Japan ‘breathtakingly unresponsive’ on US child abduction

Congressman: Japan ‘breathtakingly unresponsive’ on US child abduction

By Erik Slavin

Stars and Stripes

March 27, 2015

A congressman chastised Japan’s efforts to return the abducted children of U.S. citizens and called for more pressure on Tokyo to comply with its international obligations, according to congressional testimony Wednesday.

Cultural and legal obstacles in Japan — where child abduction by one parent isn’t necessarily viewed as a crime — have long prevented U.S. servicemembers and other citizens from gaining custody or even seeing their children.

Japan adopted the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in April 2014. The accord requires the government to set up processes for legal appeal from foreign parents seeking either visitation or the return of their children to another country.

Japan has since returned one child to a German parent and two others to Canadian parents, while five children have been returned to Japan.

A court ordered the return of a child to the United States last month, said Susan Jacobs, State Department special adviser for children’s issues, at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights hearing Wednesday.

If the ruling moves forward and the child is returned, it would mark the first time in recent history than an American parent was reunited with an abducted child through a Japanese legal verdict.

That bright spot failed to placate Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who stated that U.S. parents submitted 30 claims with Japan a year ago, when Japan officially adopted the international accord.

“Since they have signed the Hague [Convention], Japan’s efforts have been breathtakingly unresponsive,” Smith said.

Smith cited 400 cases of children kidnapped to Japan since 1994, a number he called “unconscionable.”

Next month, the State Department is scheduled to issue an annual report on international child abduction, which has been expanded over previous years to include reporting on non-Hague signatories.

Jacobs told Smith that she shared his frustration and is planning to visit India in May and Japan in June, where she and Ambassador Caroline Kennedy will discuss the annual report with Japanese officials.

“I talked to Ambassador Kennedy yesterday, and she is energized and she is ready to launch,” Jacobs said.

After signing on to the Hague Convention, Japan began accepting applications for visitation and child return to its Foreign Ministry, as well as accepting requests through the State Department.

Cases of child return prior to April 2014 fall outside the scope of the agreement, which Smith blasted during testimony. Parents in those situations can still apply to Japan for visitation rights.

However, it remains unclear whether Japan will develop an effective enforcement mechanism for parents in Japan to comply with government efforts, Colin P.A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, told Stars and Stripes last month.

Joint custody remains a foreign concept in Japan and it has been relatively common since the 1960s for divorced fathers to be largely excluded from their children’s lives.

In recent years, courts have begun to accept that “visitation is good for children,” Jones said, but even court-ordered visitation may only amount to hours per month.

Also on Wednesday, Japan Foreign Ministry officials announced they plan to introduce a revamped system next April for arbitrating custody and visitation disputes.

Source:  “Congressman:  Japan ‘breathtakingly unresponsive on US child abduction”, Stars and Stripes, 27 March 2015


110 “reported” Hague cases involving Japan in first year

The Japan Times 

Number of reported child abductions down ‘drastically’ a year after Hague Convention

By Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

26 Mar, 2015

The Foreign Ministry said Thursday it had received 110 requests from parents seeking either the return of children taken by the other parent or visitation access under the Hague Convention on cross-border child custody disputes, nearly a year after the pact took effect in Japan.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction stipulates rules and procedures for the prompt return of children under 16 to the child’s country of habitual residence if taken elsewhere by one parent and the other requests it.

The cases typically involve couples in an international relationship which fails, and one parent takes the child back to his or her native country.

Under the pact, parents who have had children taken by their spouse can ask for support from the central authority in their own country or in the country where the children are located. In Japan, the task of locating such children falls to the Foreign Ministry.

Of the 110 request, 25 sought the return of children taken to Japan and 16 called for the return of children taken overseas from Japan, the ministry said.

With Foreign Ministry assistance, children were sent overseas in three cases, to Germany, Canada and France. Four children returned to Japan, from the United States, Switzerland, Spain and Germany.

