Recently, United Airlines made a bold move by actually turning around their mid-air jumbo jet heading for Beijing, to return to Washington’s Dulles Airport, to prevent what may have been a very successful parental child abduction. How did this come about? Can individuals expect this in the future?
It is stated that after separating and starting divorce in 2013, the mother and father were awarded joint custody of their 4 year old son, who was born in China and was a dual U.S.-Chinese citizen. The final custody agreement did not allow either party to travel outside of the United States without written consent of the other party.
The mother, a Chinese national and her mother (the grandmother of the child), along with the child, were successfully removed from the flight by law enforcement, once the plane had landed back in Washington Dulles.
What is extraordinary about this matter is the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined very quickly the exigent circumstances that required this turn-back of the flight, and that the bureau quickly alerted the airline who then immediately complied.
Lessons are to be learned here, and mostly related to preventive work. How does an attorney protect their client from losing a child to a country that will make it impossible to ever retrieve the child? It is a federal crime in the U.S. for a parent to take a child outside of the country in order to circumvent the custody rights of the other parent. While it is a crime in the U.S., it is not necessarily a crime in other countries. Therefore, of most immediate concern, is making sure that a child cannot travel outside of the U.S. In most cases, a child does not have dual citizenship, and only has one passport (if that), that being a U.S. passport. Assuming a divorce is underway, an attorney will put on a “flag” with the passport agency, to alert them to any attempted use of the child’s passport, thus preventing an individual from successfully leaving the United States. Also, an attorney will have the court order the child’s passport to be put into a safe location, away from either parent during a divorce case, and possibly held by a neutral person post-divorce.
One quarter of the 2,000 annual missing children are related to international parental abductions. While the U.S. does try to return such parental-kidnapped children, if the other country now harboring the children is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, it is difficult to retrieve such children, if not impossible. China is not a signatory to the Hague Convention. Without United Airlines being required to return to Washington-Dulles, the father of the child may never have seen his son again.
When filing for divorce, locate all passports of the children, and put them in a safe place. Then, have your attorney flag the children’s passports to prevent travel.