With a stroke of his pen today, President Obama signed into law Congressmen Chris Smith’s amendment to require the Department of Defense (DOD) to launch an investigation into the plight of U.S. service men and women who, along with their children, suffer from intra-family international child abduction, and outline what DOD is doing to help these military services members.
With a stroke of his pen, President Obama signed into law Congressmen Chris Smith’s amendment to require the Department of Defense (DOD) to launch an investigation into the plight of U.S. service men and women who, along with their children, suffer from intra-family international child abduction, and outline what DOD is doing to help these military services members.
Smith’s amendment was included as Section 570 in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2647), a wide-ranging bill that authorizes most of the day-to-day operations of the DOD. The legislation passed the full House 389-22 in June, and was signed into law Wednesday.
“Our service men and women are especially vulnerable to the risks of international child abduction due to their standard deployments to U.S. military installations around the world,” Smith said. “This amendment will require DOD to explore the extent of this growing problem and spell out what it is doing to prevent and remedy international child abduction within the armed services.”
Smith’s involvement in international child abduction stems from his work on human rights issues, and in particular his work to help David Goldman, a New Jersey man whose wife abducted their son Sean to Brazil five years ago. Though she has since died, Mr. Goldman has been locked in a battle in Brazil courts to regain his parental rights, be permanently reunited with his son, and bring Sean home. Dozens of other left-behind parents who have learned about Sean’s case have brought their cases to Smith and asked him to assist them.
“Since my involvement with the Sean Goldman case, I have been approached by other left behind parents—including military parents who have served in Japan,” he said. “Military parents are at great risk because they often meet and marry a spouse when serving our country overseas. One parent sometimes whisks the child away to a legal jurisdiction unfavorable to the left behind parent. In many cases, the left behind parent never sees their child again.”
Smith illustrated the need for his amendment with the example of a Rutherford, N.J. ex-Marine Sgt. Mike Elias, whose two children were abducted from the U.S. to Japan by his estranged wife. Another case, that of Navy Commander Paul Toland, whose infant daughter was abducted by his estranged wife while he was stationed at a U.S. naval base in Yokohama, Japan. When Commander Toland sought help from the Naval Legal Services Office on base, he was told to hire a local lawyer and deal with the issue himself in Japanese courts.
“The advice our service members have been getting seems misguided and counterproductive,” Smith said. “In fact, Japan systematically fails to return children to the U.S., even when there have been duly-decided U.S. custody orders.” Smith said attorneys familiar with this growing problem estimate that there are approximately 25-30 new cases of international child abductions specifically affecting our service men and women every year.
“Our service men and women risk much in their service to our nation,” Smith said. “The DoD must do what it can to minimize the risks to losing American children to international parental abduction. This law is not meant to entangle the DoD in custody disputes; it will require the Pentagon to report to Congress what it is doing to give its own service men and women the preventative education, legal protection and other assistance needed to address the international abduction.”
The Smith amendment specifically directs the DOD to report to Congress on:
The total number of children abducted from military parents 2007-2009;
The total number of children who were later returned to left behind military parents during 2007-2009;
The current availability of, and the additional need for, assistance (including general information, psychological counseling, financial assistance, leave for travel, and legal services) provided by the military departments to left-behind members of the Armed Forces involved in international intrafamilial child abductions;
The measures taken by the DOD and the military departments, including any written policy guidelines, to prevent the abduction of children of members of the Armed Forces;
The means by which members of the Armed Forces are educated on the risks of international intrafamilial child abduction, particularly when they first arrive at a military installation overseas or when the Armed Forces receive notice that a member is considering marriage or divorce overseas.
In March, the House unanimously passed Smith’s H. Res. 125, legislation highlighting the Sean Goldman case and Brazil’s obligation under the Hague Convention to return Sean to his home in Tinton Falls, N.J.
In July, Smith introduced the “International Child Abduction Prevention Act of 2009”, H.R. 3240, surrounded by Sean’s father, David Goldman, and left behind parents including current and former military service members from across the country who joined Smith to express support for the bill. The legislation would create an ambassador-at-large in the State Department to help resolve and prevent cases of international child abduction, and empower the Administration with options to penalize countries who fail to cooperate with the U.S. in returning abducted U.S. children.