Historic Cairo meeting convened on Child Abduction and Exploitation | ICMEC | FEB 19, 2009

HISTORIC CAIRO MEETING CONVENED ON CHILD ABDUCTION AND EXPLOITATION

First Ladies and Royalty from Seven Nations Collaborate on the Global Problems of Missing and Sexually Exploited Children

 

Cairo, EGYPT – 19 February, 2009.  Her Excellency Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of the Arab Republic of Egypt and President of the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement (SMWIPM) in partnership with the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) convened an historic child protection conference today in Cairo.  The theme of the conference was “Crossing Borders to Protect the Children of the World.”

The conference coincided with the first meeting of the Honorary Board of ICMEC to be scheduled in the Middle East and Africa region.  The meeting of the Honorary Board and the child protection conference were both hosted in Cairo by H.E. Mrs. Mubarak.

Honorary Board members attending the conference included:

H.E. Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Her Majesty, The Queen of the Belgians
Her Royal Highness, Princess Lalla Meryem of the Kingdom of Morocco
Her Highness, Shaikha Sabeeka Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, Wife of the King of Bahrain
Mrs. Margarida Sousa Uva Barroso, Wife of the President of the European Commission
Mrs. Bernadette Chirac, Former First Lady of the French Republic
The Honorable Valentina Matvienko, Governor of Saint Petersburg

H.E. Mrs. Mubarak convened the Honorary Board in Cairo, saying “the problem of abused and exploited children has remained in the shadows for too long.  This issue is a global phenomenon.  If not attended to, it may reach epidemic proportions.”

Approximately two hundred child protection officials attended the conference which focused three issues: Cyber Safety and the global epidemic of child pornography on the internet; Effective Legislation against Child Pornography and ongoing efforts to adopt legislation around the world to prevent the exploitation of children; and Cooperation and Respect between Legal Systems and the need to work in a collaborative manner to develop jurisdictional approaches to protect children on a global basis.
Baron Daniel Cardon de Lichtbuer, Chairman of the ICMEC Board of Directors, said, “our challenge is not just to increase awareness and persuade individual governments to act, if we are to truly be successful, we must launch a global movement.”

The conference culminated with the Honorary Board members releasing a Cairo Declaration urging global leaders and leading international business organizations and technology leaders to take immediate steps in six areas:

  • Enact new and improved legislation and review existing laws periodically to ensure effective redress of any form of exploitation of children.
  • Join with ICMEC in a global movement to protect children, including expanding efforts to build new national and regional centers around the world to better address the problems of child abduction and exploitation.
  • Explore bilateral and multilateral approaches to resolving family disputes, including mediation, in order to ensure that the children are not the victims.
  • Make eradication of child exploitation a top priority.
  • Join together in a global campaign to build greater awareness and to stimulate concerted action to protect the world’s children.
  • Develop new tools and technologies to protect children and to redouble efforts to ensure that technology is not used as tool to exploit and victimize children.

Ernie Allen, ICMEC’s President & CEO, said, “Crossing Borders to Protect Children is the perfect theme for this historic meeting.  No person, no nation, no organization can do independently what all people, all nations and all organizations must do together.”

This was the third meeting of the ICMEC Honorary Board.  Former First Lady Bernadette Chirac hosted the previous meeting in 2007 at the Elysee Palace in Paris.  At that meeting the board was described by “Le Figaro” as the “G-8 for Children.”  The first meeting of the Honorary Board was hosted by Her Majesty Queen Paola of Belgium in 2004.

The Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement is a non-profit, non-governmental international association whose principal goal is to advocate and work towards peace and human security, and empower women and youth to participate as key influencers, change agents and active partners in peace processes.  For more information, visit www.womenforpeaceinternational.org



Ernie Allen Speech on Child Abductions: Globally, Nationally and Along the U.S. Mexico Border | ICMEC | AUG 31, 2009 

SPEECH OF

ERNIE ALLEN
President & Chief Executive Officer

NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING & EXPLOITED CHILDREN
INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR MISSING & EXPLOITED CHILDREN

CHILD ABDUCTIONS:
GLOBALLY, NATIONALLY AND ALONG THE U.S./MEXICO BORDER

For the

AMBER ALERT SOUTHERN BORDER INITIATIVE
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention

San Diego, California
August 31, 2009

 

The Justice Department asked me to share some thoughts with you this morning regarding the scope of the problem of missing and abducted children globally, in our two countries, and specifically in the border region.

