#childsafety | Crossing borders: When Texas child custody battles become international cases


Investigative Summary:

Nearly half of all cases playing out in Texas civil courts are family law cases, and the ones dealing with child custody can be some of the most complex. But, what happens when these disputes cross international borders? Federal records show hundreds of children are taken to a foreign country from the U.S. by a parent every year – often, leaving another parent behind. KXAN investigators explore the civil remedy available for left-behind parents, and why a trend over the last decade has the system choosing to let some children stay with the parent who took them.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Flipping through a scrapbook with photos of his son, Andrew Miura is quick to point out how few pictures it contains. The Cedar Park man admits he wasn’t always around to be a good father to the little boy.

“Of course, I missed out on the first few years of his life,” he said.

In 2015, Miura discovered a woman he had an affair with months earlier was pregnant. According to Travis County family court records, his contentious relationship with her kept him away from the child for several years. Eventually, he decided he wanted to get involved, and in 2018 he began what the court refers to as “reunification therapy,” to gradually establish a relationship with his son through supervised visits.

“I would just sit and try to figure out what he was interested in. He loved trucks, so we would always try to get him things with trucks,” he said. “And the sad — very sad — part about this is: all I wanted was to see my son on a normal visitation schedule — like every other parent that is co-parenting.”

Andrew Miura was fighting for custody of his son. Then, he discovered the boy and his mother left for Mexico. (KXAN photo/Andrew Choat)

But several months into the process, the boy and his biological mother started missing scheduled visitations. That’s when Miura began pursuing custody of his son in the courts more seriously.

At a family hearing in December 2019, the boy’s mother didn’t show up, so a judge signed an order granting Miura sole managing conservatorship — meaning he had exclusive rights to make most decisions about the child. In the same order, the judge granted the boy’s mother scheduled visits a few times a week.

Miura was advised to come back to the courthouse just before the New Year’s holiday, with the understanding he would be able to bring his son home with him then.

The mother and son never showed.

“This is absolutely a parent’s worst nightmare,” he said through tears.

Custody Battles

In October 2019, a woman emailed KXAN asking for help as she experienced her own worst nightmare.

The mother wrote that she was “terrified” to lose custody of the son she had raised since his birth alongside her husband, who was not the boy’s father. Andrew Miura was the father.

In the email, she detailed her fears about her son suffering “irreparable emotional damages” from the ongoing custody battle and reunification visits with the child’s biological father.

Eventually, she said she made the decision to move with her son to Mexico for their safety.

“These are sticky, ugly cases.”

Felicity Sackville Northcott, ICMEC

Federal records from the U.S. State Department reveal hundreds of parents cross international borders with children every year, leaving a parent behind here.

“They’re incredibly complicated emotionally because you have two parents who are not playing nicely with each other,” said Felicity Sackville Northcott, Director of Global Missing Children’s Issues at the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, or ICMEC. “These are sticky, ugly cases.”

Northcott noted cases involving parents are generally much different from other kinds of trafficking or kidnapping investigations procedurally, too.

There are state and federal laws in place to prevent a parent from taking a child outside their country of habitual residence or from breaching another parent or guardian’s custody rights — referred to as International Parental Kidnapping.

More often than not, Northcott said, parents go to law enforcement first when a child goes missing and they expect the other parent crossed borders.

“They are the first responder for missing kids, right? But, when a parent takes the child, even if it’s in violation of an existing custody order, the police often think ‘Well, the child is… It’s fine, you know? The child is with the mom or dad,’” she explained.  

The Hague Convention

The primary vehicle for the return of children under the age of 16 is actually an international treaty between countries, called the Hague Convention.

Under the agreement, the U.S. Department of State partners with Foreign Central Authorities, or FCA, to locate a child when a Hague application has been filed. Then, the FCA in the receiving country is tasked with encouraging amicable solutions to these cases and facilitating the safe return of children, as appropriate.  

The text of the Hague Convention states it’s purpose as protecting children from “the harmful effects of wrongful removal” by providing a framework to bring about the child’s “prompt return.”

Northcott explained, “There are courts in the foreign country that say, ‘OK, we’re going to have a hearing, and we’re going to determine whether there’s been a violation of Hague, then whether it’s in the best interest of the child to return or whether the child should stay here.”

A spokesperson for the State Department said preventing and resolving these kinds of cases is one of its “top priorities.”

Its latest report reveals the department investigated 664 outgoing abduction cases in 2020 — 246 cases of those were opened that year; others were ongoing.

Eighty-three of the cases that were opened in 2020 involved children taken to Mexico.

“It’s one of the most common countries for kids to be taken to,” from the United States, Northcutt said.

She called it a “table-turner” compared to the usual conversation about immigration, since many of the children taken there do not have Mexican citizenship.

