Sean Goldman case highlights rising international child abduction

The Sean Goldman case, which resolved Tuesday when a Brazil judge ordered the boy to be returned to his American dad, is one of a sharply rising number of international child abduction cases in the US.

By , Staff writer

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    An undated picture of Sean Goldman is displayed during a press conference in Rio de Janeiro on December 18.
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The Brazil abduction and custody case over 9-year-old Sean Goldman spotlights the growing problem of international child abduction, say specialists in international divorce and custody, one that needs to be addressed with more laws and greater parent precautions.

The number of case of children being abducted from the US and taken abroad has increased dramatically since 2007, according to the latest data available from the US State Department’s Compliance Reports on the Hague Convention on international child abduction. More than 1,000 new cases involving 1,615 children abducted from the US by a parent were reported in FY 2008, compared with a little over 500 cases involving 821 children in FY 2007.

Abductions from other countries also rose, with almost 500 children reported abducted from foreign countries and brought to the US last year. Divorce lawyers in cities such as New York and London are also noting an upswing in international clientele.

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One reason “international child abductions are on the rise is that it is fairly easy to accomplish in the United States,” says Chris Schmidt of the US law firm of Bryan Cave LLP. “In the United States, one parent can leave the country with a child without the consent of the other parent.” By contrast, many other countries such as China and Argentina require an official document giving permission of the parent who is not traveling before minor children can travel abroad with only one parent.

“While exit controls would not have prevented the Brazilian abduction case [of Sean Goldman] as the mother tricked the father into believing she was going back to Brazil for a short vacation, exit controls would be very effective in preventing many other cases,” Mr. Schmidt says.

Sean Goldman’s case

In the case of Sean Goldman, Brazil’s chief justice on Tuesday ended a five-year custody battle when he ruled that the boy should be returned to his American father. On Wednesday, a Brazil federal court said that Sean should be returned by Thursday morning.

Sean was taken to Brazil by his mother in 2004, and remained with his stepfather after his mother died. His New Jersey father, David Goldman, had filed an abduction and custody case in US and Brazil courts, alleging that the mother had tricked him into taking his son away.

According to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abductions, an international child abduction occurs when one parent wrongfully removes a child to a foreign country or retains the child in a foreign country and refuses to permit the child to return to his habitual residence.

It’s not an abduction if a child is taken with the consent of the left-behind parent. But it is one if the abducting parent tricks the left behind parent into allowing the child to travel overseas for a short vacation in order to take them away permanently.

Complicated laws

Adding new regulations such as exit controls could mitigate the problem in the US, but would come with trade offs, points out Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles . Requiring a parent to give official written permission to the other parent to travel abroad with their minor child could potentially prevent some abduction cases, she says, but “it is not fool proof – because it may be easy to fake such documents – and it would certainly mean administrative or practical hurdles for many families.”

Complicating the custody picture in the US is the general reluctance of government to interfere in families unless there is a perception that the child is in danger, says Dianna Gould-Saltman , a partner in Gould-Saltman Law Offices LLP in Los Angeles. Moreover, unlike most countries, the US has few federal laws pertaining to child custody. Most family law is state-specific, Ms. Gould-Saltman notes, and there can be much disagreement between states.

But the US can do more to ensure parent-abductors are caught before they hit the airport, says Michael Wildes, partner at New York-based immigration law firm Wildes & Weinberg.

“We don’t have a general red alert like Interpol has and should have a domestic mechanism,” he says, adding that America should “refuse to do business with nations that don’t honor these challenges.”

What parents can do

Lawyers say there’s a lot parents can do to prevent an abduction or make it more difficult. Schmidt and other experts suggest some precautions:

• If parents are separated and international abduction is a concern, a parent with the right to custody or visitation of a child may ask the State Department to “flag” any attempt to use the child’s passport.

• A parent can register with the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program, to alert them if the other parent applies for a US passport. This does not prevent a parent from applying for a passport from a foreign country, if eligible.

• If a parent suspects an abduction is about to occur, he or she can seek emergency relief from a judge to pick up the child. They can also contact the State Department Office of Children Issues, the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, immigration and state and federal authorities and airlines to detain the abducting parent before leaving or upon entry.

• Those getting a divorce in an international marriage should make sure they have a custody decree that addresses Hague considerations and requires the foreign parent to post a significant bond before international travel.

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