Give Back the Children

Friday, June 8, 2001; Page A28

A YEAR AGO, the long-overlooked plight of dozens of American parents forcibly separated from their children finally got a moment of high-level attention. President Clinton, meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, pushed hard for Germany to mend its obstructionist behavior in numerous cases in which children have been abducted to Germany by a parent and then kept there for years, abetted by local courts, in defiance of American custody orders and international treaty obligations.

The chancellor agreed the publicized cases were tragic, a bilateral commission began work on the most egregious instances, and hopes soared among parents who had spent years in an almost unimaginable state of limbo while their children's childhoods slipped away. Now, though, frustrated parents say the initial momentum has dissipated. The German courts made some procedural changes that could reduce future problems: Special judges now handle such cases, and they get extra training in their responsibilities under the 1980 Hague treaty on international child abductions. Germany signed that treaty, but it has consistently flouted its provisions, which include tight time limits for making custody decisions following an abduction.

But such bureaucratic steps do nothing for the parents already waiting, none of whom has had a child returned home or, with one exception, even a visit since the last round of promises. German authorities have stated they cannot reopen closed cases -- though an estimated 172 of these ended without the return of a child. German politicians insist that no one can interfere with their independent judiciary. That ignores action the Bundestag could take -- for instance, shoring up the legal basis for enforcement of court orders, a persistent stumbling block -- not to mention leaders' ability to put political and moral pressure on the courts by speaking out.

This is unacceptable behavior for an ally, and President Bush, in Europe next week for meetings with Mr. Schroeder and other European leaders, should take the opportunity to show that American interest in ending such abuses transcends a change in presidents. Other countries share the same reluctance to follow international norms in border-crossing custody disputes -- Austria and Sweden are prime offenders -- but the large number of German-American marriages makes the abduction issue there loom especially large. It deserves to be a major subject of German-American relations.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company