What is the Office of Children’s Issues?
The Office of Children’s Issues (CA/OCS/CI) is part of the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, and comes under the Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services. It was established in 1994.
The Office is responsible for assisting parents whose children are the victims of international parental child abduction. In most cases, our goal is the child’s prompt return to his or her habitual residence in the U.S. We also try to facilitate regular parental contact with a child in a foreign country, either in conjunction with simultaneously seeking the child’s return or, based on the parent’s request, as a goal in and of itself. We also help parents who fear that their child may be abducted abroad by the other parent.
In carrying out our mission, we work closely with U.S. Embassies and consulates abroad, other U.S. state, federal and local agencies, foreign governments, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). This coordination is an important resource we offer to parents in seeking their child’s return, or in maintaining contact.
CA/OCS/CI serves as the U.S. Central Authority for the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This involves helping parents file and pursue an application for their child’s return, or for access to their child, through the foreign Central Authority or, where feasible, directly to a foreign court. Since 1995, NCMEC has been our partner in meeting our obligations under the Treaty by handling cases involving children abducted to the U.S. from other Hague treaty countries.
In addition, CA/OCS/CI also provides information to U.S. citizens concerning international adoptions, and coordinates the Department’s policies on intercountry adoptions.
What is the composition of CA/OCS/CI’s Abduction Unit?
The Abduction Unit consists of twelve country officers, a unit chief, and three administrative employees, all of whom work directly with left-behind parents. Country officers all have consular training and experience. In addition, the unit also has a separate Prevention Team that provides guidance and support to parents who fear the possibility of international parental child abduction.
What do you mean when you talk about “access?”
When we refer to “access,” we are talking about one of two types of contact with a child:
The Hague Convention (Article 21) calls on Central Authorities to facilitate parental access, but does not provide for specific procedures or remedies (unlike returns).
Access cases, whether pursued under the Hague Convention or not, are therefore handled in accordance with local laws pertaining to custody and visitation.
Consular access is covered by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This allows consular officers to seek access to a child through welfare/whereabouts visits. In addition to ascertaining the child’s welfare and safety, we use these visits to pursue routine parent/child contact whenever feasible.
What is the Department doing to improve interagency coordination (particularly with the Department of Justice) on developing strategies for recovering abducted or wrongfully retained children?
The Department participates in the Interagency Working Group, along with representatives from DOJ and Interpol, to coordinate our strategies for resolving cases of abduction/wrongful retention. This group meets on a monthly basis to discuss initiatives and facilitate communications between agencies. The Department of State also participates in a multi-agency Senior Policy Group on international parental child abduction and the Federal Agency Task Force on Missing and Exploited Children.
We believe, however, that we should always strive for improvement. One of the goals of this workshop is to identify measures that would enhance our coordination.
Why doesn’t the Department refer parents to each other?
Privacy Act considerations sometimes limit the information we can share about one individual with another, as do other legal considerations. Where parents ask us to refer other parents to them, however, we will generally do so.
It is worth noting that other organizations do a very effective job in helping parents “network” among themselves, and we do not see a need to duplicate these efforts. We routinely recommend that parents contact NCMEC, for example, which can provide such referrals.
Why doesn’t the Department work with Interpol to conduct humanitarian visits?
Interpol is an information network among law enforcement agencies. It has proven extremely helpful in locating missing children based on National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) entries. Once a child is located, local law enforcement in a country is responsible for taking follow-up actions on law enforcement-related issues. Interpol Washington can transmit requests to foreign police to locate a child and ascertain his/her welfare, and may include a request that an abducted child be put into protective custody. However, implementation of these requests depends on the local police. Such visits are not a substitute for consular access.
The Department does coordinate with Interpol and local law enforcement in locating missing children. However, we will always press for consular access to a child, since such visits are a fundamental aspect of our responsibility for the protection of American citizens abroad. In these visits, moreover, we will attempt to facilitate direct, routine communications between the child and the left-behind parent, recognizing that such contact is critical to maintaining a parent/child relationship.
Does the State Department cooperate/consult with International Social Services (ISS) in resolving any of these cases?
We work closely with ISS to provide parents and children with required social services—but the role of ISS varies within different countries. We are pursuing this issue further in individual countries.
Why doesn’t the Department enforce its right to have a U.S. citizen child extradited to the U.S. from a foreign country?
Extradition involves the return of a criminal to the country in which the crime was committed. Children who are victims of international parental child abduction are not criminals—the taking parents are. While we have successfully sought the return of taking parents in a number of cases, either through extradition or other mechanisms, this does not automatically result in the return of the child. In some cases, the taking parent was extradited to or arrested upon return to the U.S., but the children remained abroad with relatives. Additionally, some countries will not extradite their own citizens.
Why don’t we cancel a child’s passport, making his/her stay in a foreign country illegal and requiring deportation?
