Washington Post

A Family Kept Apart

By Cindy Loose and William Drozdiak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 7, 2000; A01

NEW YORK –– Moments after she walked into the house last month and set down her suitcase--it was light now, emptied of all the toys and games--Joseph arrived. She met him at the door.

"How'd it go?" he asked his mother.

"Fine," she replied.

End of conversation.

Patricia Cooke had just returned from Germany, where she had visited her grandchildren, Joseph's children. The German courts had allowed her to see them for two hours Friday and two hours the next Monday. But she did not offer to show Joseph the pictures she had taken, did not describe how much the children had grown.

"We have our own way of dealing with this," she explained later. "This consumed him for years, and almost destroyed him. He always asks the same question. I always answer, 'Fine.' In fact I have concerns, but I know how much it would hurt him to hear. Since he can't do anything about it, we just don't speak of it."

Joseph Cooke, 31, lost his children--not to their mother, not to "Miami relatives," but to strangers. Danny, 10, and Michelle, nearly 9, have lived in a German foster home for seven years. During what was supposed to be a three-week vacation, and without Cooke's knowledge, the children's troubled, German-born mother had placed them in the care of the German Youth Authority.

Although the Cookes were living in the United States and Joseph Cooke was awarded custody by a U.S. court--and despite a treaty requiring that custody be determined in a child's home country--the German courts awarded custody to the foster family.

While Janet Reno wept over Elian Gonzalez and the U.S. government spent tens of thousands of dollars to reunite him with his father, U.S. officials typically do little for the many American parents caught in international custody cases. The support he received from the U.S. government, Cooke said, was "as close to nothing as you can get without feeling spit in your face."

Recently, members of Congress rebuked Germany, Austria and Sweden for "consistently violating" the Hague treaty on international abductions--a charge that all three nations have denied. The 1980 treaty was supposed to discourage abductions and court shopping by requiring that custody decisions, except in extreme circumstances, be made in the country in which a child "habitually resided" before being abducted or retained abroad.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.) said he and other lawmakers have begun to pressure the U.S. departments of Justice and State to aggressively pursue the return of American children.

"We penalize nations that steal products and violate trade agreements," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). "It's about time we go after them for supporting the theft of our children."

The State Department says it cannot enforce the Hague convention or interfere in decisions overseas. "There are no consequences for noncompliance," said a U.S. official with the embassy in Germany. "I look at it as a voluntary compliance sort of thing."

Parents are urging President Clinton to appeal to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for better compliance when they meet in Berlin early next month. But there are no plans to have Clinton raise the issue, senior White House officials said last week, because it could place the United States in the awkward position of urging political interference in the legal system of a friendly Western democracy.

Journey to Germany

Joseph Cooke began losing his children, who carried U.S. passports, the day his wife asked the German government to care for Danny and Michelle, then 2 and 1, while she got treatment for mental illness. The Germans granted the request--without contacting Cooke.

"I did what I had to do at that time because I was sick," Christiane Cooke said last week in a telephone interview from California, where she lives. "At the time I thought I did the right thing."

A State Department official said last week that it should be "automatic" to notify the father and the embassy in such a case. "I can't see why they didn't make an effort to contact the father," he said. Yet the U.S. Embassy never made a formal protest.

Christiane Koch was a striking blond beauty in 1988 when Joseph Cooke, a tall American GI, met her in Stuttgart. They married in New York, and both children were born in the United States. Problems developed in 1992, when Cooke's wholesale merchandising firm promoted him to run a new office in Chicago.

His wife, in a new city with two young children, seemed depressed. The couple was fighting, he said, "about the normal things, like my working too many hours." When she suggested she visit her father for a few weeks, as she had done once before, he thought it a good idea. Maybe it would cheer her up.

Then one day she called from Germany and said she was taking the children on the train.

"I asked her where, and she answered, 'You'll know when you need to know.' Then she disappeared."

He said he repeatedly called her. But her father, he said, would not give him any information. No one alerted Cooke to the truth: The German Youth Authority on Oct. 22, 1992, had placed the children in foster care, and the mother had checked into a mental health clinic. After her discharge, she moved to California, leaving her children behind.

Cooke, in his early twenties and increasingly desperate, didn't know where to turn. "I thought about going to Germany," he said, "but what was I going to do, ring every doorbell? I didn't even know if they were in Germany."