The remaining 69 cases involved parents seeking to visit their children, with 55 wanting to see children taken to Japan and 14 pursuing access to children overseas, the ministry said.

The treaty is not retroactive. It only addresses repatriation cases that took place after the pact took effect, but it also calls for the provision of assistance to parents seeking visitation, regardless of when they were separated from their children.

A Foreign Ministry official said the pact had likely helped prevent abductions to Japan.

“We presume that, thanks to the treaty, the number of abductions of children drastically decreased” and that more parents have been solving their disputes before either of them flees with children, the official said.

From 2012 to 2013, there were 81 complaints of children taken to Japan from the United States, 39 from Britain and Canada respectively and 34 from France, according to the ministry. This contrasts with a total of only 25 requests in the past year.

Drafted in 1980, the Hague Convention aims to ensure that children taken overseas by one parent are promptly returned to their country of habitual residence.

Tokyo became the 91st signatory of the treaty, which took effect April 1, 2014 in Japan.

The nation’s longtime refusal to sign up earned it a reputation as a safe haven for international child abduction.

The treaty was applied for the first time in July, when a British court ordered the return to Japan of a 7-year-old who had been taken to Britain by the child’s Japanese mother.

In that instance, the child’s Japanese father did not ask for help from the Foreign Ministry, but instead sought assistance from British authorities directly.

The mother took the child to Britain at the end of March 2014 when she went there on business. The father believed that the child would be away only for four weeks, but when the child failed to return, he applied to the British government in May for help under the convention.

The mother reportedly cited her work commitments and argued she had no intention of abducting the child. She was quoted as saying she planned to return the child to Japan at the end of July regardless of the court’s decision.

The pact was applied for the first time for the return of a child to a foreign country, when a 5-year-old boy was reunited with his father in Germany. Born to a German father and Japanese mother, the child had lived in Germany with his parents but went to Japan in June with his mother when the couple split.

At the end of August, the father applied for help from the Japanese Foreign Ministry through the German government for the return of child under the treaty. After negotiations, the mother voluntarily took the boy back to Germany in mid-October.

Source:  “Number of reported child abductions down ‘drastically’ a year after Hague Convention”, The Japan Times, 26 March 2015

Potentially, a significant step in the right direction…

Japan to work with foreign entities in Hague Convention

10:00 pm, March 25, 2015

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Foreign Ministry plans to introduce a system in which the arbitration entities of Japan and other countries will cooperate in meeting the demands of parents overseas, such as in the return of, and meeting with, their children in international child custody disputes.

The new system is designed to promote successful solutions by compiling arbitration proposals, in cooperation with lawyers and experts in the countries of each parent. The ministry plans to make arrangements with such nations as Germany, Britain, the United States and Australia, and aims to fully implement the system from April next year.

Under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a foreign parent whose child is removed from their country of residence to Japan by the child’s Japanese parent has options, such as filing for their children’s return, through family courts in either Tokyo or Osaka and using the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) system, in which Japanese arbitration bodies provide meditation in disputes.

Source:  “Japan to work with foreign entities in Hague Convention”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 25 March 2015

Child abduction treaty providing little help

Child abduction treaty providing little help for fathers of lost kids

Donny and Christina Conway pose for a photograph near Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif. Conway hasn’t seen or heard from his daughter, who is thought to be in Japan, since 2012.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The last memory Donny Conway has of his daughter is watching her push him away just before putting her to bed.

“Momma told me if I hug you, she’s going be mad at me,” is what Conway recalls hearing from Christina, then 6.

Conway, who was a petty officer 2nd class at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California at the time, left his child’s room and told his soon-to-be ex-wife, Yumiko, never to say such a thing to his daughter.

A week earlier, Yumiko had returned from a trip to Japan and had asked for a divorce. Conway says she missed Japan and worried about his financial stability because he was among 3,000 sailors involuntarily released from the Navy because of what was then perceived as an overmanning problem.

In granting Yumiko’s divorce request, Conway expected resolution through the U.S. court system, he said.

