Patricia Roush is trying hard to retain her composure, but the anguish is etched deep in her face. ``What am I supposed to do,'' she asks, ``forget my children?'' What she wants is not to forget her young children, now four and eight, but to get them back. They have been in Saudi Arabia for a year now, taken there from the United States by her former husband, although she had custody of them. Efforts to get them back have been fruitless.
She is one of perhaps 2,300 American parents, based on State Department figures, in such a plight. No one knows for sure how many American youngsters have been similarly spirited overseas by parents who had lost custody battles.
Now a new effort is under way to help parents like Patricia Roush. Sen. Alan Dixon (D) of Illinois is pressuring the State Department to pressure, in turn, the governments of countries to which these children have been taken to return them. He does not buy the department's position that custody disputes are ``a private legal matter'' in which it ``may not properly intervene.''
``Our government has an absolute obligation to see that our citizens are protected,'' Senator Dixon argues.
Could the State Department really get children returned to US parents who have a clear legal case? ``The Department of State,'' Dixon says, ``can do something about it if it wants to....''
Patricia Roush concurs. ``My family has been here since 1711,'' she says, wiping the tears away. ``They helped build this country. And now my government says it can't do anything to help me?''
To Senator Dixon, the Roush case exemplifies the importance of the American government's taking a firm stand, through its State Department, with other nations and demanding the return of abducted children. Dixon says that after much effort, he and his staff had arranged for a Saudi prince to meet last October with the children's father. The US ambassador was invited, in expectation that he could come. Dixon says he expected that at the meeting Prince Sulaiman Abdul Aziz would insist that the father return the children.
But the meeting never occurred. Instead Dixon's office heard from the US ambassador, who said the State Department had told him not to attend. The prince thereupon canceled the meeting, taking the position that if the US government was not interested in its citizens, why should the Saudis be?
Initially a State Department spokesperson appeared to deny flatly the story of the meeting: ``I think I can say with certainty that no such meeting was scheduled or planned.'' Later, after she was provided with additional details, her language was more cautious: ``I am not aware that there was a meeting set with the ambassador ... and other parties that the State Department vetoed.''
The word ``set'' may be crucial. Dixon aides say the meeting was set with the Saudi prince, and that the US ambassador was invited; his participation was crucial. Whether the ambassador's participation could be considered ``set'' thus is open to interpretation.
In any case, the State Department's position on this and other international child custody issues is that, as a spokesperson puts it, it ``cannot take the side or act as counsel for one parent or another.'' Dixon's office was told by officials in the US Embassy that for this reason the State Department had forbidden the ambassador to attend.
Dixon says this misses the point. He says taking sides between parents is not the issue, that US courts have already decided the custody question, giving custody to the children's mother, Patricia Roush. The State Department's role, he holds, is to see that the interests of US citizens are protected - in this case, that the children are returned to their mother's custody.
``The State Department could help Patricia Roush right now,'' Dixon insists, by ``a simple phone call'' to the Saudi government.
The US has leverage with many nations, Dixon holds: foreign aid, both military and economic. Unlike the Roush children, most youngsters taken from the US are in Western Europe - West Germany and Britain top the list.
As aid requests come before the Senate this year he intends to exert pressure on the State Department by bringing up the problems of abducted American children in nations allied with Washington. Friendly nations ``are open to discussion'' aimed at returning children in clear-cut instances, Dixon says: ``I don't think in most cases they will say no.''