International Parental Child Abductions

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Ambassador Susan S. Jacobs
   Ambassador Special Advisor
Ernie Allen, President & Ceo, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Washington, DC
May 2, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello and welcome to the U.S. Department of State and to the Foreign Press Center. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between a senior state department official and an international NGO where you can watch and participate in the exchange of ideas. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Public – in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today, we are here to discuss international parental child abductions and how the government and civil society are working to prevent and resolve cases. We’ve received questions as usual on today’s topic from all around the world through our blog, DipNote, and we’ve selected several for this broadcast. Now let’s meet our guests.

We are so privileged to have with us Ambassador Susan Jacobs who is the Special Advisor to the Secretary for International Children’s Issues here at the State Department. Oh, thank you so much for participating with us today.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Thank you, Cheryl. I’m delighted to be here.

MS. BENTON: Great. We’re also very grateful to be joined by Ernie Allen, who is the President and CEO – and I’ve got to say – of one of the most important national and international organizations, which is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Thank you for joining us today here today, Allen.

MR. ALLEN: No, thank you, Cheryl.

MS. BENTON: Great. The Department of State has no higher priority than to safeguard the welfare of U.S. citizens abroad. And one of our highest concerns is the welfare of our most vulnerable, the children who have been victimized in international parental child abduction cases. Susan, could you start us off by talking about your role as Special Advisor in this very important area?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Sure, Cheryl. Thank you. Secretary Clinton has been a lifelong advocate for children’s issues. And so she created this position to bring greater awareness to the dangers of parental child abduction and also to the adoption issue. And she charged me with encouraging countries to join Hague and to ensure that our partners in the Conventions are implementing it properly.

She also asked me to establish good relationships with organizations like NCMEC and other organizations that promote children’s rights and protect them.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Now Ernie, could you talk a little bit about the mission at NCMEC – (laughter) – I love that.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Otherwise it takes too long to say.

MR. ALLEN: Absolutely. I love that. Cheryl, we are a – as you point out – we’re a non-governmental organization. But we’re a unique non-governmental organization in that we work in partnership with the United States Department of Justice, with the State Department. Now, we’re mandated by Congress to serve as the national resource center for missing and exploited children. To millions of Americans, we’re the milk carton people. We circulate the photos of missing children through a network of 400 private sector partners. And we work with law enforcement in the United States and around the world. Our goal is to help families and to bring the children home.

MS. BENTON: Well, that is really great. I guess my first question is: How does the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children work together with your office, Susan? I would be interested in how that convergence happens.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Well, one of the things that NCMEC does for us is when children are abducted into the United States, NCMEC, through their law enforcement contacts and their liaison with law enforcement, helps us find these children, which is the first step in getting them home. And previously, they did all that work independently of us. And then we took over that responsibility again in 2008.

But another important thing that NCMEC does is to help parents whose children have been abducted overseas, American families whose children are taken overseas, by liaising with international law enforcement, with Interpol, with the FBI. And they also help the parents by providing them at least one trip with access which is really important, because most of these parents don’t have the money or the resources to be able to do this on their own. And there are a couple of particular cases that I’m aware of where the parents have been incredibly appreciative of the work that NCMEC does for them.

MS. BENTON: Well, I can imagine. Why don’t you tell me your perspective on how you all work together and what that really means to these parents and to these countries?

MR. ALLEN: Well, Cheryl, I think it means a lot.


MR. ALLEN: I mean, the reality is we work hand in hand with the Office of Children’s Issues, and there was no organization, no person more enthusiastic about Secretary Clinton’s decision to name Ambassador Jacobs to this position. I think it sends a loud, clear message to the American public, to these searching parents, regarding how important this issue is and that we need to do more because these are American children away from their custodial parents in the United States or foreign children who have been brought to the United States. So our case workers work closely with Ambassador Jacob’s team, not just to help locate the children, which is our primary focus, but also – as she points out – to assist these families in any way we can.

So I think it’s a great partnership. I think the level of success is the best it’s ever been. But there’s still too many children who we’ve not yet been able to bring home, and so there’s more work to do.

MS. BENTON: Absolutely. Could you talk a little bit about The Hague Abduction Convention?


MS. BENTON: What is that, and how does that work?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: I’ll try to explain.


AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Actually, this is a Convention that now has 63 partners. It is open to any country in the world, and it really focuses on creating a legal framework where countries with differing legal systems can resolve one basic question: What is the child’s habitual residence? That is really the only question that needs to be answered. So when a child is abducted from the United States, let’s say to France, all the French courts need to do is decide: Was this child living in America? And if so, the child needs to be returned to the United States for any further legal proceedings.