Let me begin by stating that it is clear that political boundaries are no barriers to the transportation and victimization of children, not just in our region but worldwide. Twenty-five years ago, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was born. Part of the reason for the creation of the National Center was our recognition that we had no national system for responding to missing child cases. Ours was a nation of 18,000 different police departments. When a child was taken across county or state lines, other jurisdictions might not even know about the search for the child. It was a time when for most purposes you could not enter missing child information into the FBI’s National Crime Computer. You could enter information about stolen cars, stolen guns, even stolen horses, but not stolen children. It was a time in which most police departments had mandatory waiting periods before they would even take missing child reports.

We set out to change all that. In 1982 Congress passed the Missing Children’s Act, making it possible to enter missing child information into NCIC. Incidentally, we are very encouraged by the legislation recently introduced in the Mexican Senate to create a national missing person’s registry in Mexico.

In 1984 the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children opened its doors, working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a comprehensive national response to the problem of missing and exploited children. In 1990 Congress mandated that police take an immediate report in every missing child case and immediately enter that information into NCIC. The progress has been enormous. Today, law enforcement is better trained, better prepared and responding more swiftly and effectively than ever before.And today more missing children come home safely than at any time in the nation’s history. Yet, we continue to face new challenges.

One of those challenges is the increase in child abduction cases across our borders. We have worked tirelessly to foster greater cooperation and collaboration. Through our International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, we have trained police officials in 113 nations, including Mexican federal law enforcement. We have participated in efforts to improve our handling of international child abduction cases under the Hague Convention. We joined with the former First Lady of Mexico, Marta Sahagun de Fox, a member of the Honorary Board of our International Centre, in roundtables and video conferences on these issues, including the idea of creating a center in Mexico like our National Center in the United States. In 2004 we joined with Mexico’s Attorney General to launch the Mexican Missing Children Website. Today, we are working with Mexico on the implementation of CETS, the Child Exploitation Tracking System.

Today, our two countries are doing more than ever before. Yet, the problem of missing, abducted, trafficked and sexually exploited children is large, growing, under-recognized and underreported. Now more than ever, we must do more and we must do it together.

One of our greatest challenges is simply measuring and quantifying how large this problem really is. We do not yet have the kind of comprehensive, scientific data that we need on a global basis, but we are learning more.

In the United States, Justice Department research found that approximately 800,000 children are reporting missing each year, the largest number of whom are runaways, about 200,000 children are the victims of family abduction, about 58,000 children are the victims of nonfamily abduction, and about 115 children are taken by strangers and either murdered, ransomed or taken with the intent to keep.

If as many as 800,000 children are reported missing each year, that means that 2,000 children are reported missing each day. In Canada, the estimates are that about 200 children are reported missing every day.

The Los Angeles Times reported that 45,000 children are reported missing each year in Mexico. That number is an estimate by Aprenem, (Asociacion Pro Recuperacion de Ninos Extraviados y Orientacion de la Juventud de Mexico). If that number is accurate, we could estimate roughly 120 children per day.

Southern California officials estimate at least 200 kidnappings each year tied to Mexican organized crime groups. Texas officials report 4-6 kidnappings per week along the border. The majority of these incidents have been kidnappings of rival criminals, while the greater population has remained relatively untouched. However, in some cases, innocent family members are snatched in retribution.

How do the numbers for countries compare with the rest of the world?

In our hemisphere, the Children’s Rights Council in Brazil estimates about 40,000 children reported missing each year in Brazil.

And a recent report in Europe found that there are

  • 105,000 reported missing children each year in the United Kingdom
  • 50,000 in Germany
  • 39,000 in France
  • 8,400 in Spain
  • 1,100 in Italy
  • 500 in Greece

Yet, those numbers illustrate one obvious question: exactly what are we counting? Are there 50,000 missing children each year in Germany and just 1,100 in Italy or 500 in Greece? We doubt it. Obviously, these variations are likely to be a function of a lack of common definitions, common policy and uniform systems. Every country is not counting the same things.

Further, we know that many of these cases are never reported. Many children and many families, for many reasons, tell no one, and do not reach out for help. In cases of kidnapping for ransom, typically, the families of victims and their captors reach a ransom settlement and arrange for the exchange of cash for the kidnapped victim. Corporate Risk International reported that even though there were more than a thousand such kidnappings reported in 2008, the actual numbers are much higher due to the lack of reporting of the crime for fear of retaliation. According to 2009 reports, 75% of kidnappings go unreported and 90% are unsolved.

