Child abduction is one of a parent's worst fears, and for a growing number of parents around the world, this fear is being realized and compounded by international custody disputes. In many cases, parents abduct their own children when marriages fail and return home where local laws protect them. In some cases the abducted children never see the other parent again.
On July 13, 2003, U.S. Navy Commander Paul Toland returned home to discover his wife had moved out and taken their 9-month-old daughter Erika with her.
At the time, Toland was stationed at a U.S. naval base in Yokohama, Japan. His wife Etsuko, a native of Japan who had become a U.S. citizen during their marriage, took Erika and their belongings from the family's home in Negishi Navy family housing to Tokyo and told her husband she wanted a divorce. To settle the matter, Toland says they went to a Japanese court.
"The big issue that I wanted to discuss, the most important one, was visitation with Erika. When can I see my daughter? When I said I wanted to see Erika on weekends, the judge and the attorneys in the room laughed, and when I asked to see Erika to give her gifts on her birthday, I was told to mail the gifts to my wife's attorney," he said.
Japan is one of several countries that do not recognize joint custody of a child. The parent who does not win custody in a divorce may apply for visitation, but Toland says such rights are rarely awarded in Japan. He says even when the courts grant visitation, the parent with custody has total discretion to decide whether the child can see the other parent.
After several months in court, Etsuko received full custody of Erika. Soon after, Toland was transferred back to the United States, where he continued fighting to see his daughter. The situation took a tragic turn in late 2007, when Toland learned his ex-wife had passed away.
Toland says Etsuko's death was devastating, but gave him renewed hope that, finally, he would be able to see his daughter. However, Erika was sent to live with her grandmother in Tokyo. Toland says even now, as her only living parent and after spending more than $200,000 in attorney fees, he has no access to his daughter.
International family lawyer Jeremy Morley is based in the U.S. and has handled custody cases in Japan for more than a decade. He says Toland's case is not unique.
"There are several cases in which the parent who took the child to a country such as Japan has actually passed away, and the child has been kept by that parent's family in the foreign country. So, the problem is that when the child is kept in a country such as Japan by the family of the taking parent, there's really no way that works to get the child back, even in such unusual circumstances. The family law system in Japan and in many other Asian countries is just not developed," said Morley.
Japanese family law attorney Satoru Kawamoto agrees, adding Japan has rightfully earned a reputation as an international haven for child abduction, a distinction he says the country will keep until it signs the world's main treaty to prevent cases like Toland's.
"Currently there is no physical enforcement to bring back the child to the United States, because Japan hasn't ratified Hague Convention, so I think Japan should ratify the Hague Convention," said Kawamoto.
The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction has now been ratified by 81 countries. Attorney Jeremy Morley says that by signing and complying with the convention, countries will both combat and bring attention to this major worldwide concern.
"International child abduction is a huge problem, it's growing and it's underreported. People don't recognize the existence of the problem, they don't recognize how terribly serious it is," said Morley.
Commander Toland says he hopes no more parents have to experience what he has been going through. And, despite years of disappointment, he says he will never give up his fight for Erika.
"I love her and I want to get to know her. I want to get to know my own daughter. I missed a lot of years with her, but I don't want to miss any more. I want to be there for her," he said.
Legal analysts say Toland's case will be an uphill battle and under current Japanese law there is little he can do.