So we work very closely with the permanent bureau. There is a photograph of us working with Ignacio Goicoechea, who is one of their legal advisors in Argentina with the Argentine central authority so that we can discuss with them, “How do we do this job better?” How do we get law enforcement engaged? How do we ensure that the executive branch of another country is working closely with us, as well as the judiciary? And so The Hague Convention has a permanent bureau that meets in The Hague, and we work closely with them in cooperation with other countries in trying to ensure compliance with the Convention.

But as I said, it’s one question: What is the child’s habitual resident?

MS. BENTON: And is The Hague Convention the best tool for resolving these cases? I hear what you’ve said, but does it really work?

MR. ALLEN: Well, I think the answer to that is we think it is absolutely the best tool that we have.

MS. BENTON: I gotcha.

MR. ALLEN: Obviously, more countries need to be signatories to The Hague Convention. The goal is to create a uniform consistent model worldwide so that it doesn’t matter where the child is taken. The point, as Ambassador Jacobs indicated, is to return the child to the place of habitual residence so that those courts can make the determination. We are frustrated by the lack of consistent application. And so we have worked with The Hague to create good practice guides for signatory countries. We have worked with The Hague on research to try to measure the level and degree of compliance so that there’s a kind of scorecard so you can identify those countries that are signatories in name only.

And then the big challenge, I think, is simply how do we apply it in the most consistent way possible? There are exceptions provided under the Convention. In some countries, those exceptions have become the rule. And the goal is to build an international system that creates greater consistency and more certainty so that these parents don’t feel isolated and left behind and that nobody cares.

MS. BENTON: Right. I have a couple questions here. We’ve all seen something on maybe a 60 Minutes or a 20/20 where there is some real desperation out there, and of course America is a part of the Convention. What happens if your country is not? Can you use what is there, or are you just out of luck?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Well, it’s much harder because there is no treaty that we can point to that says you promised that you were going to do this and now you need to do it, otherwise we will nag you to death and you will have to do it. So it’s just much, much harder. There are remedies for parents whose children are taken to a country that is not party to a Convention, but it’s much harder for them to access the legal system. Unfortunately, we are not attorneys at our various embassies. We are not allowed to represent Americans in court. We can give them a list of lawyers, but that – it’s much better if a country is party to The Hague.

MS. BENTON: Right. Is that your experience as well?

MR. ALLEN: I think that’s exactly right. But I think it’s also important to note that there are success stories. There are countries that are non-Hague signatories from which we are getting American children back. For example, India, which we hope will soon be a signatory, is a country in which courts have on occasion returned children to the United States. The State Department and the U.S. Government has also had some success with negotiating bilateral agreements with individual countries.

So even though they’re not a party to a global treaty, you can work with individual countries. The goal in each case is to figure out, within that legal system and based upon the resources and the people who are there in that country, can you work with it? Can you work through it? Can you do whatever’s necessary to get the child back? I think we’re making progress, but I certainly agree with Ambassador Jacobs that it’s far more difficult in non-Hague countries.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. It’s kind of sad. So I was curious, what events are planned for both organizations to raise awareness about the National Missing Children’s Day on May 25th? I know that’s pretty much the focus right now.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Well, this is a great start. (Laughter.) This is an excellent start.

MS. BENTON: Good. Good. Yeah.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: We are hosting an open house on May 16th for left behind parents. And we will have a lot of resources. Ernie will be there, as well as Interpol, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, all of our partners in trying to bring children home. We are doing messages on DipNote, the Blog, and then we will be participating in Missing Children’s Day on the 25th. That’s just some of the events that we’re doing.

But we are trying to raise awareness about the issue. And I think that the biggest message is for parents not to forget why they fell in love and married each other, and not to take their animosity out on their children; that there is a way to resolve these cases with the least harm to the children.

MS. BENTON: But I guess they just get so caught up, they just lose sight of that, don’t they, in many cases? Not every case.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Yes. In the cases that we --

MS. BENTON: You guys see.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: That’s what happens.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: We only see the bad cases.

MS. BENTON: Right. And one of the neat things I – Ernie and I were talking about this before – is the Secretary’s commitment, and what she’s done to raise this profile – she’s amazing.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: She’s an amazing woman.

MS. BENTON: Right.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: And she raises this issue all around the world.

MS. BENTON: Right.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: This is a very important issue to her, and – I mean, my job is – I mean, Ernie mentioned India. We have had very, very productive conversations with India over the last two years about joining the Convention. And one thing we have been able to point out to them is: Your judges are already, in some cases, making Hague-like decisions. So it should be easy for you to join this Convention.

MS. BENTON: Right. So we hope that happens soon, right?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Very soon, we hope.