So, it is safe to assume that kidnappings involving children are even more under reported. So, as we begin our discussion today, our first assumption must be that there are more of these cases in the United States and in Mexico than those which are reported to police.

The challenges we face along our border are many. Earlier this year, The Los Angeles Times headline read, “Phoenix, Kidnap-For-Ransom Capital.” The New York Times headline shouted, “Kidnappings in Mexico Send Shivers Across the Border.” In April U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder created a new FBI intelligence group focusing on kidnapping and extortion. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has deployed 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police to 18 states to battle drug cartel-linked crime and violence. Nearly 10,000 people have died in the past two years.

How are our children being affected?

(1) Children have been kidnapped and held for ransom.

Today, children are not the primary targets of those who kidnap for ransom. We believe that is largely due to the intense publicity when a child is kidnapped and the rapid response by law enforcement.  Cartel leaders seem to feel that kidnappings of children bring too much media attention and public outrage. In addition, these crimes take planning and perfect execution, as well as protracted bargaining. The kidnappers also fear extradition if they are captured. Finally, they have plenty of adult targets (tourists, businessmen, wealthy families, rival drug dealers, etc.) and the money is given directly to the kidnappers, generally before there is any publicity. Nonetheless, we are still increasing numbers of kidnappings of children for ransom.

(2) Children have been kidnapped as retaliation for some wrong or grievance, or simply to engender fear.

A recent, high-profile example was the kidnapping of 3-year-old Briant Rodriguez of San Bernadino, California. Briant was taken from his own home during a home invasion.  Other family members were tied up. The abductors told the family that they were taking Briant to Mexico to kill him. Media coverage was extensive and through outstanding police work, the abductors were arrested. They said the abduction was for retaliation.

Briant had long hair. We thought the abductors might cut his hair to make him less recognizable. So, we displayed two images on his poster, one with his long hair, and the other created by our forensic artists, with short hair. A police officer in Mexicali encountered a small child walking alone on the streets. When he could not find the child’s parents, he took him to the local DIF office. There, social workers noticed that the child bore a striking resemblance to the child on a National Center poster on the wall. The abductors had shaved Briant’s head. Briant has been reunited with his mother.

There are other examples, including 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger of Las Vegas, abducted by two men posing as police officers, who tied up the boy’s mother and her boyfriend. The investigation revealed that the abduction was the result of the child’s grandfather stealing money from drug cartels. The grandfather was arrested. When it became apparent to the cartels that the child could no longer be used for leverage, they let him go. Cole was found walking alone.  Both abductors were arrested.

Three year old Karen Cervantes of Avondale, Arizona was kidnapped along with her mother as a result of a home invasion by five or six armed men. They told the mother it was because her boyfriend owed them money. The abductors demanded a $100,000 ransom, reduced it to $23,000 and when no payments were made, they released both victims who were recovered four days later. It is believed this was drug related.

(3) Children are being kidnapped or retained by coyotes as extortion.

In many of these cases family members come to the US, find work, become “established”, and then send for left-behind family members. When they hire a coyote group, they pay in advance.Prior to delivery, the coyote will contact the family and often double the price for the left behind people, which often includes the children. The parents’ options are (1) to report this activity to law enforcement, which puts them in jeopardy; (2) to attempt to raise the money by work, or criminal activity, which takes time; (3) to return to Mexico with no guarantee of reunification; or (4) to ignore the demands for more money and suffer the consequences.

These kidnappings are rarely reported. Also, getting victim parents to cooperate with law enforcement is almost impossible. Some of the parents call the National Center rather than the police. Recently, we worked with California law enforcement to try to find a child who reportedly was too young to keep up with the group being brought across the border, and was left behind. The woman who left the child called to tell us that she thought the child had died. Law enforcement was unable to find the child and there was never a report of a missing child that matched the details provided. In another instance we received a call about a missing three year old. The caller would not provide any information other than that the child’s name is Amelia. The caller stated that she was living in the US illegally and had arranged for the child to be transported from Mexico to North Carolina. The caller refused to talk to law enforcement. We are continuing to try to locate the child.