On Sept. 14, 1993, nearly a year later, he said, his wife called and told him the children were with a family in Germany. She gave him a phone number, but the man who answered claimed there were no children in his home.

In fact, Cooke apparently had reached the home of Franz and Else Weh, foster parents to five children, including Danny and Michelle, in addition to their own five children.

Cooke's call generated action: The Wehs rushed to court the next day to get an order prohibiting the father from taking the children. Two days later, it was approved. Court records note: "The father was not informed of the decision."

Cooke, meanwhile, won custody of the children in the New York State Supreme Court in Queens and continued, he said, to ask his wife for information. He figured she had made up the phone number in Germany. On March 23, 1994, he said, she swore it was real, and he called again.

This time, the man who answered admitted having Cooke's children. "I'm coming to get them," Cooke said he told the foster father, who threatened to call police if he did.

Cooke rushed back to the court in Queens and got an order requesting that German authorities help him return the children to the United States, under the Hague convention. Records in Queens note that the children's mother at this point agreed to his having custody. Then he headed to Germany with a lawyer, expecting to pick up the children.

But nearly three weeks passed before authorities even allowed him a visit--one hour in the home of the foster parents, in the presence of a court-appointed psychologist, Rudigen Noack.

A cab dropped him at the bottom of a long driveway. He could see his children peeking around the corner of the house. He couldn't believe how big they looked. He began to cry.

He didn't expect Michelle, who was so young, to remember him. As he walked toward them, he wondered if Danny would. The question was quickly answered: Danny held up his hand for a high five, a greeting his father had taught him.

Cooke scooped up both children. As the psychologist's report succinctly put it, "Mr. Cooke held the children in his arms and wept."

The psychologist's report notes that Cooke gave Michelle a big stuffed animal. Danny got "an automatic car," which he and his father put together while Michelle watched, clutching her present. Then the reunited family and the social worker took a walk.

"Danny was carried on his father's shoulders almost the whole way," said the report. After Danny showed his father how well he could play basketball, the report continued, "the expert said it would be better to say goodbye."

Missing Children

The State Department has 1,148 open international custody cases, including 58 in Germany. But that number represents a fraction of children abducted abroad. Most families never file their cases with the State Department.

Moreover, those who do find that once the foreign courts make a decision, no matter the merits, the State Department closes the case. "We're not the courts," said a State Department spokeswoman. "It's up to the courts to make those kinds of decisions."

From 1990 to 1998, the State Department received 369 Hague applications from parents with children abducted to Germany. Only 80 children--including those voluntarily returned by abducting parents--have come back. The United States, meanwhile, says U.S. courts return 90 percent of the children in Hague cases brought by parents in other countries.

When an American parent loses a child to an abduction abroad, "the best you get from the U.S. government is a polite note of inquiry sent by their most limp-wristed diplomat," said Jim Rinaman, whose daughter was abducted to Germany. "What is really needed is serious pressure."

Rinaman has not seen his daughter, abducted as a baby, for more than five years. German courts refused to return her to the United States and have refused to enforce their own visitation orders.

In testimony last fall before a House committee, Assistant Secretary of State Mary A. Ryan said the Hague treaty was working and had boosted the return rate to 72 percent overall.

But a recent report by the General Accounting Office found that returns and visitation orders combined totaled a small fraction of that claimed rate. "Left-behind parents succeeded in visiting their children or having them returned in only about 24 percent of cases" between May 1997 and last December, the report said.

In the whole range of bilateral relations, "this just isn't a priority and never will be," said Tom Johnson, a State Department lawyer and "left-behind parent" whose child is in Sweden. "The State Department culture is to have good relations for the sake of good relations."

A spokesman says the State Department has "recognized we can do more and is giving cases higher priority." While until recently four case officers handled tens of thousands of foreign adoptions and abduction cases, the office now has 10 case officers assigned to abduction cases alone.

Waiting

Cooke was allowed another short visit a few days after the first, and another the next week, on May 6, 1994. But then he was told the children had measles, and he could not visit again until May 25.

The waiting was torture, Cooke said. When visiting day finally rolled around, he was excited, because the date was close to Michelle's third birthday. He bought a present. But then the psychologist called and said Cooke couldn't come after all; a family event had been planned.