MR. ALLEN: Cheryl, the – you mentioned the leadership of the Secretary in all this. One of the things that she has said consistently, that I think is so important here, is that this issue is not about obscure legal issues or legal interpretations. It’s fundamentally an issue of human rights. And that’s really what it’s all about. And so I think there is enormous progress being made. That’s not enough for some frustrated parents out there who have battled, have done all the things they’re supposed to but haven’t gotten their children back. But there is progress. And on May 25th this year, we commemorate National Missing Children’s Day for the 30th time.


MR. ALLEN: But I think it’s also important to note that May 25th is being observed as International Missing Children’s Day in Canada, in the UK, in Romania, in Greece, in Portugal, in Brazil --

MS. BENTON: That’s huge. That’s huge.

MR. ALLEN: -- in Mexico. It is becoming a global day of observation and a recommitment to reunite more families and bring these children home. The other point I want to add in response to what you just said just a few minutes ago is that research has shown that in 80 percent of these cases, the motive for the abduction of the child is not love of the child; it’s anger or revenge directed at the ex-spouse. So these kids pay the price; they’re the victims. And this has long-term impact, emotionally, psychologically, in some cases, physically. So this is not a situation in which people can say, “The kid’s with the parent. How bad can it be?” The answer is it can be pretty bad.

MS. BENTON: Right, right. Exactly. So I want to bring our viewers in, and we’ve gotten some questions from our blog, DipNote.

Patrick in California writes: Can you tell me how the Department of State defines the word abduction?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Yes. Abduction is the wrongful removal of a child from parental custody.

MS. BENTON: Simple as that, right?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: It’s as simple as that. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: Right, right. Okay. That’s great. That was pretty straightforward. So Denise in --

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: And I thank Patrick for that question. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: Right, because that was – a clarifying point.


MS. BENTON: You were going on about NCMEC, et cetera, and there was a pretty straightforward question.

So Denise in New Jersey writes: Why is there no real advocacy on the part of the U.S. Government for abducted American children? Parents who have filed cases consistently recount stories of exasperation in dealing with agencies and organizations.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Well, I appreciate the question, and I know that unless your child is returned to you, you are going to be frustrated and angry, and I get that. I can’t, as a parent, imagine anything worse than having your child removed from you. But I would like to assure Denise that the State Department is working non-stop to raise this issue with foreign governments. The Secretary raises it at every opportunity, as do other principals in the State Department. I travel all around the world bringing particular cases to the attention of foreign governments and advocating for them to make the right decisions about returning children that have been wrongfully removed from their parents.

MS. BENTON: And you work hand-in-glove there, don’t you, with that?

MR. ALLEN: Absolutely. And let me just reiterate what Ambassador Jacobs said. I think the U.S. Government today is playing a much more aggressive advocacy role in these cases than it’s ever played. There have been some high profile cases. For example, one recently in which the Secretary of State brought up this issue to the foreign minister of another country regarding a particular child. The fact that she has appointed Ambassador Jacobs to her role sends a message to how seriously she views this problem. It’s frustrating to us that we can’t get all these kids back. But I think the message is that the U.S. Government and its NGO partners are doing more today than ever before to try to bring these kids home.

MS. BENTON: Great. We have another question from George in Brazil. I think this one’s going to be for you: Why has the U.S. Government --

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: It’s a great question.

MS. BENTON: -- not implemented the policy of exit immigration controls like the majority of other nations have? First of all, what does that mean? And why haven’t we done it?

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Well, first I want to thank George for a great question. Exit controls would mean when you leave the United States, an immigration officer would look at your passport and make sure that there are no wants or warrants out for you that would prevent your departure. It would also help us to know who’s remaining in the country and enforce immigration policies. This is not something that the State Department is responsible for. I know that Congress has been debating this issue for, I don’t know, 15, 20 years, but without being able to find a resolution.

We have entry controls, but we don’t have exit controls. Most countries don’t care so much about how you get in, but they want you to leave. And so – (laughter) – they check you out. But it would – but I would like to say that despite the lack of exit controls, we do have some protections in place to prevent the wrongful removal of children from the United States.

We have a two-parent consent rule for all children under the age of 16, which means that both parents have to approve that child getting a passport. Now that works much better if the child only has one nationality; it doesn’t work as well if a parent is able to go to an embassy – a foreign embassy here in the United States and get a passport for the child in some other name.

We also have a program where a parent can report to us that they believe their child will be abducted or wrongfully removed and that they have a court order that does not permit that. And if they give us that information, we can pass it to the airlines and to Customs and Border Protection and hopefully prevent the departure of the child from the United States.

So there are a few things that we can do. It’s not enough, and these rules can be easily circumvented.

MS. BENTON: Oh, I’m sure. Now, do you advocate as well with Congress? As she said – Ambassador said 13 years we’ve been trying to get something done. Are you part of that advocacy?

