Foreign Affairs: Federal Response to International Parental Child Abductions

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-10-14.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Committee on International Relations,
                          House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
10:00 a.m., EDT
                          FOREIGN AFFAIRS
October 14, 1999

                          Federal Response to
                          International Parental
                          Child Abductions
                          Statement of Jess T. Ford, Associate Director, International
                          Relations and Trade Issues, National Security and
                          International Affairs Division

          Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

          I am pleased to be here today to discuss our preliminary observations on
          the federal government’s response to international parental child
          abduction.1 The State Department estimates that about 1,000 children
          annually are abducted from the United States by one of their parents.2
          When these cases are reported to authorities, the State and Justice
          Departments assume roles in locating the abducted children, reporting on
          their welfare, intervening diplomatically to secure their return, and
          bringing abductors to justice. However, left-behind parents and others have
          raised a number of concerns about the federal response to these child

          Because of these concerns, you asked us to (1) examine problems with the
          federal government’s response to parental child abduction and (2) examine
          how the federal government is attempting to improve its response. Today, I
          will discuss several of the problem areas that have been identified and what
          actions federal agencies plan to take to address them. We plan to complete
          our work and provide a report to this Committee later this year.

Summary   There are a number of problems and issues related to the federal response
          to international parental child abduction. These problems have been
          identified by the key agencies involved—the State and Justice Departments
          and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—as well as
          left-behind parents and others. Together, they present obstacles to
          left-behind parents in their attempts to locate, gain access to, and return
          their children. Four problems and issues have received substantial
          attention. These are

          • gaps in federal services to left-behind parents, which make it difficult for
            parents to recover their abducted children;
          • weaknesses within the existing State Department case-tracking process,
            which impair case and program coordination;

           International parental child abduction is defined as the removal of a child from the United
          States or retention of a child outside the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful
          exercise of parental rights (18 U.S.C. 1204).
            The actual number of cases may be greater because some parents never report the
          abductions to the State Department but instead pursue a remedy directly with foreign

          Page 1                                                                   GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
             • lack of systematic and aggressive diplomatic efforts to improve
               international responses to parental child abductions; and
             • limited use of the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 19933
               to pursue abducting parents and bring them to justice.

             The State and Justice Departments have developed recommendations,
             which they believe will address most of the problems if implemented.
             While we found that action has been taken to implement a number of the
             recommendations, many await further action and most require resource
             commitments. In addition, some of the recommended actions are not
             expected to be implemented for several years. These shortcomings raise
             questions about the likelihood the recommendations will be put in place.

Background   International parental child abduction is a U.S. federal and state criminal
             offense. The International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993 and
             similar state laws seek to prosecute abductors and bring them to justice.
             All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and territories have such laws. The
             Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is the
             lead federal agency for pursuing criminal charges against abducting
             parents. The State Department assumes the U.S. lead role in civil cases.

             The State and Justice Departments seek to coordinate their efforts with
             their state and local counterparts. Other organizations, such as the National
             Center for Missing and Exploited Children, play instrumental roles in
             seeking the return of wrongfully abducted or retained children.

             The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child
             Abduction4 is an international agreement among 54 nations, including the
             United States, that established civil procedures to follow when locating,
             accessing, or returning abducted children to resolve custody issues.5 About
             half of all abductions from the United States are to other Hague Convention
             countries. The balance of abductions is to countries that are not parties to
             the Hague Convention. For abductions to non-Hague countries, locating,

             Public Law 103-173 codified at 18 U.S.C. 1204.
             29 ILM 1501 (1980).
              The Hague Convention seeks to ensure that child custody disputes will be resolved in the
             country of the child’s habitual residence.

             Page 2                                                                 GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
accessing, or returning abducted children is a case- and country-specific
matter. Under the Hague Convention, each country identifies a lead
government agency (called a “central authority”) to serve as a central point
of contact. The State Department is the central authority for the United

Over the past several years, left-behind parents and others have criticized
the federal government’s performance in responding to parental child
abductions. In 1994, the Justice Department established a Missing and
Exploited Children’s Task Force to assist state and local authorities with
difficult missing and exploited children cases.

In December 1997, this task force established the Subcommittee on
International Child Abduction and in November 1998, the Attorney General
created the Policy Group on International Parental Kidnapping6 which
produced the April 1999 publication entitled A Report to the Attorney
General on International Parental Kidnapping.