The data listed in the State Department’s annual federal reports also show Texas and California continually topping the list for states involved in these cases.

Tap on the map to see the number of International Parental Child Abduction (IPCA) cases from each U.S. State in 2020. Source: KXAN, Department of State Annual Report on International Child Abduction 2021

Despite heightened attention on people entering the U.S. at the Mexico border, attorneys with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, or TRLA, say they often see the “taking parent” simply driving out of the country with the child.

“I would say that it’s pretty easy considering that we don’t have exit controls,” said Maria Vallejo, Director of their Bi-National Project on Family Violence.

Getting a custody or access order is the first prevention method against parental abduction that TRLA’s attorneys suggest. However, things become complicated when two different countries are involved. For instance, U.S. court orders may not be recognized in other countries, and generally sovereign nations cannot interfere with each other’s legal systems, judiciaries, or law enforcement – which is why Vallejo said family court orders are not the only deciding factors in a Hague case.

 “They recognize that this obligation of the treaty should not be treated as: let’s return the child at all costs, but that the return always has to be, like, what’s best for the child,” she said.

Under the Convention, a court may deny return of an abducted child if one of the following defenses apply:

  • There is a grave risk that the child’s return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation
  • The child objects to being returned and has attained an age and degree of maturity at which the court can take account of the child’s views
  • More than one year has passed since the wrongful removal or retention occurred and the child has become settled in his or her new environment
  • The party seeking return consented to or subsequently acquiesced to the child’s removal or retention
  • The return would violate the fundamental principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country where the child is being held
  • The party seeking return was not actually exercising rights of custody at the time of the wrongful removal or retention

TRLA attorneys represent left-behind parents in their pursuit to get their kids back, but they also defend parents on the other side of the equation: those who take their children, often fleeing some kind of domestic violence or abusive situation.

Over the last decade, Vallejo said she has seen a shift in the number of parents using the “grave risk” exception to prevent the return of a child – and judges agreeing.

She explained that when International Parental Abduction laws were crafted in the 1980s, the “vision” of the abductor was the parent without primary custody, often a male. A study published in 2017 revealed more than 70% of the taking parents were women, and 80% of them were the primary caretaker to the child.

Even earlier, a 2010 report showed the vast majority of parents in these cases were claiming they were victims of domestic violence or some kind of abuse, which could be used as a defense to returning the child.

“Even if the child did not witness it, or even if the child was not directly exposed to it and if the child wasn’t abused, him or herself — it might be a reason to deny the return on the ‘grave risk’ exception,” Vallejo explained.

Chart illustrating the countries were U.S. children were removed to and the count of International Parental Child Abduction (IPCA) cases for each country in 2019 and 2020. Source: KXAN, Department of State Annual Report on International Child Abduction 2021

In Vallejo’s experience with the Mexican judicial system in particular, the second exception – involving the testimony of the child – also heavily impacts the outcome of a case.

“In Mexico, you will always have to listen to the child,” Vallejo said.

Both Vallejo and Northcott said this highlights one of the most complicated aspects of the treaty: each country can determine how they interpret these exceptions and the terms of the child’s return.

The mother of Andrew’s son told KXAN in a 2021 email she hoped the Mexican government would continue protecting them, given the facts of the case.

“I as the mother have spent 54,624 hours, minus the 30 non-consecutive hours Andrew had of Reunification Therapy, with my son. 30 non-consecutive hours was enough justification for Andrew to file a change to my sons custody order and make final such an order without I as the mother ever been properly served… We are all he has ever known.”

She declined to do an on-camera interview for the safety of her child and the rest of her family but provided court documents showing Miura declined to agree to alternative means of conflict resolution. She gave KXAN a statement, which reads in part:

“[My son] would end up traumatized beyond repair.  Andrew has never spend any amount of time to make any kind of impression (and I insist, this was by his own choice.) I have no history of violence. My children are happy. … I have never broken the law, I have always been a good citizen and a good mother.”

Civil matter, criminal matter

Miura contacted Travis County law enforcement, but he was eventually told his case was a “civil matter.” He submitted a Missing Child flier to a national database of missing kids and filed his case with the Hague Convention.

But, then, he took matters into his own hands, hiring a private investigator named John Poblete.

Poblete is the Founder and President of Global Child Rescue Group, but said he has worked for different independent groups of investigators for years. Miura’s case was the longest case he had ever worked on, he told KXAN.

“Unfortunately, with the pandemic and everything at the latest — especially because of flights and everything — this has been the longest one right now that we haven’t been able to reunite him with his son,” he said.

They flew to Mexico and worked with law enforcement there to to locate his son and the boy’s biological mother. After several days, though, they were told he needed to get an attorney there to help him work the issue out in the Mexican courts.


