Smith calls on Biden Administration to take stronger steps to bring home hundreds of American children who have been abducted overseas

May 23, 2023

WASHINGTON—At a congressional hearing today, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) together with left-behind American parents whose children have been abducted overseas called on the Biden Administration to take stronger steps to help bring home hundreds of American children through more robust implementation of the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act.

“The Goldman Act empowered the State Department to seek the return of American children, yet the Department has never used the full range of tools as Congress intended,” said Smith, who authored the law to push the State Department and give them the tools to combat international child abductions.

“With hundreds of American children—American citizens—still missing, it seems unconscionable that the State Department continues to limit its actions to bring them home,” said Smith, who cited the annual reports required by the Goldman Act that show more than 13,000 American children have been abducted abroad by a parent since 2008.

Chaired by Smith, the House Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee hearing—which comes ahead of Thursday’s commemoration of National Missing Children’s Day—included testimony from Michelle Bernier-Toth, the US State Department’s Special Advisor for Children’s Issues.

Bernier-Toth acknowledged that the Goldman Act gave the State Department stronger tools to bring children home—including withholding US assistance to foreign governments and invoking sanctions—but said these actions “could undermine efforts in other areas,” essentially placing other interests over returning American children to the United States.

            The hearing also included compelling and heart-wrenching testimony from two parents—Jeffery Morehouse and Dr. Noelle Hunter—who have endured years apart from their children, as well as Patricia Apy—the prominent international family law attorney from Red Bank, New Jersey, whose critical work to help reunite David Goldman with his son Sean in the high-profile abduction case informed Smith’s drafting of the Goldman Act.

“The Goldman Act was signed into law nine years ago in August 2014,” said Jeffery Morehouse, the Executive Director of Bring Abducted Children Home, who has been fighting to get his son Mochi back from Japan since 2010. “Since then, there have been at least 10 hearings to get the State Department on board with holding foreign governments accountable and increasing reunifications and returns. They have demonstrated through three administrations little commitment to do so.”

Hunter—who was reunited with her daughter Muna after she was abducted to Mali for three years—echoed Morehouse’s concerns over the State Department’s implementation of the Goldman Act: “Over the past nine years, even our most measured expectations for the State Department to fulfill its mandates have been disappointed. Instead, our children remain kidnapped to foreign nations, separated from their seeking parents and extended families, and parents remain on the treadmill–driven by love for their children, and a hope that our government will be true to what it says it will do for both.”

“The Goldman Act empowers those within our government, our judicial officers, our law enforcement officers, our officers of Homeland Security, as well as all those addressing child abduction throughout our country, on the state and local levels, to have the tools necessary to prevent child abduction and restore those children wrongfully removed and retained, to their homes,” said Patricia Apy.

“It’s time for resolute action by our government to bring these children home,” Hunter said.

Good morning. This hearing of the Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations will come to order.

This week we will commemorate National Missing Children’s Day – and we will remember the families that have been torn apart by the crime of international parental child abduction. This crime affects hundreds of American families every year. I want to thank the left- behind parents that are with us today and send a message to all the left-behind families across our nation – we will never stop working to bring abducted children home.

Today we will hear testimony about the devastating impact of international parental child abduction on families and children, and we will examine what more the U.S. Government can do to prevent and address this terrible crime. We will hear from parents who have personally experienced the heartbreaking pain of being separated from their children. They know all too well the financial, legal, cultural, and linguistic challenges to bringing children home from a foreign country. Mr. Morehouse, Dr. Hunter – thank you for being here today to speak on behalf of American families who have sought, or are still seeking, the return of their children and for sharing your expertise.

And I want to thank Patricia Apy for joining us today, an expert on this issue and the brilliant lawyer who represented David Goldman in the fight to bring back his son Sean from Brazil. Thankfully, Sean came home after five years – but many children are lost for much longer, if they ever come home at all. Ms. Apy testified at the first hearing I held on international parental child abduction back in 2009, and I’m grateful to her for joining us again.

We must remember that child abduction is child abuse, and it has devastating emotional, psychological, and even physical consequences for both abducted children and their families left behind. These are American citizens, looking to their government for help when legal processes are unavailable or have failed.

And so we will also discuss the State Department’s progress on implementing the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act of 2014, which I authored to provide the executive branch with the necessary tools to address the problem of IPCA. The Goldman Act empowered the State Department to seek the return of American children – yet the Department has never used the full range of tools as Congress intended. I

look forward to hearing from the State Department’s Special Advisor on Children’s Issues, Michelle Bernier-Toth, about how the Department is working to urge other countries to comply with their responsibilities and get American children back home.

Since the Goldman Act was enacted, there has been a decline in the number of American children abducted overseas – which is good news – but sadly the rate of return of children to American parents has worsened. In the State Department’s latest annual Report on International Child Abduction, as required by the Act, it states that in 2022 the Office of

Children’s Issues handled a total of 657 active abduction cases involving 863 children – and 216 of these cases were opened just last year. It also states that 118 cases were resolved in 2022, which resulted in the return of 165 abducted children to the United States. I urge the State Department to use all the tools at its disposal to bring the remaining abducted children home – tools provided by Congress for that purpose.

The State Department’s annual report also names specific countries that are found to demonstrate a pattern of noncompliance with their responsibilities to address cases of international parental child abduction under the Hague Convention. The most recent report names 14 countries as demonstrating a pattern of noncompliance – and 6 of them have been on the list since the first report was published in 2015: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Jordan, and Peru.

The Goldman Act provides the State Department with powerful tools to advocate for abducted American children and urge countries to comply with their Hague Convention obligations. It specifically lists increasingly escalating actions, from a demarche to a public condemnation to a delay or cancellation of one or more bilateral visits to extradition.

Appropriations language since FY21 has authorized the Secretary to withhold certain bilateral assistance funds for the central governments of countries that the Secretary determines are not taking appropriate steps to comply with the Hague Convention – but to date it does not appear that ANY funds have been withheld.

With hundreds of American children – American citizens – still missing, it seems unconscionable that the State Department continues to limit its actions to diplomatic demarches.

The State Department is also authorized under the Goldman Act to pursue bilateral agreements with countries that are unlikely to become Hague Convention parties or that have unresolved pre-Convention abduction cases. I want to ask the Department – why are there not more MOUs with these countries? Why are we not pursuing more supplemental bilateral agreements with countries like Japan?

Japan has a truly disturbing track record on these cases – even though it has not been

listed as “noncompliant” in recent State Department reports. There have been more than 500

U.S. children kidnapped to Japan since 1994, which is when the U.S. Government started tracking it. Yet Japan has made very little progress on them, especially the cases that pre-date Japan’s signing of the Hague Convention in 2014.

And there has been slow progress in changing its single-parent custody laws. Parents like Jeffery Morehouse, here with us today, and many others are left waiting for years without action. The State Department must use ALL of the tools at its disposal to finally get this right and push more strongly for returns.

That’s why last year I introduced, and plan to reintroduce this Congress, the Bring Abducted Children Home Amendments Act. This bill will strengthen key aspects of the Goldman Act, such as requiring disaggregated data and increased transparency from the State Department, providing more resources for left-behind families, and increasing federal law enforcement cooperation. Left-behind families have been waiting long enough – as the U.S. Government, we cannot wait any longer to get this right.

I want to thank each of the witnesses again for being here today, and I now recognize Ranking Member Susan Wild for her opening remarks.