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We are working harder to protect our missing children worldwide

We are working harder to protect our missing children worldwide
© Sergei-Q / iStock

On National Missing Children’s Day, we remember those children and parents whose lives are upended by being removed from their families. Tragically, sometimes that act is carried out by one of the child’s own parents. Every day, parents come home to find that their child is missing, not just from their home but abducted across international borders. International parental child abduction can be a traumatic event for all involved.

A child denied contact with a parent. A parent deprived of his or her ability to take part in their child’s life. Parents struggle not just with the absence of their child, but also with attempting to bring their child home by approaching an unfamiliar legal system in a foreign country. The pain and frustration of a parent is heart wrenching. 

In those dark moments, the U.S. Department of State is there to help. We have no higher priority than protecting the safety and welfare of our most vulnerable citizens abroad — our children. 

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We do this with the help of an important international legal framework, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Convention creates a vehicle for partner countries with different legal systems to work together to resolve abductions. We currently have 79 international partners under this framework and we work closely with them on behalf of American families. 

The Convention’s fundamental direction is simple and one which the United States supports: questions concerning the custody of a child should, with some exceptions, be determined in the place where a child was habitually resident immediately prior to the abduction. 

Like the United States, Convention partner countries have pledged to assist in locating abducted children, to help facilitate proceedings, and to promptly provide arrangements as appropriate to secure the safe return of a child.

When the Convention is in place and fully operational, it works well — and can even discourage parents from fleeing across international borders. For example, in 2019 of the reported abductions our officers handled, 220 children returned to the United States and an additional 118 cases were resolved in other ways. 

Unfortunately, there are countries where — despite being our partners under the Convention — the legal framework doesn’t work for children and families. We call out these countries by name in our annual report to Congress and we use all appropriate diplomatic tools available to us to push for improved compliance with the Convention. 

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The State Department assists when a child is taken to a non-Convention country as well. Whenever a child is a victim of international parental abduction, we work closely with the family to outline the lawful options available to them. While our officers cannot provide legal advice, they work actively with parents and with our foreign counterparts to provide information, locate missing children, monitor their cases, and support the seeking parent as he or she navigates this difficult and sometimes lengthy path. 

We work just as hard to prevent abductions from happening in the first place. The Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program allows the Department to notify a parent when someone has applied for a passport for his/her child and helps ensure the two-parent consent requirement for passport issuance has been met.

We do have help to stop abductions. We work together with our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The Sean and David Goldman Act of 2014 resulted in a stronger interagency partnership with more tools to stop abductions in progress. Close to 1,200 children have been enrolled in CBP’s Prevent Abduction Program because of this important legislation.

As special advisor for Children’s Issues at the State Department, I work with a dedicated team of professionals in the Office of Children’s Issues and at our embassies and consulates. We celebrate successes; we work harder when we fail. 

But above all, on May 25 and every day, we remember the children. Children who are taken without their understanding and deprived of one of their parents. Children who deserve every opportunity to live without fear, without uncertainty, without the emotional toll that may result from international parental child abduction. That’s what drives us. 

Michelle Bernier-Toth is a special advisor for Children’s Issues, U.S. Department of State.