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Lawyers needed to assist in Hague Abduction Convention cases

Associate Editor Regular News

Lawyers needed to assist in Hague Abduction Convention cases

Associate Editor

There was the little girl from Spain, whose eyes lit up at the sight of her father — the first time she had seen him in a year and a half.

Then there was the four-year-old boy who was taken from his home in Paris, smuggled from country to country, until he was found hidden nearly 5,000 miles away in Miami.

HOLLAND & KNIGHT volunteers worked to return three-year-old Cameron Willis to her mother Tracy, a British citizen. And in November, authorities searched for a British child who, while on vacation in Florida, had been abducted by her father and secretly taken to Pennsylvania. The child was kept there for months until the courts could send her home to her mother.

These are just three of the nearly 20 child abduction cases Bar members Brett Barfield and Robert Watson have undertaken in partnership with other volunteer lawyers under the Hague Convention, an international treaty established in 1980.

Since 2006, the two Holland and Knight attorneys from Miami have worked together with other Holland and Knight lawyers to reunite left-behind parents with their abducted children, many of whom have been taken by another parent due to custody issues. Both attorneys are quick to explain, however, that their job isn’t to solve custody disputes.

Instead, Barfield and Watson work with the Hague Convention to determine whether or not the child should be returned to their country of “habitual residence.” If the child is sent back to his or her home, the local court in the child’s own country can then rule in the custody case.

“The purpose of the Hague Convention is to provide an expedited remedy in the courts for parents of children abducted over country borders,” explained Barfield. “These parents are usually in search of a more sympathetic court for custody determination.”

It’s important, the attorneys say, that the custody determination be made by courts more familiar with the culture and laws of the place where the child has grown up.

Currently, over 2,000 international abduction cases — some involving multiple siblings — are pending nationwide. These cases involve over 3,000 children who have been abducted from the U.S. and taken to other countries.

“Anecdotally, we’re certain that Florida is one of the states with the largest number of cases just because of its location,” said Mary Helen Carlson, an attorney with the U.S. Department of State.

The increased number of cases provides an excellent opportunity for Florida attorneys, Watson said, and the number is only going to grow. “I believe we’re not only going to see an increase in these types of cases nationwide, but particularly in Florida, where so many international citizens choose to make their home,” Watson said.

“There’s going to be a greater need for attorneys to become involved and to take one of these cases. The convention is only going to become more important.”

The State Department uses an attorney network to find legal representation for parents involved in Hague Abduction Convention cases. Florida lawyers are active in the network, but Carlson suggests the need for more involvement.

“We’ve got a number of lawyers in South Florida and Miami working these cases,” Carlson said. “But we need more attorneys in North Florida.”

Parents are not assigned attorneys by the State Department. “Instead, we try to find three names for parents to research and then follow up on their own,” said Carlson. “But that’s hard to do when there aren’t three names to choose from.”

Many families working through the Hague Convention face significant financial and lingual barriers, barriers that would prevent them from finding an attorney at all without the help of the network.

But Barfield and Watson insist that the program doesn’t just benefit the left-behind parents. “Overall, it’s just a great experience for our lawyers,” said Barfield. “They get trial experience in almost every case, often in federal court.”

In addition, the program provides pro bono opportunities for lawyers, a point not lost on the attorneys at Holland & Knight. About 99 percent of the cases Barfield and Watson have taken have been pro bono. Cases can be full-fee, but many parents would be unable to pursue remedies without inexpensive or pro bono legal help.

“One of several of our goals in pro bono work is to streamline our efforts,” said Barfield. “These cases are the perfect example of how we can achieve that goal.”

Attorneys at Holland & Knight take pro bono cases through the firm’s Pro Bono and Charitable Service program. Barfield, Watson, and other Holland & Knight attorneys nationwide participate in a monthly conference call to discuss opportunities that come up through the Hague Convention.

“We’re able to agree on this as a terrific vehicle for our pro bono resources,” said Barfield. “And now, instead of just our office in Miami doing local cases, we can take on cases nationwide with lawyers licensed in almost every state. Among us all, we have readily available experience.”

That experience makes a difference in the lives of the parents and children.

“Parental child abduction takes a tremendous psychological toll on both the abducted child and the left-behind parent,” said Carlson, the State Department attorney.

Children in the abduction cases are often taken to an unfamiliar country, where language and culture are different from what the child has known. Communication with extended family — and with the left-behind parent — is often nonexistent, and frequent moves require the child to miss school and remain isolated from friends and the surrounding community.

As a result, the cases the Hague Convention handles are frequently dramatic.

Barfield and Watson recalled the case of a child who had been abducted from her home in Spain and brought to Miami by her biological mother. The child’s father contacted the U.S. Department of State, and Holland & Knight took his case pro bono.

After finding the child in Miami, the U.S. Marshals brought her back to her father while the attorneys were present.

“The child was about to turn four years old and hadn’t seen her father in a year and a half,” said Barfield. “We were concerned the child wouldn’t recognize her father, but she just lit up when she saw him. There was immediate comfort and recognition.

“It’s not only about custody. The collateral issue is always reuniting the child and parent together after they’ve been separated.”

The girl returned to Spain with her father, and the attorneys still get updates on her progress.

“If we had not been involved, that little girl might have stayed in Miami and led a completely different life,” Watson said.

For more information, visit Interested attorneys can also contact Beth Cooper ( [email protected] ) or Patricia Hoff ( [email protected] ) of the State Department.

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