At war over stolen kids|
By Ray Moseley
BERLIN - Seven years ago, Joseph Cooke of New York lost his two
children because of a German court ruling that has led to a legal tug
of war between the U.S. and German governments involving 59 American
Cooke's German wife took the children, Danny, now 10, and Michelle, 9,
with her on a visit to her hometown of Konstanz in southwest Germany
in 1992. Without her husband's knowledge, she turned the children over
to the German Youth Authority and then had herself admitted to a
clinic for treatment of mental illness.
Cooke spent nearly a year frantically trying to find out what had
happened to his children, finally learning from his wife, Christiane,
that a German court had turned them over to foster parents in 1993
without notifying him.
All his efforts since then to get them back have been in vain, and he
cannot return to Germany to see them because he would risk going to
jail; he has refused a German court order to pay child support to the
Recently the Youth Authority, angry that his case has been widely
publicized, retaliated against Cooke's mother, Patricia, telling her
that her right to visit the children for six hours at a time had been
reduced to two hours. Future visits, the authority hinted, would
depend on her behavior.
A State Department spokesman said the German position was "absolutely
horrible ... completely inappropriate."
At a time when Americans have been captivated by the story of Elian
Gonzalez, the 6-year-old whose father fought for months to regain
custody and return him to Cuba, the Cooke case is the most striking
example of how American parents whose children have been abducted to
Germany have run into a brick wall in their efforts to get the
children back and to see them while cases are pending.
These rights are supposed to be guaranteed by a 1980 international
convention on cases of abducted children that has been signed by the
U.S., Germany and 52 other countries.
The Hague convention requires that abducted children be returned
promptly to their country of habitual residence. It also requires
courts in the country to which an abducted child has been taken to
abide by custody decisions in the country of habitual residence.
But in Germany it can take years to bring such cases to court, and
German courts have held that the children involved have by then become
so accustomed to German life and language that it would not be in
their best interest to return them to the U.S.
This loophole is contained in the Hague convention. But, in the view
of angry American parents, it is being used by German courts to reward
parents for their crimes.
The Hague convention also is supposed to guarantee to parents left
behind the right to visit their children while cases are pending. But
German judges say German law gives them no power to enforce visitation
orders, so an abducting parent can refuse with impunity to allow a
spouse to see the children.
Under American law, such a parent can be held in contempt of court,
and fined or jailed. Contempt in civil cases does not exist in Germany
and many other European countries, and Germany has not adopted
legislation to ensure visitation rights since it signed the
According to the U.S. government, American courts return 90 percent of
children who are illegally abducted to the United States. In the past
three years, German courts heard 44 Hague convention cases involving
Americans. They ordered the return of 18 children to the U.S. and
refused to return 26.
For years hundreds of American parents have lost children to foreign
spouses who abscond with them, particularly to Arab countries. No Arab
country has signed the Hague convention, so American parents have
little hope of regaining children in those cases.
European governments have signed the Hague convention; in theory, the
rights of Americans should be protected. But Congress, in resolutions
passed unanimously by both houses this year, condemned Germany,
Austria and Sweden for "consistently violating" the Hague convention,
a charge the three nations deny.
The largest number of such cases in Europe involves Germany, and many
of the parental victims of child abduction are former U.S. soldiers
who married Germans while stationed there.
American parents are not alone in feeling victimized by German courts.
A group of more than 30 French parents has become militant in defense
of their rights and recently threatened a hunger strike in Berlin to
publicize their plight.
Likewise, many German parents who are divorced or separated say their
country's laws have victimized them by failing to ensure visitation
For a long time, American parents involved in international abduction
cases got scant media or other public attention, but two developments
in the past two years changed that.
Catherine Meyer, a British-French citizen who lost her two children to
her German husband in 1994, married Christopher Meyer, the British
ambassador to Washington, in 1998 and began using the platform her new
position gave her to arouse congressional and public indignation over
the treatment of her and American parents.
"This was the best thing that ever happened," said Kirsten
Niethammer-Juergens, a Berlin lawyer who has fought in the German
courts for the rights of American parents.
The other development was the publication in Washington of a newspaper
article about the Cooke case while German Foreign Minister Joschka
Fischer was visiting.
The German government had long ignored American parents' protests
about abduction cases, but Fischer promised to look into them when he
Shortly afterward President Clinton, on a visit to Germany, appealed
to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to help get American children back
Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, met with
German officials in Berlin in late June to push for action on six
cases, including Cooke's, and to seek a solution to the overall
In the Cooke case, she complained that the U.S. government wasn't
notified when Cooke's children were placed in foster care, argued that
they shouldn't have been given to foster parents when a competent
parent wanted them, and protested the role of the Youth Authority in
denying access to the Cookes.
German Justice Ministry officials said they had "motivated" the Youth
Authority "to do everything possible to solve this case."
