Global Spotlight: International Child Abduction

According to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, last year nearly 2,000 children were internationally abducted to or from the United States by one of their own parents, in violation of the other parent’s rights:

That’s 40 children taken from their homes and from their loved ones each week. Abductions traumatize children, their parents, friends, and family. International Parental Child Abduction is a painful scourge for so many, and it is something that deeply concerns me.

Parental kidnapping compromises and destroys parent-child relationships, uproots and destabilizes children, and typically causes acute emotional distress to everybody involved.  Today’s International Missing Children’s Day strikes us as an auspicious occasion to shine PBI’s Global Pro Bono Spotlight on a particularly compelling pro bono partnership benefitting victims of international parental kidnapping.

An international treaty, the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, provides for the swift return of internationally abducted children to their countries of habitual residence. The U.S. is currently bound to 68 other countries under the treaty, and expects to gain its 69th treaty partner a tout de suite following Japan’s recent decision to ratify the Convention.

However, the United States’ execution of its treaty obligations is plagued by a major impediment: by taking a reservation to Article 26 of the Hague Convention, the U.S. declined to provide applicant parents with legal representation in Hague proceedings before the U.S. courts. So, in order to ensure access to justice for indigent and low-income parents abroad with children missing in the United States, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) established an International Child Abduction Attorney Network (ICAAN).

One of ICAAN’s pro bono partners is none other than Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® Signatory, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP*. When NCMEC first approached the firm to represent a left-behind parent pro bono in a Hague abduction case, Pro Bono Partner Debbie Segal says she jumped at the opportunity:

It was quite amazing to be able to use our legal skills to facilitate a reunion between a parent and a child – there was not a dry eye in the house. The Hague cases quickly became coveted pro bono opportunities for young litigators, because they were extremely important, fast-paced, unique and exciting. After we had a few successful cases under our belts, one of our associates suggested that others could benefit from our experiences. We approached NCMEC, they embraced the idea, and the rest is history.

So, in addition to continuing to represent left-behind parents of internationally abducted children in Hague proceedings, the firm authored a national practice manual for NCMEC, “Litigating International Child Abduction Cases Under the Hague Convention” (second edition coming soon!). Kilpatrick Townsend’s pro bono portfolio now includes a signature International Parental Abduction initiative spanning North America, Europe and the Middle East.

Recognizing that the effective functioning of the Hague Convention is dependent upon left-behind parents’ unfettered access to legal counsel, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues (the designated U.S. central authority under the treaty) is actively seeking legal talent to expand its pro bono Attorney Network. What’s in it for me, you ask?

  • Gain exposure to international law and federal court litigation experience;
  • Pro bono attorneys may recover attorneys’ fees in successful Hague proceedings (See Cuellar v. Joyce, 603 F.3d 1142 (9th Cir. 2010));
  • And, in the words of one pro bono attorney who recently completed his very first Hague case, “This experience reminded me of why I went to law school in the first place.”

Law firms and in-house legal departments interested in representing left-behind parents in Hague child abduction proceedings in the U.S. courts may contact the State Department’s Legal Assistance Coordinator Patricia Hoff at 202.736.9096. No prior international law experience is required.

*denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®