These children are vulnerable in other ways. Four year old Brenda Martinez and her mother were being transported across the border when the mother was caught and returned to Mexico.The coyote took the child to his home in Los Angeles. A month later the mother made it across the border. She contacted the coyote who told her that he wanted a ransom for the child or he would kill her and the child. The ICE investigator determined the identity and location of the coyote, and recovered the child, who had been molested by the two teenaged sons of the abductor.

(4) Children are being abducted and sexually victimized –

We also continue to encounter the more typical child abduction cases in the region. Four year old Lesley Perez was playing in a field with friends. The abductor dimmed the lights in his vehicle, jumped out of his car and grabbed the victim. Her 12 year old sister attempted to help and was knocked to the ground. The abductor shoved Lesley into his car and drove off. For some reason, he called a friend in California and told him what he had done. The friend called the Houston Crimestoppers Tip Line. The abductor was arrested and the child recovered. She had been sexually molested but is recovering.

(5) Children are at risk in other ways –

I fear that we will see growing numbers of innocent victims swept up in these incidents by mistake. For example, in Phoenix in June, a thirteen year old girl was grabbed off the street and thrown into an SUV by kidnappers who mistakenly believed that she was the niece of a drug dealer who helped steal 55 pounds of marijuana. She pleaded with them that she was the wrong person. They hit her over the head and drove off with her. Ultimately, when they confirmed that they had grabbed the wrong child, they let her go.

There are other examples. Recently, The Washington Times reported that Cartel members are using child decoys to gather intelligence about enhanced border security and exploit weaknesses. A US Army report indicated that the Cartels are wedging children into gaps in the cement pylons at the border barriers. The American fire department response is to take down the barriers to rescue these children. Then the Cartels use these gaps to transport people and contraband into the US until repairs are made, sometimes weeks later.

(6) Children are being abducted and taken across the border by non-custodial parents.

This is a huge problem, but one that doesn’t seem as deadly or dramatic. Yet, it is a major problem for our two countries and one that increasingly occupies our time and resources. Overwhelmingly, Mexico is the #1 destination for international child abductions from the United States. And the United States is the #1 destination for international child abductions from Mexico

Mexico and the United States are two of 80 countries that are signatories to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty to regulate and control these kinds of difficult cases. The U.S. State Department reports that 65% of all outgoing international parental abductions from the United States to Hague Convention countries are to Mexico, and that 41% of all incoming international parental abductions to the United States are from Mexico.

Currently, the National Center is working 558 cases in which US children have been abducted and taken to Mexico by a non-custodial parent. The country that has the second largest number of current active cases is Japan with 38 cases. In the past five years, 551 cases involving U.S. children taken to Mexico have been successfully resolved, and 459 cases involving Mexican children taken to the U.S. have been successfully resolved.

I believe it is clear that we face a wide range of problems and challenges relating to the abduction of US and Mexican children.It is important to note that these problems are impacting victims on both sides of the border. In June the Latin American Herald Tribune reported that 20,000 migrants a year are kidnapped in Mexico en route to the US. Those kidnapped are subjected to rape, torture and murder and these crimes generally go unresolved and unpunished according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Between September 2008 and February 2009, the commission registered 198 cases of mass kidnappings of migrants involving 9,758 people. It is estimated that the kidnappers make $50 million from this practice annually.

It is also important to recognize that this problem is growing. Phoenix police report encountering assailants using police tactics and masquerading as police with SWAT gear, battle dress uniforms, web gear, vests, assault rifles, and Kevlar helmets. In some cases, they were even wearing authentic Phoenix Police Department t-shirts. Phoenix police report that these offenders work in teams of ten to twenty, utilizing sophisticated tactics, including counter-surveillance.

So, the challenges are enormous. What can we do about them?

First, we must work together, share information and build a comprehensive strategy. This is a problem that individual agencies and jurisdictions cannot solve on their own. Clearly, the US and Mexican governments have taken bold first steps, but there is more to do.

Second, we need to recognize that more children have been affected than we know about, and anticipate that more children will be affected in the future. We will see more cases like that of little Briant Rodriguez, an innocent 3-year-old taken out of retaliation. We need to be prepared and develop the systems and resources to respond quickly.

One resource that has worked incredibly well is the AMBER Alert. It is a voluntary, grassroots initiative, it saves lives, and it is free. The concept is very simple and basic. It is a partnership between law enforcement and broadcasters, using the Emergency Alert System to mobilize the eyes and ears of the public to help in the search for an abducted child. Used most often for weather emergencies, this system is activated by law enforcement and used only for the most serious cases, where the child is at greatest risk, and where there is key descriptive information to provide to the public. Most often the Alert is conveying the description of an automobile or license plate.