Only later did Cooke discover that the "family event" was a birthday party for his daughter.

In despair, having seen his children only three times in two months, Cooke returned briefly to the United States.

When he came back to Germany two weeks later, the psychologist was "surprised," his report said. It continued: "At that point the Weh family wanted to take vacation; so did the expert. There was no contact between the father and the children."

Cooke again returned to the United States and moved in with his mother between trips to Germany for hearings. The case dragged on for a year. The court raised questions about his sobriety, and Cooke submitted to blood tests to show he wasn't using drugs or alcohol. Although the court in New York had investigated Cooke and the Queens home of his mother, where Cooke had decided he and his children would live, the German courts demanded another investigation.

An angry New York judge finally agreed, and an official from the probation office, which routinely performs home visits for the court, did a second report.

The report concluded that Cooke was a fit father, his mother's home large and comfortable. The result: The German court inferred that Cooke must be a criminal, because a probation department employee was assigned to do the home visit. In Germany again at this point, Cooke had to go back home to gather documentation that he'd never been arrested.

Meanwhile, Noack, the psychologist, reported to the courts the foster mother's impressions of Cooke. "Mrs. Weh noticed that when Mr. Cooke leaves the children they don't ask about him."

The report continued, "Mrs. Weh also noticed that her dog didn't like Mr. Cooke, and that's unusual for her dog."

The psychologist also said that Danny had a speech defect and that his German vocabulary was deficient; it would take a year to 18 months for it to be on a par with other children's. To expose him to English before then would be confusing.

If the children were given back to their father and returned to the United States, the report said, they would be "forced into totally strange surroundings with strange people, in a strange mentality and culture and a foreign language. . . . Both the children, like plants, would fade away because the roots were pulled out of the ground."

Cooke responded by finding a German-language school his children could attend. He found a German-speaking speech therapist. He hired a New York family therapist to accompany him and assure the court that he would counsel the family until the children had made a successful transition.

On March 23, 1995, a year after the court battle began, the German court issued its decision: The children had bonded with the foster family, and separation would result in "severe psychological loss."

Cooke, incredulous, embarked on "a trip around Germany to the various American consulates. But at every one, they'd just pass the buck. I'd sit in the lobby and some assistant to an assistant would come down to talk to me. They'd say either, 'We'll send a report through proper channels,' or, 'It's a private custody matter. We can't do anything about it,' " he said.

Cooke appealed to a higher court, which turned a second time to the original psychologist. Noack told the court that it would take about 18 months to break the bond with the foster family.

On June 13, 1995, the court ruled that the bond with the foster parents was so strong that the children were not even ready for a temporary visit to the United States.

"Moreover, the children don't speak a single word of American and they cannot learn English in a brief period of time," the court continued. It referred again to Danny's speech defect, which his grandmother says she cannot detect, and concluded: "To subject the children to a language shock, which would be released upon them, to subject them to a nearly completely unknown language environment, contradicts the children's welfare most strikingly." Separation from the father, the court concluded, should continue "until further notice."

Cooke and his lawyer repeatedly wrote the court, arguing that every passing day further distanced his children from him and their native language.

The family cobbled together more money for yet another appeal. At the request of then-Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the State Department asked the Germans for information but did not receive a reply for five months. By then, Cooke's last appeal had been rejected.

The children would stay in Germany, the court ruled in October 1995. As to the father's claim of a fundamental right to his children, the court said, "The lawsuit by the foster parents who claim an equal right cannot be ignored."

The German Position

Germany has a growing diplomatic problem with child abduction cases, and the Schroeder government is becoming worried about the damaging impact on the country's image. But Schroeder's top aides say there is little he can do because of his nation's decentralized legal system.

That plea of helplessness has not stopped other leaders from protesting on humanitarian grounds. French President Jacques Chirac has described Germany as applying "the law of the jungle" in international custody cases and twice has raised what he calls "this awful and sorrowful problem" with Schroeder. According to French diplomats, Chirac was deeply disappointed that Schroeder's response was essentially to throw up his hands and plead a lack of political influence over the courts.

Even though the Hague convention demands the "immediate return" of abducted children, most cases in Germany take at least a year to resolve. By contrast, Britain has a special court that decides all child custody cases within six weeks.