U.S. laws and regulations do not provide for the revocation of a child’s passport except in very specific circumstances, which do not include the fact that a child was abducted or wrongfully retained.
However, the passport of the taking parent will be revoked at the request of the Department of Justice, based on federal criminal charges. In such instances, we will notify the government of the country in which the taking parent is located of the passport revocation and request that the government take the appropriate measures to effect the parent’s return to the U.S. This may or may not force the taking parent to return to the U.S. depending on whether the parent holds other nationality. In addition, while it may force the return of the parent, it does not guarantee the child’s return (although we seek to achieve this, as well).
Is the State Department currently negotiating reciprocal child support enforcement agreements with foreign governments that would permit those governments to obtain U.S. government assistance in enforcing their child support orders against the parents of abducted American children?
Since 1996, section 459A of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 659A) has authorized the Secretary of State with the concurrence of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to declare foreign countries (or political subdivisions thereof) to be reciprocating countries for the purpose of the enforcement of family support obligations. Such a designation may be made only if the country has established or has undertaken to establish procedures for the establishment and enforcement of duties of support for residents of the United States, and if those procedures are in substantial conformity with the procedures in place in the U.S.
These agreements create no obligation for the U.S. government or the government of any state of the U.S. to enforce child support where a custody dispute exists. This was explicitly stated in a February 25, 1999 letter from Paul Legler, the Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the Department of Health and Human Services to the Directors of all of the state-level child support agencies in the U.S. This letter can be found at http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cse/pol/DCL/dcl9919.htm .
What is the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction?
The Hague Abduction Convention was established by the Hague Conference on Private International Law in 1980 with U.S. input. The U.S. ratified the Convention in 1988, and passed implementing legislation (the International Child Abduction Remedies Act, or ICARA), which brought the Convention into force in the U.S. Information on the Hague Abduction Convention can be found on the Internet .
Over 70 countries have now ratified or acceded to the Hague Abduction Convention. A list of those countries with which the U.S. has a treaty partnership can be found at hague_list.html.
What has the Department of State done to persuade other countries to sign the Convention?
The Department routinely encourages other countries to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Does the U.S. negotiate bilateral treaties with countries that won’t sign the Hague Convention or other multilateral agreements?
The U.S. Governmenet prefers entering into multilateral treaties in the area of private international law, including the Hague Abduction Convention.
The U.S. Government’s preference for entering into this multilateral convention is due to our assessment that it offers substantially all the mutual benefits that could be expected from a bilateral treaty, and at the same time, facilitates the development of a single, unified legal regime among the countries party to it. Bilateral agreements create the possibility of multiple legal regimes. In addition, negotiating, concluding and obtaining senate consent to ratifying bilateral treaties has proven to be a long, uncertain, and resource intensive process.
What is the Department doing about countries that abuse Article 13b (grave risk)?
Article 13b, which provides a defense to a child’s return to his/her habitual residence on grounds of a grave risk to the child’s safety, was intended to be narrowly defined. In its role as U.S. Central Authority, the Department monitors cases in which a foreign court rules against a return on the basis of a 13b finding and, in cases where we believe such a finding is not consistent with the principles of the Convention, will raise the case with the foreign Central Authority. It is important to note, however, that we do not have the authority to demand a change in the court’s ruling—any more than a foreign Central Authority can demand that a U.S. court change its ruling.
What are the consequences of a country’s non-compliance with the Treaty?
The U.S. monitors the performance of other Hague member states and details problems of non-compliance in its annual Hague Compliance Report. We also raise problems with other governments on a bilateral basis, and encourage these governments to take steps to improve their compliance.
The U.S. participated in the preparation of the Hague Permanent Bureau’s “Good Practices Guide,” which provides general guidance and criteria for Central Authority practices as well as national legislative bodies responsible for developing implementing legislation or mechanisms. We believe that the Good Practices Guide will prove useful to all Central Authorities, and particularly to new Hague members, in establishing basic standards and practices aimed at consistent application of the Convention among member states.
Does the U.S. warn parents that pursuing criminal remedies may have a negative impact on a Hague case?
Yes. Both in our country flyers and in individual consultations with parents, we warn that pursuit of criminal remedies may adversely affect a parent’s efforts to seek the return of their child under the Hague, particularly in those countries where judges have demonstrated a reluctance to return an abducted or wrongfully retained child if there are outstanding criminal charges against the taking parent. Our abduction officers discuss this with parents who are considering whether to file a Hague application for return or pursue other, including criminal, remedies. Ultimately, the decision on which option to select rests with the left-behind parent, and is usually made following consultation with his or her attorney.
Is the Department warning parents of those countries in which enforcement of orders is a problem?
Yes. Not only is this issue discussed in our Annual Compliance Report and when consulting with parents, but the country flyers for specific countries also caution about problems with the enforcement or orders. We continue to gather information about enforcement of court orders regarding return, custody and access in foreign countries and will make new and updated information available to the public through the written materials posted on our website.