Time is the enemy in the search for an abducted child. We must move quickly and we need the public’s help. One of the lessons we have learned is that political boundaries and borders are no barrier to child abductions. Abductors move children quickly. Issuing an AMBER Alert in one state or one community alone may not be enough if the abductor transports the child somewhere else. Jurisdictions must work together and cooperate with neighboring jurisdictions. Today, there are 120 Amber Plans across the United States including statewide plans in every state. To date, 467 children have been recovered as a direct result of the AMBER program.

We are very encouraged by the positive experience from our bi-national AMBER system with Baja, California. Since 2005, 21 children have been recovered through the use of AMBER Alerts in Mexico. Today, US Customs and Border Protection agents receive our AMBER feed, and we hope to initiate the same system with Mexico’s Customs and Border Protection personnel.

Regional and cross-border approaches are so vital. In January 2007 I attended a meeting in Paris with the then-President of France, Jacques Chirac. The first thing President Chirac said to me was, “just last week we saved two French abducted children through the use of your AMBER Alert system.” In Europe where 27 countries are located in such close proximity with each other, cross-border systems are essential. The European Union is now exploring the implementation of cross-border/regional AMBER Alert systems.

We have made progress through the creation of regional AMBER Alerts in the United States. Today, there are 29 regional plans in the United States. We hope that can be increased through expanded cross-border plans with Mexico.

Third and finally, as we address this complex, daunting problem, I commit to you the services, assistance and support of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in the United States, and of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. Previously, I mentioned a few of the ways that the International Centre is working with Mexico. Let me mention some of the resources of the National Center that we will provide to assist in transnational child abduction cases.

  • We work in close coordination with ICE and maintain strong crossing contacts through ICE and the Border Patrol.
  • We have a team of experts, called Team Adam, whom we dispatch immediately to breaking cases in which children are at serious risk. They advise and assist law enforcement agencies, provide technology or whatever support is necessary.
  • We have strong media partners, including Univision and Telemundo, who help us bring quick and intensive media visibility in breaking cases.
  • We have 400 strong photo partners who help us disseminate posters of missing children across the region.
  • We work in close cooperation with the U.S. State Department and its Office of Children’s Issues.
  • We have built a strong network of contacts across the region, including key law enforcement and social services professionals with strong interest in and commitment to protecting children.

There is a lot of work to do. Yet, it is clear that we can solve these problems if we make the protection of the children of Mexico and the United States a top priority and if we work together.



Ernie Allen Testimony on International Child Abduction and Parental Access for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission | ICMEC | DEC 2, 2009

WRITTEN TESTIMONY

ERNIE ALLEN
President & Chief Executive Officer

THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING & EXPLOITED CHILDREN
and
THE INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR MISSING & EXPLOITED CHILDREN

 

for the

TOM LANTOS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION

 

“INTERNATIONAL CHILD ABDUCTION AND PARENTAL ACCESS”

Washington, DC

December 2, 2009

 

Distinguished Members of the Commission, as President of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and its sister organization, the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC), I thank you for this opportunity to appear before you to discuss the issue of international child abduction and how we can continue to strengthen international cooperation in this arena. Chairman Wolf and Chairman McGovern, I commend you and your colleagues for being tireless advocates for children, for your leadership and initiative, and for bringing us together today to discuss what more we can do to protect our children.

As you know, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a not-for-profit corporation, mandated by Congress and working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice.  NCMEC is a true public-private partnership, funded in part by Congress and in part by the private sector.  For 25 years, NCMEC has operated under Congressional mandate to serve as the national resource center and clearinghouse on missing and exploited children.

For 11 years the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children has worked to increase the global awareness of these issues.   At the launch of ICMEC in 1998, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared that international parental abductions are not just disputes about the law, they are matters of human rights.  We applaud now-Secretary of State Clinton for her insight and for her advocacy on what we agree is a human rights issue.  We’re confident that under her leadership we will see real progress in these cases.