This report highlighted the problems with the current federal response and
made recommendations to correct those problems. In this regard, the
report underscored weaknesses with the current case-tracking process and
coordination problems between the State and Justice Departments as well
as the need to improve services to left-behind parents and aggressively
pursue diplomatic efforts to resolve Hague Convention implementation
problems. The report suggested ways in which the State and Justice
Departments should address these problems. It also offered additional
recommendations to develop an enhanced role for the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children to work more closely with U.S. left-behind
parents, increase education and training resources for federal and local law
enforcement, and tighten mechanisms, such as passport revocation
practices, to prevent departure. The report also distinguished between the
civil remedies to recover children and the criminal mechanisms to bring
abductors to justice.

 The subcommittee includes representatives of the State and Justice Departments as well as
representatives from the Treasury Department (U.S. Customs Service), the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children, the Kern County, California, District Attorney’s Office
and the American Prosecutors Research Institute. The policy group is comprised of high-
level representatives of the Justice and State Departments and seeks to expedite reforms in
the federal response.

Page 3                                                                 GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
Problems With the     Key problems cited by the State and Justice Departments, left-behind
                      parents, and others that create obstacles to locating and returning
Federal Response      internationally abducted children include gaps in federal services to
                      left-behind parents and weaknesses within the existing case-tracking
                      process. In addition, State Department officials and left-behind parents
                      have cited certain countries that are signatories to the Hague Convention
                      but that are not complying with its provisions. Left-behind parents have
                      also cited the Justice Department’s limited use of the 1993 International
                      Parental Kidnapping Crime Act as a problem.

Gaps in Services to   Certain gaps exist in federal services to left-behind parents that make it
Left-Behind Parents   difficult for these parents to recover their abducted children. Left-behind
                      parents and others have criticized the U.S. central authority—the State
                      Department—for not providing a central point of contact for information
                      and guidance on how to address abduction cases. They also cited as
                      problems limited U.S. government-provided financial assistance and
                      counseling services, and infrequent and inconsistent communication with
                      officials managing their cases.

                      One problem is that there is no central point of contact within the federal
                      government that can provide complete information on international
                      parental child abduction cases, making it difficult for left-behind parents to
                      monitor the status of their cases. For example, the State Department’s
                      Office of Children’s Issues can apprise left-behind parents on the status of
                      their civil cases, but the office usually does not have information on the
                      status of the criminal aspects of these cases. Parents would have to obtain
                      this information from the Justice Department.

                      Inadequate financial and other assistance to parents has been identified as
                      a problem. Currently, neither the State nor the Justice Departments provide
                      financial assistance to left-behind parents that would be sufficient to offset
                      their costs, unlike some other Hague countries. Securing the return of
                      abducted children can entail significant cost. For example, left-behind
                      parents usually will have to travel abroad, retain a lawyer, and pay other
                      fees. One U.S. left-behind parent told us he spent over $200,000 pursuing
                      his abducted child, while the abducting parent’s costs were paid-in-full by
                      her government. Some countries—Germany and Austria, for example—
                      require that Hague applications and supporting documents be filed in their
                      native language. In these cases, left-behind parents may be required to pay
                      for translation services. Often these costs are beyond parents’ means.

                      Page 4                                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
                           Moreover, left-behind parents and siblings may need counseling services,
                           but the federal government has not traditionally provided financial
                           assistance for counseling. Using Justice Department funds, a program
                           managed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has
                           provided limited financial assistance to some left-behind parents so they
                           can travel overseas to pick up children returned to their custody.

                           Another gap in services involves the lack of staff at State’s Office of
                           Children’s Issues to keep parents informed about the status of their case.
                           For most of fiscal year 1999, the average caseload was about 150 cases per
                           caseworker. An ideal caseload, according to social work experts, is
                           35 cases per caseworker. Office of Children’s Issues staff told us that
                           contact with left-behind parents has suffered as a result of the heavy
                           caseload. Although the Office of Children’s Issues does not have a specific
                           requirement regarding the frequency of contact with left-behind parents,
                           the general guidance has been that parents should be contacted once a
                           month on Hague Convention cases and every 4 to 6 months on non-Hague

Coordination Problems in   As I mentioned earlier, although several agencies may be involved in
Managing Cases             international kidnapping cases, the federal government does not have a
                           comprehensive system to track agency activities or assure that all
                           appropriate measures are being taken by all appropriate agencies. The
                           State Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited
                           Children have separate databases that track international parental
                           kidnapping cases. A Justice Department database tracks criminal cases
                           brought against child abducting parents. These databases are not
                           integrated and may use different criteria to categorize cases, actions, and
                           results. This situation has led to coordination problems and duplication of
                           effort. For example, a caseworker in the State Department Office of
                           Children’s Issues made inquiries on an open Hague case only to find that
                           the Federal Bureau of Investigation had located the child and closed its
                           case a month earlier. This caseworker also told us that his office and the
                           Federal Bureau of Investigation often make duplicate inquiries on the same

                           The State Department’s case-tracking system also does not generate
                           meaningful statistics that can be used for program management. For
                           example, the system cannot accurately describe the incidence of reported
                           abduction cases because it does not include information on all
                           international parental abductions and because double counting occurs in

                           Page 5                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
                             some cases. Also, although the system can provide data on the number of
                             closed cases, it cannot report on all the reasons why cases are closed and
                             whether the child was returned. Because of these shortcomings, the Office
                             of Children’s Issues lacks data to determine where best to allocate
                             resources or identify the elements of successfully resolved cases.

