Posted in: Custody & Visitation
There are some things we do not want to think about when we should: pre-nuptial agreements when we have just become engaged; purchasing cemetery plots when we are alive and well; or that our marriage may one day end in divorce—and that children born of that marriage could become the targets of parental abduction. Life requires the living to think about and prepare for the worst, often as a corollary to its happiest times. The time to prepare for the worst is when everything is going well, while we still have the sense that we are in control of a situation. Therefore, the time to begin protecting your child from the threat of international parental abduction is before there is a reason to do so, before there is friction, divorce and a basis for your foreign national spouse to consider fleeing the United States with your child.
Your considerations for protecting your child will change if the marriage disintegrates into divorce. A marriage of individuals with different nationalities may present unique aspects. There is basic information you should know and understand about the unique aspects in your marriage. If possible, you may consider arming yourself with this basic knowledge early in your relationship. Then, your child should know certain basics as they grow up, about handling threatening situations. If and when friction and conflict do enter your marriage, there are further options to consider for protecting your child. Finally, should your marriage end up in the hands of a court, you may, with the assistance of an experienced family law attorney, secure additional protections through court orders. Considered below are some options for protecting your child through these stages:
There are various laws which come into play in the case of actual international parental abduction. One of the major laws pertinent to this issue is the Hague Convention. This is an international agreement signed by certain countries which provides that the participating countries will enforce all judgments and injunctive orders of the other participating countries. The Hague Convention is often behind extradition back to the U.S. where an individual facing criminal charges here flees to a member country. A treaty within the Hague Convention known as the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction aims to secure the return of children abducted from their home country. Knowing generally about this agreement and treaty is an important part of arming yourself to protect your child. If your spouse’s home country is not a participating country to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, recovery of an abducted child may be exceedingly difficult. Knowing this information from the very beginning will inform you as to how aggressively you may need to pursue protection for your child in the future.
Children born to parents of different nationalities may have dual citizenship. You should know and understand the citizenship status of your child. When a child has dual citizenship, the foreign government of your spouse’s home country may provide the child, like the foreign national parent, with a passport and other relevant travel documents. The foreign nation’s embassy or consulate may be able to help you determine if your child has dual citizenship.
Before your relationship becomes contentious, you may consider preparing and signing a joint stipulation indicating that neither you nor your spouse will individually seek travel documents for your child, assuming they do not already have documents. In an abundance of caution, you can deliver a copy of the stipulation to relevant offices in the foreign nation and the U.S., Canada and Mexico. If your child already has travel documents, you and your spouse can select a neutral third party to hold all family passports and travel documents under specific instructions.
Your child should know his or her full name, home address and telephone number with area code and how to use the telephone to call home. With the added international aspect of the abduction concern, your child should also know how to make long-distance, collect, and international calls; know how to call 911 in an emergency; and know how to call the operator. Teach your child that he or she should always call home when feeling threatened or scared.
If your marriage goes to an irreparable place, consider becoming more aggressive with your attempts to evaluate and react to the threat of flight. It may eventually be critical when dealing with domestic and international authorities that you prepare and maintain lists of important information about your spouse, such as his or her: contacts; acquaintances; family and friends both in the U.S. and in any foreign nation; passport numbers; immigration status; and, any other travel, visa or work document numbers. Of the same critical importance would be maintaining a complete, detailed written description of your child, including: physical description; date of birth; identifying characteristics and other unique physical attributes; your child’s fingerprints collected by local law enforcement; and, a picture of your child updated on a monthly basis.
On an age-appropriate basis, you may consider discussing honestly with your child the potential for parental abduction. Your child should be aware that he or she should never travel without you present and that if he or she is in an airport or otherwise traveling without you present, he or she should ask for help from police, if possible. Such a safety plan should be in place at all times and your child should be reminded of the plan frequently.
Once you are enmeshed in legal divorce proceedings, a qualified family law attorney can help you obtain an order establishing your sole custody, how much contact your foreign national ex-spouse will have with your child and the consequences for failure to follow the letter of the order. Joint custody agreements are precarious with a dual-citizenship child because a foreign judge may interpret such an agreement as permitting your child to be retained in the foreign nation. In the event that a sole custody agreement is not awarded, it is important to consider naming yourself as the primary, residential custodian. The order should also specify where the child lives and further details about exactly when and where visitation with your ex-spouse will take place. Upon request, the court may agree to suspend visitation until your spouse guarantees that he or she will not abduct the child. You may also request that your spouse be awarded only supervised visitation.
After you have obtained an enforceable custody order, you should provide copies to your child’s school and/or daycare and doctor’s office specifying that your child is not to be released to your ex-spouse or anyone other than yourself or specified, authorized persons under any circumstances. A copy of the order should also be provided to passport issuing agencies, though federal law now requires that for children 16 and under both parents must give permission for issuance of a passport and each child 16 and under must appear in person with his or her parents who must show ID and proof of parental relationship to the child.
You or your attorney may ask the U.S. Department of State to enter your child’s name into the U.S. Department of State’s Passport Alert system. With this safeguard in place, you will receive notice if a passport application for your child is received anywhere in the U.S. or U.S. Embassy or consulate in another country. With a court order granting you sole custody or requiring your signature for your child to travel, the U.S. Department of State may be able to refuse issuance of a passport for your child.
The unique aspects of a marriage between individuals of different nationalities give rise to unique concerns of parental abduction and the specter of having to fight against a foreign government for your child. With those concerns comes the necessity of protecting your child at every phase of your family life—in good times and bad. Like discussing a pre-nuptial agreement on your engagement day, it will likely be unpopular to discuss these concerns in the environs of a happy marriage, but if you wait to prepare for the worst until the worst is upon you, your efforts to protect your child from international parental abduction may prove ineffective.