Washington Post

Germany Bows to U.S. on Custody Disputes

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 30, 2000; A01

BERLIN, May 29 –– Bowing to U.S. pressure on an emotional issue, the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has decided to institute new measures to help American parents embroiled in custody disputes to visit their children living in Germany.

According to senior German officials, Schroeder plans to announce the measures when President Clinton visits this week. The changes were agreed upon in a special cabinet meeting, in which it was decided the government must uphold the rights of parents to see their children, even though German courts have blocked such encounters when it was deemed they would traumatize the children.

While insisting the government cannot interfere with custody decisions handed down by sovereign courts, the officials said Schroeder and the cabinet recognized that something urgent needed to be done to rectify gross miscarriages of justice and stem the mounting damage the publicity from the cases has inflicted on Germany's image abroad. The officials would not discuss details of the new measures, although they said legislation would not be required.

The child custody issue has strained U.S.-German relations and has emerged as an awkward and unusual theme for a summit meeting. Schroeder and Clinton had planned to focus on the future of Western ties with Russia and the global repercussions of a ballistic missile defense system contemplated by the United States.

But Clinton has come under extraordinary pressure from a vocal lobby of American mothers and fathers to raise the parental rights controversy. The parents complain that Germany, more than any other Western democracy, has failed in hundreds of cases to abide by international conventions ensuring the swift return of abducted children. Last week, the House of Representatives endorsed the parents' campaign in a resolution approved by a vote of 416 to 0.

U.S. officials said Clinton may cite several high-profile cases in his meetings with Schroeder, including those of Joseph Cooke and Lady Catherine Meyer, the wife of the British ambassador in Washington. Cooke, who lives in New York, has been fighting to regain custody of his two children, who were turned over to foster parents in Germany seven years ago when his German wife fled there with them and declared she was too mentally ill to raise them. Meyer's two sons from a previous marriage were abducted by their German father, and she has been allowed to see them for a total of 24 hours in the past six years.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer visited Washington early this month and returned warning that the controversy threatened to poison German-American ties. Since then, the government has been frantically studying how it could ameliorate the consequences of a rigid legal principle that places the court's perception of a child's welfare above parental rights.

An interagency group involving the chancellery and the foreign and justice ministries concluded that although the government has no authority to override even the most unjust court rulings, it could help facilitate contacts between parents in the United States and their children in Germany who have been prevented from seeing one another because of the quirks of Germany's legal system.

Meanwhile, other countries, including France and Britain, have stepped up their criticism of Germany's clumsy handling of custody cases. French President Jacques Chirac has referred to Germany applying "the law of the jungle" and has lodged personal protests with Schroeder on two occasions about Berlin's failure to find a more equitable solution to what he called "this awful and sorrowful problem."

According to the Justice Ministry, Germany is struggling to resolve 86 custody cases with France while 63 cases are pending with the United States. But a major grievance in foreign capitals is Germany's low degree of compliance even after court decisions ordering a child's return are handed down. In cases involving Americans, Germany has complied only 65 percent of the time with court orders to send a child back to a parent in the United States. The compliance rate in the United States for court-ordered returns to Germany is 93 percent.

Schroeder's government has been particularly stung by accusations abroad that German courts are prejudiced in favor of keeping kids in Germany because the country's citizenship laws place a special value on blood kinship. But German officials insist that the blame for such conflicts lies less with nationalism than with a ponderous legal system.

Even though international conventions demand the "immediate return" of all abducted children, German courts often take at least one year to reach a decision about the disposition of such a child. In contrast, Britain has set up a special court that dispatches all custody cases within six weeks.

Christian Arns, a Justice Ministry spokesman, defended the slow and deliberate methods in Germany as necessary to ensure that "the absolute priority--the welfare of the child--can be clearly determined" by the courts.

But foreign critics say that approach creates a Catch-22 situation that keeps a disproportionate number of disputed children in Germany. Because the court cases are drawn out, the children have more time to become rooted in German language and culture, and thus the courts become less likely to inflict further trauma by moving them to another country--even if the parent living there has the legitimate claim on the child.

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