Noncompliance With the       The State Department’s 1998 report7 to Congress on the issue of
Hague Convention             compliance with Hague rules identified Austria, Honduras, Mauritius,
                             Mexico, and Sweden as the most serious violators of the convention. In
                             some cases, these countries have disregarded their obligations to take
                             appropriate measures to discover the whereabouts of abducted children. In
                             others, their judicial systems have interpreted the convention in a manner
                             that the State Department believes undermines the Convention’s basic goal
                             of ensuring the prompt return of children to their habitual residence.
                             Left-behind parents have criticized State for not pursuing diplomatic
                             initiatives more vigorously with these and other countries to enforce
                             implementation of the Hague rules and to resolve other problems. The
                             State Department acknowledges that more systematic and aggressive
                             diplomatic efforts are needed to address problems with the Hague

Limited Prosecutions Under   You asked us to comment on the Justice Department’s implementation of
the International Parental   the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act, which makes parental
                             abduction a federal felony. Since 1993, the Justice Department has indicted
Kidnapping Crime Act
                             62 parents under the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act. As a
                             result of these indictments, 13 parents have been convicted of felony
                             parental kidnapping.

                             Decisions to bring cases under the act rest with each of the independent
                             Offices of the U. S. Attorneys. We spoke with some Assistant U.S. Attorneys
                             who have prosecuted abducting parents and they cited a number of reasons
                             to explain their limited use of the act. For example, some prosecutors
                             indicated that as a general policy they will not indict abducting parents
                             until civil remedies are exhausted under the Hague Convention. They cited
                             congressional intent that the procedures under the Hague

                             Report on Compliance with the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International
                             Child Abduction (Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1999).

                             Page 6                                                              GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
Convention should be the option of first choice for a parent who seeks the
return of a child.8 Other prosecutors noted that prosecuting abducting
parents can compromise efforts under the Hague civil process to return a
child since some Hague countries have asserted their unwillingness to
continue pursuing civil remedies if criminal charges are pending against its

In addition, the Assistant U.S. Attorneys believe they can provide
significant federal assistance to left-behind parents by supporting
state-level prosecutors in their pursuit of international parental abductors
rather than by bringing cases under the act. State-level prosecutors, who
have already investigated and indicted a parental abductor, can request
from an Assistant U.S. Attorney a federal arrest warrant when the abductor
unlawfully crosses state or international borders to avoid prosecution
under state law.10 By doing so, state-level prosecutors can bring a battery of
federal resources to bear against the abducting parent. For example, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation can assist state-level law enforcement
officers with locating the abductor, and federal law enforcement officials
can request the State Department to deny or revoke an abductor’s passport
to prevent departure. Also, federal warrants can be used to invoke
international police (INTERPOL) notices to seek abductors wanted for

Even with these mechanisms, however, Justice Department officials noted
that many countries, including several Hague signatories, do not consider a
parental abduction to be a criminal offense as the United States does, and
thus do not consider international parental abduction to be an extraditable
offense. Moreover, even if a foreign country deems parental abduction a
criminal offense, it often will not be willing to extradite its own nationals.
This is particularly true with respect to the civil law nations of Latin
America and Europe.

Public Law 103-173, §2(b).
 According to the American Bar Association in its 1998 report Issues in Resolving Cases of
International Child Abduction, four central government authorities reported that some
judges in their country will not order a child’s return if criminal charges are outstanding.
 The 1980 Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, Public Law 96-611, expressly declares that
the Fugitive Felon Act, 18 U.S.C. 1073, applies to state felony cases involving parental
     State arrest warrants can also invoke INTERPOL notices.

Page 7                                                                   GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
                        Lastly, Justice Department officials noted that the act seeks to prosecute
                        abducting parents, an action that does not guarantee the return of the
                        child.12 In this regard, however, they were unable to provide us with
                        information on how many abducted children have been returned because
                        the Justice Department does not maintain such statistics.