More talks are scheduled in Washington later this month and in Berlin
Meantime Cooke, Catherine Meyer and other parents sit and wait,
increasingly frustrated and angry. Some have spent more than $200,000
each in savings to fight their so-far losing cases. They have had to
fly to Germany for court hearings or hoped-for meetings with children
that frequently never take place. Careers have suffered as a result,
At least one parent can't even get German authorities to tell him
where his children are living. And in some cases, parents who do get
to see their children find they cannot communicate because the
children now speak only German.
Cooke, 31, a former GI who met his wife when he was based in Germany,
eventually traced his missing children to the home of Franz and Else
Weh in the town of Konstanz. The Wehs have five children of their own
and three other foster children besides Danny and Michelle.
Cooke first telephoned the Wehs in 1993; he said they denied having
his children. Then they rushed to a German court and got an order
prohibiting him from taking them. Court records noted that he was not
informed of the decision.
Cooke went to the New York State Supreme Court and won custody of his
children. His wife, who had by then left the mental clinic in Germany
and moved to California, agreed he should have custody.
The New York court issued an order requesting German authorities to
help Cooke return his children to the U.S. under terms of the Hague
He flew to Germany to retrieve them in 1994, but it took almost three
weeks just to get permission from authorities to visit them for one
hour in their foster home, in the presence of a court-appointed
psychologist. As the psychologist noted in a report, "Mr. Cooke held
the children in his arms and wept."
That was the last time he saw them.
His mother has visited them several times, always bringing presents.
Everything went fine, she said, until she flew to Konstanz for a
scheduled meeting on June 23, more than a month after the Cooke case
had been widely publicized in the American press.
"The children rejected me completely," Patricia Cooke said. "That has
never happened before. They wouldn't let me touch them, and they
wouldn't accept the presents I brought. They are in a bad way."
She said Youth Authority officials put the blame on her, saying the
children were aware of the publicity she has given to the case and
were traumatized by it.
Like other Americans involved in such cases, she is aware that young
children can be easily manipulated in such situations to adopt
attitudes that will accord with the wishes of the abducting parent. It
is a recognized psychological condition called parental alienation
Patricia Cooke told German authorities that they were mistaken if they
thought that public attention to her son's case would simply
"I told them it's not in my hands," she said. "It has gone to the top
levels of government. The German court system is causing harm, and it
has got to be changed."
Meyer, although British, has strong U.S. backing for her fight to be
reunited with her sons, Alexander, now 12, and Constantin, 10.
She was separated in 1992 from Hans-Peter Volkmann, a doctor who lives
in Verden, near Bremen. When they parted, he agreed she should have
custody and the children would spend their holidays with him.
But in 1994, four days before the boys were to be returned to her, she
received a 21-page letter from Volkmann declaring that he had no
intention of sending them back to Britain.
She filed suit in Verden, and the court there ordered Volkmann to
return the children to her. Volkmann asked for a half-hour in which to
say goodbye to his sons, then spirited them away to an unknown
He appealed the Verden ruling to a court in nearby Celle. That court
temporarily suspended the Verden decision without even informing Meyer
the case was to be heard. Ultimately the court ruled Volkmann was
entitled to keep the children, after a hearing in which the court
declined to take testimony from Meyer or witnesses on her behalf. .
Since then Meyer has managed to see her children rarely. The Celle
court required her to meet with them in Volkmann's home with his
girlfriend in the room with them or in the Youth Authority office.
Meyer obtained a divorce in September 1997 and married the British
ambassador a month later. Her German lawyer advised her not to
continue fighting for custody but to push for better access rights.
As a result, she and her new husband met with the children on two days
in January and February 1999 at the British consulate in Hamburg. "The
first time was all right, but the second time the children were
extremely hostile—also toward Christopher," she said.
"The German courts are using the fact that children have been
manipulated as an excuse not to let us see our children," she said.
In testimony to the U.S. Senate, she said, "I am denied the right that
even women in prison are allowed."
Many American parents have had similar experiences.
Glenn Gebhard, 49, a professor at Loyola Marymount College in Los
Angeles, has not seen his twin children, Shannon and Glenn, now 7
years old, since 1994, the year his Mexican wife abducted them from
Los Angeles to Frankfurt.
Six months ago, a German judge took away his visitation rights, which
had never been enforced. The judge said the children were alienated
from him so it was in their best interests not to see him again.
In another case, James Rinaman III, a Jacksonville attorney, had been
married for three years to his German wife, Sylvia, when she went back
to Dusseldorf with their 15-month-old daughter, Julia, in June 1996
and then sent him a fax saying their marriage was over.
He won a German court case for return of his child, but that ruling
was overturned on appeal, and he has seen Julia only once since she
"My former wife told Julia that her new husband was her father," he
Germany isn't the only offender.
Tom Sylvester, 46, of Cincinnati, whose 13-month-old daughter was
abducted to Austria in 1995, and Tom Johnson, a State Department
attorney whose 5-year-old daughter was taken to Sweden in 1993, say
their problems are identical to those in Germany.
Each has won court cases against their abducting ex-spouses, but
authorities wouldn't enforce rulings Sylvester won, and Johnson's
court victories against his Swedish diplomat ex-wife were voided by
Sweden's Supreme Court.