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Steps to Protect Your Children from International Abduction

Child abduction
Child Abduction by littleny/DepositPhotos

Often the most contentious aspect of divorce is child custody. Parents play a courtroom tug-of-war over how to split custody, restrict travel, and set the parameters of visitations. If the couple is international, one parent from one country and the other from a different country, it can grow even more complicated as parents wrestle with issues of mistrust and fear of international parental child abduction. Fortunately, 94 countries belong to the Hague Convention of International Child Abduction, which allows for judicial and administrative cooperation between countries regarding the protection of children. There are policies in place in the United States to both prevent parental child abduction and to return abducted children.

The best way to deter international parental child abduction in the U.S. is to enroll the child in the Children's Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP). It is a powerful tool used in the prevention of abduction; if anyone applies for a passport in the child's name, the Department of State contacts the parent(s) or guardian(s) to alert them to the application of their registered child. Either parent or guardian, law enforcement, courts, members of Congress, or even other family members may request that a child be enrolled in the program.

To request entry for a child in CPIAP, download and fill out Form DS-3077 and e-mail it to PreventAbduction@state.gov. The form can also be mailed, but the Office of Children's Issues prefers e-mail to get the child's name registered expeditiously. You will also need to submit a copy of your government issued identification, and a copy of a birth certificate or other official document establishing your relationship to the child. Understand that registration of your child in the CPIAP does not guarantee that he or she won't receive a passport, but rather that you will receive an alert, so that you have an opportunity to object.

What about if your child already has a passport? Things get a little trickier. You can still request entry in the alert program, but you will only receive an alert if an application is made for a passport renewal. Children's passports are valid for five years. If your child is in the middle of that cycle, you can see where there is a hole in the process.

Another problem is that many children hold dual nationality in the U.S. and another country by virtue of either birthplace or parentage. The U.S. cannot prevent another country from issuing your child a passport or insist they alert you. You can ask a foreign embassy or consulate in the U.S. not to issue your child a passport to their country, but there's no law in place compelling them to honor your request. If your child is only a U.S. citizen, you can request the foreign embassy not issue a visa to your child, but again, they are not compelled to comply.

What you can do to strengthen your position if you are in these circumstances is to be sure that when you negotiate custody terms in the divorce process that the decree includes a statement saying written permission must be obtained before your child can travel. You can also request that the court or a third party, such as an attorney, keep your child's passport.

It is important to present the foreign embassy or consulate with certified copies of the court order that addresses the custody and overseas travel of your child along with a written request preventing your child's travel. Make the embassy aware that you are sending identical documents to the U.S. Department of State. These steps could compel them to comply voluntarily.

If you are concerned about the safety and security of your child during visits and fear he or she may be abducted by the other parent, minimize the risk by utilizing these protections put in place by the U.S. State Department and your local family court, and adhering to the following important guidelines.
  • Get a detailed custody order that protects your parental rights
  • Make sure the details of your custody order include: specifics regarding dates of visits, relocation restrictions, supervised visit specifications, requirement for court approval to take the child out of the state or country, and requirement for the court or third party to hold the child's passport
  • Evaluate the wisdom of joint-custody arrangements with an attorney prior to an agreement
  • Contact the foreign embassy of the other country and learn about that country's passport requirements for minors
  • Keep your contact information current on the CPIAP to ensure receipt of alerts
  • Do not ignore abduction threats; file copies of restraining orders with local police, and alert them to threats
  • Watch for warning signs from your ex-spouse like selling a house, quitting a job, closing accounts, all indicators of an intention to leave the country
  • If you think your child has been taken by the other parent, act immediately; make a police report and ask that your child be entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system
  • Contact the U.S. Department of State who can work with law enforcement to prevent your child's departure, work with overseas embassies to prevent your child's entry, and facilitate communication with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)

About the Author: For over 20 years, the U.S. Passport Service Guide team has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers with their travel document questions and shared advice about how to make traveling abroad simpler, safer, and more enjoyable.

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