State and Justice       The State and Justice Departments have developed several
                        recommendations they believe will correct the problems we have
Departments Plan to     discussed. Their April 199913 report about deficiencies in the federal
Improve Federal         response to parental child abductions contains recommendations that seek
                        to expand services and resources to left-behind parents, establish a
Response                comprehensive case-tracking system, and implement diplomatic initiatives
                        to address Hague implementation issues. Also, both departments have
                        taken an additional step and developed an implementation plan in August,
                        which, according to the Justice Department, serves as a guide to identify
                        the resources needed to implement proposed changes. We reviewed both
                        the recommendations and the implementation plan and found that State
                        and Justice have made some progress toward implementing their
                        recommendations. However, many of the recommendations are not clearly
                        defined and lack specific resource requirements.

Some Progress Made in   The State and Justice Departments have made some progress toward
Specific Areas          improving services to left-behind parents, designing an integrated
                        case-tracking system and pursuing diplomatic initiatives. Specifically, the
                        State Department has made progress toward improving caseworker
                        services to left-behind parents. In this regard, since October 1998, the
                        Office of Children’s Issue has hired 10 additional staff to reduce caseload.
                        In addition, State has recently hired a coordinator who will work out of the
                        offices of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which
                        State expects will facilitate an enhanced relationship between the State

                         In at least one case, a federal judge conditioned an abductor’s sentence on the return of the
                        child. The judge’s sentence was upheld on appeal. See U.S. v. Amer, 110 F.3d 873 (2d Cir.
                         A Report to the Attorney General on International Parental Kidnapping prepared by the
                        Subcommittee on International Child Abduction of the Federal Agency Task Force on
                        Missing and Exploited Children and the Policy Group on International Parental Kidnapping
                        (April 1999).

                        Page 8                                                                    GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
                          Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.14
                          Also, the Justice Department has made limited funding available to
                          nonprofit organizations to provide mentoring services to left-behind

                          Both the State and Justice Departments have acknowledged the need for a
                          comprehensive, integrated case-tracking system, which they are attempting
                          to develop. The Office of Children’s Issues is taking the lead to develop this
                          system, and a preliminary needs assessment is underway. The actual
                          system design should begin early next calendar year.

                          Finally, State has pursued some diplomatic initiatives with a few countries
                          that have had Hague implementation problems. However, most planned
                          diplomatic initiatives have not yet begun.

Implementation of         Although State and Justice have made some progress, without clear
Recommendations Will Be   resource commitments it will be difficult to implement the remaining
                          recommendations in a timely manner. As we mentioned earlier, according
Difficult Without Clear
                          to State and Justice, they use their implementation plan to identify the
Resource Commitments      resources needed to carry out proposed changes. However, neither
                          department has been able to provide us with information about such
                          resources. For example, according to State Department officials, all of its
                          planned diplomatic initiatives are contingent on additional funding, but
                          they have not provided us with information about the source and level of
                          funding necessary for these activities. Moreover, State and Justice have not
                          provided us funding information for nearly all the remaining planned
                          changes in the federal response, including the resources needed to fully
                          implement the case-tracking system.

                          In addition to lacking resource commitments, many of the remaining
                          recommendations we reviewed fail to identify the specific actions the State
                          and Justice Departments will take to achieve their objectives. As we
                          mentioned earlier, the State Department acknowledges that more
                          systematic and aggressive diplomatic efforts are needed to address Hague
                          Convention noncompliance. Most of the recommendations in this regard
                          seek to review, study, and explore Hague implementation issues but fail to

                           State and Justice have signed a cooperative agreement with the National Center for
                          Missing and Exploited Children that is designed to enhance the center’s role in abduction

                          Page 9                                                                 GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
                   identify how these activities will actually help solve Hague implementation

                   In summary, both the State and Justice Departments have taken positive
                   steps to clarify and describe how they will respond to identified
                   international parental abduction problems. However, without resource
                   commitments, it is uncertain whether they will be able to take additional
                   steps to correct most problems. Both State and Justice Departments agree
                   that they need to establish resource commitments. We expect that as
                   recommendations are implemented and accomplished, a clearer
                   perspective on their efficacy will emerge.

                   Mr. Chairman, while we have not yet completed our work our preliminary
                   observations are that the State and Justice Departments should continue to
                   define the specific actions and resources necessary to implement their
                   recommendations. Doing so will enable both departments to more
                   effectively manage their corrective actions.

                   Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, that concludes my prepared
                   statement. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

                   Contact and Acknowledgments

                   For future contacts regarding this testimony, please contact Jess T. Ford at
                   (202) 512-4268. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
                   included Boris L. Kachura, Michael C. Zola, La Verne Tharpes, and Mark

(711455)   Leter   Page 10                                                    GAO/T-NSIAD-00-44
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