Instead, on Aug. 9, 2012, the morning after seeing fear in his daughter’s eyes over a bedtime hug, he woke up to an empty house.

He later learned that his wife and daughter were in Japan, and he hasn’t heard from them since.

“I have no idea whether or not my daughter is even alive,” Conway said.

Conway’s case is not unusual — the State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have noted several dozen incidents of child abduction to Japan in recent decades.

Japan’s adoption of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in April 2014 offers some remedy to that trend, according to experts; however, cultural and legal obstacles remain among parents hoping for either child custody or increased visitation.

Parents can apply for help through either the State Department or the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Hague Convention.

The Japanese will attempt to locate the child and set up a mediation process. If that fails, the parent seeking the child can petition family court.

In October, the new system returned its first child to a German parent abducted by a Japanese mother. Two more Canadian children were returned in December.

To date, five abducted children have been returned to Japan under the convention, according to Foreign Ministry data.

Parents whose children were abducted before Japan joined the convention can’t petition for a return, though they can petition for visitation.

The idea of joint custody remains an alien concept in Japan, said Colin P.A. Jones, a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Jones has written extensively on Japanese family law for several years.

Until the 1960s, the father tended to get custody of a child following a divorce, Jones said. At that point, societal shifts tended to favor maternal custody, often to the point of excluding the father from the child’s life.

Meanwhile, what Americans have viewed as criminal abduction, Japanese society has viewed as a normal part of divorce.

When considering custody and visitation, judges wield a substantial amount of discretion over any factor they think might harm the child, Jones said. If a foreign parent gets an arrest warrant issued after an ex-spouse abducts a child, the judge might even rule against a return on the grounds that a parent’s potential arrest would scar the child.

“It’s very common to do whatever it takes to bring the child back,” Jones said. “But having an arrest warrant may actually be counterproductive in long run.”

Although Japan has returned a few children, it remains to be seen just how cooperative the country will be over the next few years, Jones said.

The main sticking point is enforcement, Jones said. If Japanese officials try to contact the parent of an abducted child, then it can be argued that they’ve fulfilled their Hague Convention obligations, Jones said.

If one parent doesn’t cooperate, the legal remedies remain unclear. Even if both parents cooperate, the Hague Convention’s applicability doesn’t guarantee a result.

“Where there has been something of a sea shift in courts is in accepting that visitation is good for children,” Jones said. “But the court can be completely on your side, and you still may not get very much.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Erik Schaefer, a Navy corpsman based in Okinawa, found out recently how difficult life can become when the court isn’t on a parent’s side.

Shortly before returning from Afghanistan in May, Schaefer’s Japanese wife emailed him, telling him she was divorcing him.

His ex-wife refused to speak with him or tell him where his 4-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter were living.

Schaefer says he went for help at Camp Foster’s legal office but said they couldn’t assist because his wife was already a client. He went to Kadena Air Base, where the legal office gave him a list of Japanese lawyers.

When court mediation began, Schaefer agreed to sign legal custody over to his ex-wife after being told joint custody wasn’t an option.

“The mediators involved in the process kept making it very clear at the time that they believed a child had the right to see a father, and they kept reassuring me on this,” Schaefer said.

Between his Afghanistan deployment and his wife’s actions, Schaefer hadn’t seen his children in about a year and a half, until he saw them again in court in December.

The children shied away from him, and the judge noted it. The judge also asked several questions about an alcohol-related incident in Schaefer’s past, though he sought counseling afterward and hasn’t gotten in any trouble since.

In January, Schaefer received the verdict: one hour of supervised visitation every two months. When Schaefer transfers to another duty station and comes to Japan to visit, he will still only get one hour to see his children.

Schaefer had two weeks to appeal the decision but didn’t know it because it had taken two weeks before he received the decision back from a translator, he said.

He has since hired a local lawyer to review the court proceedings in a desperate attempt to change the ruling.

“I’m not expecting the world,” Schaefer said. “Just enough that the kids feel like they have a dad.”

