Tuesday, October 17, 2006

In The Name Of Children ...

I was just out for a walk, noticing the yard signs, noticing the sign for my current Representative, when my mind took me back to the summer of 2001, when my brother and then-sister-in-law were embroiled in a battle to protect her son, who was in danger of being abducted by her ex-husband.

She had appealed to everyone she could think of, and was consistently met with a perfunctory shoulder shrug. Apparently, the logic behind child abductions is that until a child is abducted, no proof exists that the child is in danger of being abducted.

In order to call more attention to her plight, I took it upon myself to write a letter on her behalf, and mailed it to every member of the Founding Members of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. I just pulled that file: Yes, in fact, I did send a letter to Mark Foley.

Several Representatives replied to me. I don't remeber hearing from Foley. Not that it would have mattered. They all said the same thing, that they were referring my letter to the Representative of my district. Of course, he was the same person who had done nothing for my sister-in-law up until that point, but I thought he might be prodded into action after receiving countless copies of the same letter. I mailed 150 copies, 149 to members of the House and one to Laura Bush. I thought it made sense to appeal directly the First Lady, to appeal directly a mother who had the ear of the President.

Unfortuntately, I mailed the letters on September 9, 2001. Two days later, all hell broke loose. And in the weeks after that, an anthrax scare interrupted mail service on Capitol Hill. It's a credit to those Representatives who replied that their office eventually took the time to respond.

This is an excerpt from my letter, slightly edited to remove names.

I am writing to you on behalf of my sister-in-law .... She is currently waging the battle of her life to protect her son from international abduction by his Algerian father, who currently lives in France.

Attached is a letter, written by her, that has been sent to all of Indiana’s state and federal legislators. In every case their response has been, in one form or another, 'There’s nothing we can do to help you.' The 'reasoning' seems to be: Until a parent actually abducts a child, no proof exists that the abduction will take place.

And yet, once a child is abducted, there is little the United States seems willing or able to do to aid the left-behind parents in reclaiming their children.

I simply will not accept that our only course of action in this matter, as individuals and as a nation, is to sit idly by while our children are stolen.

My sister-in-law finds herself in the insanity-inducing position of knowing that her son is in imminent danger while she is told, everywhere she turns, there is nothing to be done. But steps must be taken. President Clinton signed H.R. 3378, the 'International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993. This legislation underscores the seriousness with which the United States regards international child abduction. It makes this crime, for the first time, a Federal felony offense.'

It is widely known that most children who are abducted to another country never return. And while I am grateful that any legislation is in place in response to this omnipresent threat, can it be possible that parents must wait until their children are gone until they can hope to plead their case? Is there no way to prevent these abductions before they happen?

I believe there is, and I believe the answer is ludicrously simple: education. In many instances, children are abducted because an uninformed judge grants the non-custodial parent unsupervised visitation. The word 'abduction' conjures images of children being spirited away under cover of night, and yet, many are abductions are easily perpetrated because the non-custodial parent has been given legal permission to be alone with the child. In one recent case, a child who had been abducted and recovered, miraculously, was abducted a second time after a judge granted unsupervised visitation.

Most of these cases are frighteningly similar. Patterns have emerged. My sister-in-law clearly recognizes that she is on the same path followed by so many parents before her. And the consequences are tragic.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 350,000 children are abducted every year. Nearly 1,000 children every day. That not all of these abductions are international is irrelevant: It is unthinkable that children, citizens of the United States of America, are living in a country where they are so largely unprotected.

I had no concept of the scope of this problem until my sister-in-law became a part of my family and I started witnessing this nightmare alongside her. It is not enough for me to lend a sympathetic ear to her daily, mounting frustrations. It is not enough to hope that someone else, somewhere, will address this problem in time to save her son. The threat of her son’s abduction has become our shared reality. She is grateful for every day that she is able to spend with him, yet at the same time, she has come to believe that her efforts to protect him will prove futile.

We do not wonder if her son will be abducted. His abduction is certain. Unless we, collectively, act to prevent it."

So much has been made of Foley's membership on this caucus, the irony (though it's not really irony), that he was charged with protecting children and was allegedly exploiting them instead. But the importance of the work of the caucus cannot be overstated.

Today, driving on the expressway, I saw an Amber Alert for a Kentucky plate, 675 DRV, a white 2001 Daewoo, I believe. I hope the child is found safely and soon.

If you'd like to learn more about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, click here.

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