Judge offers aid in international child abduction cases.

Imagine a German-born man and an Irish-born woman are living in France with their 4-year-old son, where he was born and raised. The couple decides to divorce, but before custody issues can be determined, the mother takes the son to America without the father’s consent.     
What should the father do? Where and who does he turn to for help in regaining custody of his child, and which country has the authority to decide?
The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction attempts to answer these questions, but these cases can be complicated, involving varying legal systems and differing languages and cultures.
Twenty-fifth Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Mary W. Sheffield is helping to overcome some of these barriers as part of the Hague’s international network of judges.
Sheffield has been involved with the Hague Convention since 1995. During the administration of George W. Bush, she was named one of four official Unites States network judges, a position that was she was reappointed to last year under President Obama.
To understand Sheffield’s role, it is important to understand the Hague Convention on International Parental Child Abduction. Ratified by Hague Contracting States in 1983, the treaty attempts to define which nation has jurisdiction in cases of international child abduction, as well as establishing guidelines to help cases move quickly in order to reunite children with their families and homes.     
According to the treaty, jurisdiction should be given to the country considered the child’s “habitual residence,” in other words, the county where the child has the most significant ties. Going back to the hypothetical example set out at the beginning of this story, that country would most likely be France, where the child was born and lived until being taken to America.
When these types of cases arise, Sheffield works with foreign legal officials to help connect them to an American official who can assist with the case, or vice versa. Being able to open the lines of communication quickly and efficiently is important, as the Hague Convention mandates international child abduction cases be resolved within six weeks of the start of proceedings.
“Hague Convention cases go to the head of the docket and are supposed to be resolved quickly,” Sheffield said. “The whole idea behind this is so that children can be returned home, and parents don’t pick up and run.”
Sheffield also is working to set up an American communication network in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. She is joined on this project and in her work as a liaison by Florida’s 11th Circuit Judge Judith L. Kreeger, Former Presiding Judge of the Superior Court of California James Garbolino and United States Federal Judge Peter J. Messitte of Maryland.
“We want to formalize a communication network,” Sheffield said. “And out of that, each chief justice has been asked to designate one judge from each state that the liaison judges can contact when we have a Hague case. We are also trying to educate American judges so that when they do have a Hague case, it does not come as a shock to them.”
Recently, Sheffield was contacted by a liaison from England about an issue in London involving people living in Austin, Texas. Sheffield then contacted the Texas state court administrator and found out with whom to put the English official in touch.
“I got in touch with the official from Texas, and I let them communicate with one another,” she said. “My job is to establish that link.”
However, cooperation among nations on cases of international parental child abduction is not always so smooth. In many foreign countries, there is no recognition of parental kidnapping, and the issue is a civil matter, not a criminal one, as it would be in the United States. Some countries also do not recognize the Hague Convention.
“Some places handle these things very differently than we would,” Sheffield said. “Most of the countries under Sharia [Islamic] law have not adopted the Hague Convention; we don’t have ties to them, and they don’t have ties to us. Sometimes, cultural differences can make for tremendous difficulties.”
To illustrate these difficulties, Sheffield cited a current case originating in Japan, which is not a signatory of the Hague Convention. In Japan, once a couple divorces, the cultural norm is for the father to no longer have any contact with the mother or children.
“That’s accepted in Japanese culture,” Sheffield said. “Once there is a divorce, that’s the end of it.”
In this case, a Japanese mother and an American father divorced, and the mother took the children to Japan. The father’s rights were not recognized by the Japanese, nor was he given any authority to take his children to the U.S. for visitation. Sadly, the father attempted to kidnap the children from Japan.
“When you don’t have a civil means of making these determinations between parents, that sometimes happens,” Sheffield said. “The only recourse parents have, for better or for worse, is to kidnap and sometimes re-kidnap the children. It’s traumatic for the parents and the children.”
Additionally, in today’s increasingly global society, these types of cases are more common than ever.
“People 25 years ago did not move around as much,” Sheffield said. “In our lifetimes, there have been huge changes, and divorce has become more accepted. I think these types of cases happen much more now.”