ICMEC’s international policy work and affiliations help raise the awareness of policy-makers, law enforcement, and parents worldwide. In its affiliation with the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Conference on Private International Law (Permanent Bureau) ICMEC has supported the following efforts:

  • more consistent and uniform implementation of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the Hague Convention);
  • Good Practice Guides to advise countries on how best to organize their judiciary and systems that deal with international child abduction in order to best fulfill their obligations under the Hague Convention and the goal of the swift return of abducted children;
  • cooperation among countries that have signed the Hague Convention and those that have not; and
  • a Legal Training Institute to educate judges on the unique legal concepts necessary to resolve these complex international disputes.

NCMEC’s statutory authorization (see 42 U.S.C. §5773) includes 19 specific operational functions authorized by Congress, among which are:

  • operating a national 24-hour toll-free hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST® (1-800-843-5678), to intake reports of missing children and receive leads about ongoing cases;
  • coordinating public and private programs that locate, recover, or reunite missing children with their families;
  • providing technical assistance and training to individuals and law enforcement agencies in the prevention, investigation, prosecution, and treatment of cases involving missing and exploited children;
  • providing assistance to families and law enforcement agencies in locating and recovering missing and exploited children, both nationally and, in cooperation with the Department of State, internationally;
  • tracking the incidence of attempted child abductions;
  • providing forensic technical assistance to law enforcement;
  • facilitating the deployment of the National Emergency Child Locator Center during periods of national disasters;
  • working with law enforcement and the private sector to reduce the distribution of child pornography over the Internet;
  • operating a child victim identification program to assist law enforcement in identifying victims of child pornography;
  • developing and disseminating programs and information about Internet safety and the prevention of child abduction and sexual exploitation;
  • providing technical assistance and training to law enforcement in identifying and locating non-compliant sex offenders; and
  • operating the CyberTipline, the “9-1-1 for the Internet,” that the public and electronic service providers may use to report Internet-related child sexual exploitation.

NCMEC’s 24-hour toll-free hotline, 1-800-THE-LOST, is our longest running program.  We intake reports of missing children and assign the cases to NCMEC Case Managers who work the cases, coordinating with law enforcement in an effort to recover the missing child.  From 1995 through 2008, per a cooperative agreement with the Departments of State and Justice, NCMEC handled cases in which a child was wrongfully brought into the United States and subject to the Hague Convention.   While NCMEC no longer serves this role, we continue to provide legal technical assistance to attorneys and judges handling international child abduction cases as well as technical assistance and resources to parents, law enforcement, and professionals involved in these matters.

We believe that parents and law enforcement should have all available tools to prevent a child from being abducted.  We provide training to law enforcement on issues related to abductions as well as abduction-in-progress situations. We advise parents who believe that their children might be at risk of abduction to obtain a valid custody order, at least naming them as the primary residential custodian.  We suggest that parents consider seeking the assistance of a mediator who may help parents develop workable cross-cultural, child-rearing strategies. Finally, NCMEC suggests that parents inquire about the Department of State’s Passport Alert system.

Just how big is this problem?

According to the latest research from the Department of Justice, there are more than 200,000 family abductions per year.  In these situations, a non-custodial relative abducts a child from his or her custodial parent.  This is a crime under both state and federal law.  Family-abducted children suffer extreme emotional abuse, ranging from lack of identity to grief over the loss of a parent.  In many instances the abductor tells the child that the left-behind-parent is dead or no longer wants the child. Abductors frequently move the child from city to city, or take the child to another country, making it difficult for law enforcement and the searching parent to locate and recover the child.

To help illustrate the scope of the problem of international child abduction, I’d like to share some additional statistics with you.  NCMEC is currently working cases involving 1,214 children who were abducted by a non-custodial parent from the United States to a foreign country. The majority of these children were taken to the following countries: Mexico (533 children); Japan (54 children); India (32 children); Egypt (30 children); the United Kingdom (24 children); and Canada (23 children).

While the United States has made some notable strides – including signing reciprocal agreements with 68 Hague signatory countries – the current situation is not acceptable. This is a significant problem affecting United States citizens right now and as such it should be taken seriously at the highest levels of the Administration.

NCMEC and ICMEC are committed to doing what we can to fight for improvements in our global response to international abduction cases.  These cases can present even greater complexities than domestic abduction cases because law enforcement and government officials are often dealing with a plurality of ethnicities, religions and ideas.  However, decades of work have established a firm foundation that offers hope for continued progress.

