply encouraging Japan to join the Hague Convention isn't sufficient, Smith said, because it wouldn't be retroactive and thus wouldn't help parents like Christopher Savoie.

Savoie, 39, remains unable to see his children, now 10 and 8, and says he has only faint hopes of reuniting any time soon. He said he was told by a State Department official that child abduction was a secondary issue compared to U.S. security and economic ties with Japan.

"We just give up and wave the white flag and kowtow to Japanese citizens committing crimes on U.S. soil," Savoie said. "Because we want Toyota and Nissan to do well, and we want our bases there, we're willing to sacrifice these children."

Another frustrated father is Michael Elias, 26, a former Marine who served in Iraq and now works as a sheriff's officer in New Jersey's Bergen Country.

According to his testimony to Congress, Elias obtained a court order in October 2008 awarding him joint custody of his two children amid the breakup of his marriage to a woman he had met in Japan. He said the woman flew to Tokyo with the children two months later, in defiance of the order, and he has been unable to see them or speak to them by phone even though he has now been awarded full custody by a U.S. court.

Elias — whose son is 3 and daughter almost 5 — has attended several informational meetings convened by the State Department for left-behind parents.

"Every meeting I've ever been to, everybody tells me they're working better, but I don't see any progress at all," he said.

Both Elias and Savoie have sought help from Smith, who in September helped push a resolution through the House urging Japan to sign the Hague Convention and return abducted American children.

"Americans are fed up with our friend and ally Japan," Smith said at the time.

The Japanese Embassy, in response, said Japan is making "sincere efforts to deal with this issue from the standpoint that the welfare of the child should be of the utmost importance."

Many times previously, Japan has said it would consider signing the Hague Convention, but it also has expressed concern that doing so might leave some Japanese women and their children vulnerable to abusive foreign husbands.

Stefanie Eye said that in Japan, unlike many Western countries, it's accepted practice that only one parent — usually the mother — has custody of a child after a divorce. That leaves many fathers, including foreigners, unable to see their children until they are grown up because of lack of visitation rights.

"Part of what we're doing is offering the Hague country perspective of why it's important for children to have access to both parents," Eye said.

The State Department says it knows of no cases where a child taken from the U.S. to Japan by one parent has been ordered returned to the U.S. by Japanese courts.

There has been some progress elsewhere in Asia, Eye said. She cited an announcement by Singapore that it will sign the Hague Convention and a preliminary indication by South Korea that it will do likewise.

"We're seeing a lot of movement," she said. "We're waiting for someone to stand out and be a leader."

For the moment, India shows no signs of being that leader. Though a national law commission recently recommended that India sign the Hague Convention, the government hasn't signaled that this will be a priority, and an External Affairs Ministry spokesman, Vishnu Prakash, told The Associated Press in New Delhi that he had no comment on the issue.

"This government is not really interested in ensuring the children's rights," said Bharati Ali, co-director of HAQ — a non-governmental children's rights group in India.

The State Department's assessment is blunt.

"Once a child has been abducted to India, remedies are very few," says an official advisory. "India does not consider international parental child abduction a crime, and the Indian courts rarely recognize U.S. custody orders, preferring to exert their own jurisdiction in rulings that tend to favor the parent who wants to keep the child in India."

Jeremy Morley, a New York lawyer who specializes in international family law, says India is "a safe haven for child abductors" in part due to its slow-moving court system.

"An abductor has ample time to create facts on the ground in terms of getting the child sufficiently settled into life in India as to justify an Indian court in ultimately deeming that it is best to keep the child in India," Morley writes on his Web site.

The California-based Rakshak Foundation has tried to help numerous Indo-American fathers entangled in cases of alleged child abduction.

Among them is Avinash Kulkarni, 45, of San Diego, who says his son — then 6 months old — was taken back to India by his ex-wife in 1990, and 18 years passed before he saw his son again. He said he won a civil case against his ex-wife in 2001, but made no headway with the Indian legal system in his efforts to make see his son.

"In India, the whole concept of human rights and fairness is nonexistent compared to here," he said. "Fighting that is a losing battle. ... I lost my prime years trying."

Another father, Vipin Gopal, said he has been unable to exercise custodial and visitation rights granted by courts in Connecticut after his daughter was taken to India by his ex-wife four years ago.

He hopes the U.S. intensifies pressure on India to cooperate as part of the broader efforts to expand bilateral ties.

"Recently, during a visit to India, the Obama administration negotiated multibillion dollar trade deals and supported a U.N. Security Council seat for India," Gopal said. "But if we can't negotiate with India about the basic rights of our own children, that's where America as a nation fails."

Rex Arul, an energy consultant from Smyrna, Ga., is trying to regain custody of his 3-year-old daughter, who was taken back to India in July by his wife, a corporate attorney, in the midst of wrangling over a divorce. Arul says he subsequently obtained a U.S. court order awarding him custody, but is not optimistic.

"The cards are stacked against me," he said. "The Indian courts always say the priority is the child's best interest, but in the end it's always rewarding the abductor."

Even among countries that have signed the Hague Convention, noncompliance can be a problem — as evidenced by the case of Sean Goldman, who was abducted to Brazil by his mother in 2004, when he was 4. Only in December 2009, more than year after the mother died, did Brazil's Supreme Court agree that Sean should be returned to his father in New Jersey.

Despite the slow movement in Asia, Stefanie Eye said she found some cause for encouragement: Japan recently opened an office in its foreign ministry to deal with abduction issues and has been asking "good questions" about the impact if it signed the Hague Convention.

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Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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Online:

State Dept. info: http://travel.state.gov/abduction/abduction_580.html

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