In explaining the long delays, Christian Arns, a spokesman for the German Justice Ministry, says the absolute principle that lies behind the way Germany applies the Hague convention is "that the welfare of the child must always be the first priority." But the treaty stipulates that countries where children have been taken "shall not decide on the merits of rights of custody."

Furthermore, the German method of delay has created a Catch-22: The drawn-out court cases mean children become more rooted in German culture and language, and as a result courts are less likely to inflict further trauma by deciding to move them. The main exception permitted under Hague--and repeatedly cited by the Germans--is if there is a "grave risk" that returning the child would cause psychological harm.

But German officials do not deny that in their system, as well as in others, there can be gross miscarriages of justice. The Cooke case is particularly poignant and unfair, said his German attorney, Werner Hiemer.

A major problem, Hiemer said, was determining when Cooke sought the return of his children. German officials claim he started looking after a year. While Cooke insists he began looking for his children almost immediately after his wife went to Germany, Hiemer said he is still unsure of the truth.

He said the German court accepted the stated desire of the children--ages 3 and 5 when they were questioned--to remain with their foster parents. Finally, Hiemer said, Cooke's case was badly damaged by the court's concern about exposing the children to a new culture and a new language.

Aftermath

"The hardest part," Cooke said, "was accepting that they were gone. The next hardest part was deciding to move on with my life." He didn't think he had it in him to again become a gung-ho salesman. "I was a wreck."

Meanwhile, the German government began sending him orders to pay child support for the children. If he returned to Germany, he could be arrested and jailed for refusing to pay.

Thoughts of rebuilding his life brought pangs of guilt. Then he decided to go to college, with the goal of earning a degree in international law so he could fight for his children.

He enrolled at St. John's University, working in a gym, delivering pizzas and doing other odd jobs to pay for tuition. He said that he couldn't handle being alone and that he was lucky to fall in love again.

Two years ago, he and his new wife, Rosemarie, had a daughter, Azure. Three months ago they had a second child, Thomas. "You'd think that a new son, a new daughter, would ease the pain," Cooke said. "In a way it does; it does a lot. But it also brings pain. Azure is about the same age as Danny when he was taken. The little things she does that give me joy also remind me of how he did things, and things we did together."

He would take his children back in a heartbeat, he said, but he doesn't call or write. Danny used to get upset and act out aggressively after calls from his father--a fact mentioned in court records. If he can't have them back, Cooke said, maybe it's best not to drag them into a tug-of-war for their affections.

"They're mine, and I want what's best for them," he said. "Maybe leaving them alone is what's best at this point. When they become teenagers, I hope they'll contact me, and I can show them documents that prove I fought for them, that I wanted them the whole time."

Cooke is now a substitute teacher in New York City public schools, and he and his wife run an apartment-rental business from their home. The desire for an international law degree has been superseded by the need to support his family.

Cooke's mother won the right to limited, supervised visitation with her grandchildren. Initially, she was told she could see them for just one hour. Negotiations with court social workers yielded two hours, twice per visit, three times a year.

Patricia Cooke, a legal secretary, said she runs her credit cards to the max to pay for the trips. She tried to learn German, but it's hard at her age.

"I just hope that by coming so far, they understand on some level that we love them," she said.

She received permission last year for another son, Arthur, who speaks a little German, to accompany her on a visit. (All three of her sons served in the U.S. military in Germany. One of them, Thomas, was paralyzed there after being hit by a drunken driver.) But after they bought the tickets, permission was rescinded. She asked to meet with a social worker to appeal and asked the U.S. Embassy to send someone to help.

"A woman and her assistant came and asked the social worker if they could sit in on the meeting. They were refused," said Patricia Cooke. "If they protested, I didn't notice it. The social worker chided me for contacting them." Her son was not permitted to visit.

For years, Joseph Cooke did not speak of his children to anyone but his family and closest friends. He attended college, graduating magna cum laude this spring, and never mentioned his battle to any classmate or professor.

But in March, a new organization for "left-behind parents" asked him to speak at a news conference arranged by Lampson, the Texas congressman. About a dozen parents lined the front of an ornate room in the Longworth House Office Building, their faces set in grim determination.

Then Cooke stepped to the podium. He began to read a brief account of his old fight for his children. When he came to the sentence that named Danny and Michelle, he broke down in sobs.

Every parent in the line began to cry.

Staff writer Charles Trueheart and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company