MR. ALLEN: We are; and as she points out, this a serious problem. There is a prevent departure system through Homeland Security for non-U.S. citizens. And there are discussions in Congress right now regarding expanding that to U.S. citizens, but there’s some legal and constitutional challenges there. Clearly, we need to have those kinds of systems in place. The best way to deal with these cases of international child abduction is simply to prevent them. And this is one way to make that happen.

MS. BENTON: Yes. Very good. We have another question from Denise in New Jersey. She writes: When a country is designated as non-compliant or demonstrating patterns of non-compliance with The Hague Convention, does this trigger any specific action on the part of the U.S. Government? And what would then be the role of NGOs in that regard?


MR. ALLEN: I think this is an issue that the State Department addresses in terms of taking steps with other countries to try to assist in improving compliance. We funded research through a law professor in the UK for The Hague Convention on the measure of compliance, on how countries are doing, and then we attempt to work with The Hague to encourage those countries to improve their level of compliance. But I think this is largely a process of education and encouragement. I don’t see any legal hammers that we could use to bring about compliance. And the research showed that – not surprisingly with now 86 total signatories, about 63 I think you said that are active and compliant with the United States – the level of compliance varies widely, and it’s like a lot of other challenges.

And it’s one of the reasons what NGOs like ours are trying to do is to educate and persuade. There are a lot of judges whose position is: I’m a judge. I don’t care what a judge in another country has said. I’m going to decide what I think is in the best interest of this child. What we’re trying to avoid is re-litigating these cases one country at a time. And that’s a long process, but I think both of us are actively engaged in it.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: And if I could mention, we also have a compliance report. And it cites countries for noncompliance. It rates them on three different criteria, judicial compliance, legal compliance, executive branch compliance. And in a couple of countries that we cited this year, we got compliance afterwards. We went and talked to them. We explained why we had found them noncompliant. And we have had returns from those countries afterwards.

In another country that we just visited, they joined the Convention 17 years ago, never wrote implementing legislation, never did anything to adhere to the Convention and the attorney general of this country said to me, “Well, I don’t understand. It’s only one case.” I said, “Well, I’ll bring his mother here and you tell her that it’s only one case.” They wrote their legislation. They’re going to grandfather this case and deal with it.

MS. BENTON: You put a human face on it.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: So I think that the education that we do, the education that NCMEC helps us do, the interactions with other central authorities, working with the permanent bureau, having special commission meetings, where sometimes countries get called out for their non-compliance, are very, very helpful in getting countries to adhere to their treaty obligations.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. I like what – that you put a human face on it in that one case. It makes all the difference in the world, right?

Well, we’re at the close and it’s very sad --

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: Wow. It went by so quickly. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: -- because this is such a good conversation – such a great conversation, and maybe, Susan, you could share some final thoughts with us, and then Allen, if you could as well.

AMBASSADOR JACOBS: I know how frustrating it must for a parent to have a child abducted, and I know that we could do more, and we are trying to. We have more officers now working on abduction cases, we are trying to build better relationships, but until we get every child home we won’t be successful. And we’re not forgetting about any child, no matter how long the case has been open. But – and I would also like to encourage parents to let us know when this happens so that we can keep better records, so that we can continue to work with countries that are non-compliant to urge their compliance.

MS. BENTON: Very good. Ernie, before you make your comment, I do have a question: Is it your organization responsible for the Amber Alerts? I know that’s a burning question out there, I just know it.

MR. ALLEN: Well, it is. The Amber Alert was created as a result of one community. So it was the idea of the Dallas-Fort Worth Radio Broadcasters Association and Dallas-Fort Worth area law enforcement after the abduction and murder of one little nine-year-old girl in Arlington, Texas in 1996. They applied it; it worked. They came to us in 1990. We went to the FCC, helped build a system. Congress then passed a law in 2003. There are now 120 Amber plans across the United States. Five hundred and seventy-two children have been saved, rescued as a direct result of Amber alerts.

And the most amazing thing is the power of a good idea: today, the Amber alert has been implemented in Canada, parts of Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Greece, Romania. It is expanding world-wide. And we act as the hub on behalf of the Justice Department for taking the reports from law enforcement and then mobilizing what we call secondary Amber alerts, utilizing Facebook, the internet, there’s a wireless Amber alert that all the major cell phone providers are engaged in. So it is a concept that is free and works and saves kids’ lives. So the answer is yes, we’re involved, but it was not our idea. (Laughter.)

MS. BENTON: But that’s okay. Because your organization’s wonderful and I just appreciate that.

MR. ALLEN: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: Well, that concludes this session of Conversations. I’d like to thank Special Advisor, Ambassador Susan Jacobs, and Ernie Allen for sharing your work and knowledge with us. I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century and our work with non-governmental organizations around the globe. We look forward to engaging with you very soon. Thank you very much.