Sean Goldman was 4 years old when his Brazilian-born mother took him from their New Jersey home for what Sean’s father, David Goldman, thought would be a two-week vacation. Five years passed before the father again laid eyes on his son.
“It was very painful,” David Goldman recalled. “The first time I saw him after nearly five years, he looked at me and asked me where have I been all this time. … He was told that I didn’t love him, that I abandoned him, that I never wanted him.”
The only unusual feature of this story is that David Goldman eventually regained custody, though even after the boy’s mother died in 2008 her Brazilian family continued to resist his efforts. He succeeded in part because Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., relentlessly focused attention and pressure on the case. Now a bill written by Smith, the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act, has been approved by the House, 398-0, and is set for consideration in the Senate. But the State Department doesn’t want the additional diplomatic tools the bill would provide.
According to State, 1,144 children were reported abducted from the United States in 2012. There were 1,367 in 2011 and 1,492 in 2010. State Department officials say they work hard to get those children back — or at least to get the cases fairly adjudicated — but they can’t or won’t say how many of those abducted children remain overseas. That raises questions about their claims for success for “quiet diplomacy.”
In a letter to Smith, Robert E. Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said the abduction of children by a separated spouse is a particular problem for service members, especially in Japan. Wallace said the service members’ appeals for help “are too often met with bad legal advice, misinformation or indifference. … It is time for the U.S. government to take concrete action.” An organization of victimized parents said that the result of quiet diplomacy is “that the Government of Japan has not once assisted in returning a single abducted child.” Japan at least is in the process of acceding to an international treaty on the subject; most countries have not done so.
The House bill provides for a series of graduated sanctions against countries that demonstrate a pattern of noncooperation; it also would encourage the United States to negotiate agreements with countries that have not ratified the treaty. In both cases, the executive branch would act only if it chose to do so; the bill provides for a presidential waiver. Nonetheless, a State Department official told us putting tools in the tool kit would be counterproductive because U.S. officials would face pressure to use them and other countries would resent the implied threat.
Given the administration’s inability to quantify its success, or to report any results at all, the argument for the status quo is not persuasive. An aide to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told us that the committee will take the measure up soon. We hope soon means soon. For thousands of parents deprived of the chance even to communicate with their children, quiet diplomacy isn’t getting the job done.