I would like to highlight some recommendations for what we can do to build upon existing efforts:

First, we must continue to encourage those countries that have not yet done so to ratify the Hague Convention.  Every time a government’s leadership changes, we have an opportunity to try to encourage the new leaders to ratify the Hague Convention.   For example, it is my sincere hope that the newly-elected government in Japan will join the Hague Convention as a full and energetic partner as soon as possible.   In an effort to encourage Japan’s ratification, ICMEC’s Senior Policy Director met with Japanese government officials in June of this year.

By ratifying the Hague Convention, a country can show the world that it recognizes the severity of these crimes and is amenable to cooperating with other nations in an effort to quickly resolve these cases.

Second, we must hold all signatory countries to the standards and obligations of the Hague Convention. Despite the expectations that accompany ratification, some countries have not fulfilled the obligations or met the standards expected of signatories.  The Good Practice Guides provide invaluable assistance to Hague countries seeking to improve their handling of these cases.  One of the Guide’s recommendations is for signatory countries to dedicate a subset of judges to review Hague petitions. Consolidating this authority will create a group of experienced judges who are well-equipped to handle these complex cases.

In addition, Good Practice Reports can help monitor implementation and track results. A valuable tool in global efforts would be an annual review of Hague compliance in all signatory countries. Having an accurate measurement would enable us to identify problem areas and better target and coordinate our efforts.

Third, we should encourage countries who are not Hague signatories to adopt policies consistent with those outlined in the Hague Convention.  In an ideal world all 194 countries in the world would ratify the Hague Convention.  Of course, the reality is that not all countries will do so.  However, even if a country chooses not to ratify the Hague Convention, we should engage and educate them on the benefits of Hague-consistent policies, such as the Malta Process to improve resolution of child abduction cases in Islamic countries.  The biggest obstacle are policies that permit repeated delays in the judicial process, resulting in further harm to the child and complicating both the process and the final determination. Time is the enemy – the best interest of the child is not served by unwarranted and unnecessary delays in resolving these cases.

Fourth, we should educate all judges – both in the U.S. and internationally – about their responsibilities under the Hague Convention.  This training should focus on how swift resolution of these cases best serves the child victims.  Further, we should encourage dialogue among all judges who handle these cases, providing opportunities for both informal exchanges of ideas and more formal international judicial conferences.  The cooperation and communication fostered by such discussions helps all child victims of international abduction.

Fifth, we can play an important role in encouraging other countries to return abducted American children by reciprocating when their children are abducted into the United States.   As we seek to find the best ways to resolve abductions involving American children who are taken abroad, we must be equally vigilant in resolving cases in which children are abducted from another country and brought into the United States.  To better fulfill this responsibility, we should educate U.S. state and local law enforcement about the issue of international child abduction and the obligations of the United States under the Hague Convention.

Finally, I believe we should amend the federal definition of ‘missing child’ that was established by the Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984 and codified at 42 U.S.C. §5772.  In parental abduction cases, law enforcement may be hesitant to classify the child as ‘missing’ since the child does not technically fit within the current federal definition of ‘missing child’:  a child whose whereabouts are unknown to the child’s legal custodian.  Parental abduction cases are unique — the left-behind parent may know the exact whereabouts of the ‘missing’ child but is unable to bring the child home. This problem can be solved by adding the description “or who was removed from the control of such individual’s legal custodian in violation of law or judicial order” to the federal definition of ‘missing child.’  This not only reinforces law enforcement’s jurisdiction over these criminal cases, it also ensures that they will be given the same resources and support as non-family abductions. In addition, clarifying the definition of ‘missing child’ to include family-abducted children ensures that law enforcement will enter these cases into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.  NCIC entry of these children is critical to ensuring that law enforcement resources are dedicated to these abductions.  Approximately one-third of NCMEC’s current international abductions have not been entered into NCIC.

Members of the Commission, I do not come before you today with a quick, easy solution to the problem of international child abduction.  However, I can unequivocally state that no country is immune from this problem, and it will take a concerted effort from all parties to ensure that the world’s children are protected.  It is critical that the United States continue to improve our response to international child abduction so that we are able to serve as a model for other countries.  We are encouraged by the Department of State’s improvements to build capacity to handle these cases.  The United States plays an important role in the world community.  Once we ensure that our own house is in order – that our law enforcement officers and judges consistently apply the policies and best practices of the Hague Convention – we can stand on the world stage and bring others to the table for the benefit of all children.

We must act, for the children of the United States and for the children of the world.

Thank you.