About the treaty

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction — first ratified in 1980 — requires a parent who flees with a child to another country to evade a custody dispute to return that child to his or her home of habitual residence.

In recent years, child custody disputes have become a larger problem in Japan. By 2012, there were more than 190 known cases in which foreign governments have urged Japan to return children who were abducted to Japan by their Japanese parents. An additional 80 cases have been reported where children were taken out of Japan by their non-Japanese parents, according to a report compiled by the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense at the House of Councilors.

Japan ratified the treaty in January. Becoming a signatory of the pact obligates Japan to provide assistance in locating the child and, if possible, to achieve a voluntary return of the child or an amicable resolution of the dispute.

To date, five abducted children have been returned to Japan under the convention, according to Foreign Ministry data.

Source:  “Child abduction treaty providing little help for fathers of lost kids”, Stars and Stripes, 13 March 2015

Two years on from consular visit

It has been 2 years since I had any significant information about my son:  the occasion of the visit by British consular officials on him on Saturday 16 March 2013.  It is now 16 March 2015.  The report can be read here – and a slightly earlier post concerning the scope of the visit can be read here.

In the weeks and months immediately following receipt of the report, I read it over and over again.  I pored over every word, and attempted to read between the lines, to mine as much information as I could about my son’s life in Japan.  A couple of discoveries, though neither were in truth particularly surprising, were that he attended a nursery and that he did not seem to understand much English, although he was said to be learning a little.  It was also implied that he lived at his grandparents’ home with his mother, although again that did not come as a surprise.  It was reassuring to learn in an email from an official that gifts mailed to him there would be passed on to him.

After about 6 months or so I stopped reading the report as it became hard to do so and because I almost knew it by heart.  The report mentioned a couple of my son’s friends and, whilst I was pleased that he was well settled, it made me bitter that they (just friends) saw more of my son than I did.  It was by then also clear to me that, whilst Hugo’s mother had consented to the visit taking place, it was not going to be the first step towards a greater level of information about my son’s life in Japan, whether through the conduit of the Embassy or otherwise.

The Child Abduction Unit at the Foreign Office made clear that the visit was unlikely to be repeated and I have received no significant ongoing assistance from them or the Embassy in Japan at all since the visit. I hope that it might be possible for an exception to be made, and a further visit conducted, a couple of years down the line from now as by then, unlike the situation that existed in March 2013, my son would understand what the visit was about and would be able to ask questions of his visitors. On reflection, perhaps it was this that was the reason why my son’s mother agreed to the visit occurring when it did, i.e. when my son was so little, safe in the knowledge that the visit was unlikely to be repeated when he was older, able to understand what such a visit was about and capable of asking questions of independent visitors about his past life.

The report did tell me a little about my son’s interests – he likes dogs and “mechanical things”. I have done my best in the last two years to use that limited information to help inform what gifts I send to him and what I write on this website; the previous post but one, for example, would at first seem to have little to do with child abduction – it was posted because my son likes mechanical things so I hope that the post would interest him one day.  I recall that he was always fascinated by aircraft, trains, buses and so on of which there was never any shortage to see in London.

Re-reading the report 2 years on, I am left wondering why, during an hour spent in my son’s presence, more information was not obtained and why, for example, the officials did not ask for copies of school (nursery) reports, nor for details of that nursery nor for details of where/how he is said to be learning a little English.  It seems from the report that the question was not asked, not that the information was refused.  Why not give the name of the TV programme that he enjoyed so I could view it too?  In hindsight, I wish that I had sent a list of questions in advance of the visit.  In addition, my son’s mother was not directly asked to explain her conduct in taking such a young boy, unable to understand what was happening to him or to make decisions for himself, despite the fact that Hugo is a British citizen and the Embassy exists to safeguard the interests of all British citizens; it must be the case that such duties are heightened, not diminished, when it comes to children.  Although I welcomed the information that I did glean from the visit, I cannot help but think that more could have been achieved from it.