Pictures from Andrew Miura's trip to Mexico in March of 2021 to try and bring his son back to Travis County (Courtesy Andrew Miura)
Pictures from Andrew Miura’s trip to Mexico in March of 2021 to try and bring his son back to Travis County (Courtesy Andrew Miura)

Through tears, Miura recounted the moment he boarded the plane alone. “I’m still not recovered. I feel like I failed him.”

In 2013, KXAN Investigators were on the road to Laredo, following the story of another Central Texas father who was making a trip to try and bring his kids back from Mexico.

In this case, an investigator with the Williamson County District Attorney’s office had found legal grounds to issue felony kidnapping warrants for the mother of the two boys and some of her families members in Texas, accusing them of helping her flee.

  • A 2013 KXAN investigation followed a Central Texas father as he fought to reunite with his sons. (Screengrab from KXAN News)
  • Screengrab of a "We Missed You Dad sign on the wall, from a 2013 KXAN News investigation.
  • Screengrab of a 2013 KXAN investigation followed a Central Texas father as he fought to reunite with his sons.

But this is not a route taken often by law enforcement officials or prosecutors, on the local or federal level.

For instance, local law enforcement can investigate and bring a case to a District Attorney, but there are certain legal criteria a case needs to meet, in order to be considered. After KXAN started asking questions, the Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza confirmed his office was reviewing the facts of Miura’s case.

On the federal level, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and even International Police (INTERPOL) can get involved.

Customs and Border Patrol established a program to prevent the removal of a child across international borders, and they work with the State Department — particularly on cases where there is a court order in place prohibiting the child from traveling internationally with the parent. INTERPOL can publish a Yellow Notice that will notify them when a child crosses a border connected to the their system.

Meanwhile, the FBI can assist local law enforcement or open their own criminal investigation to be forwarded on to U.S. Attorneys for prosecution, but a spokesperson for the FBI office covering San Antonio and Austin told KXAN they have to prioritize certain cases.

“Given our limited resources and mission priorities, we must focus our efforts on the most egregious cases, where there is the greatest need for FBI involvement. Factors which may warrant the initiation of a federal investigation include allegations of harm to a child, or the existence of other federal violations,” FBI spokesperson Michelle Lee said.

Prevention Tips from Federal Law Enforcement
If you are concerned that your child is at risk of being abducted internationally by a parent, legal guardian, or someone acting on their behalf, do the following:

  • Obtain a U.S. court order that includes prevention provisions, such as restrictions on removing the child from the U.S.
  • Contact U.S. Department of State (DOS) Office of Children’s Issues for 24/7 assistance at 1-888-407-4747 (U.S. or Canada) or +1-202-501-4444 (International) or PreventAbduction1@state.gov
  • Notify local or airport police
  • Request your child be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database
  • Consult an attorney
  • Be aware of warning signs and sudden changes in the other parent’s life (quitting a job, selling a home)
  • Contact country’s foreign embassy or consulate if your child is a dual national

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice reveal less than 20 cases of International Parental Kidnapping were filed in federal court each year going back to 2010.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) sent two letters to the DOJ, in May and October 2021, asking what more they could do to prevent international parental abductions.

“What steps will you personally take as Attorney General to engage directly with left behind parents and their advocacy organizations?” they asked in one of the letters. “Will you commit to directing U.S. Attorneys and DOJ staff to aggressively prosecute cases of international parental child abduction? If not, why not?”

The letters come after a larger group of senators passed a resolution marking April 2021 as Countering International Parental Child Abduction Month.

“The number of children abducted by a parent and taken to a foreign country is unacceptable, and unfortunately, very few Americans are aware of this issue,” Senator Tillis said.

Texas Senator John Cornyn was the co-sponsors of the April 2021 resolution. KXAN reached out to his office several times for comment on the issue, but we have yet to receive a response.

More Resources for Parents

The text of the Hague Convention makes clear the intention of the treaty is to return children to their country of habitual residence, and a State Department spokesperson said it “reflects our belief that courts in the country of a child’s habitual residence are generally best placed to make custody determinations.”

Northcott said that’s one of the reasons ICMEC wants law enforcement to take these cases more seriously and engage with left-behind parents.

Still, she emphasized that the child’s emotional well-being should always be top of mind when making these decisions.

“You don’t want law enforcement breaking down the door and snatching the kid,” she said.

Outcomes

According to the State Department’s annual report, 129 cases were resolved in 2020, resulting in the return of 185 abducted children to the United States.

The Department resolved 68 abduction cases without returning the children to the U.S., either through a voluntary agreement between the parents, a withdrawal of the request from the left-behind parent, the death of a parent or child, or because the authority in the receiving country determined the child should not be returned.

Of those 68 cases, 27 involved the child being taken to a country which has not signed onto the convention.

“So, they’re not mandated to have the infrastructure or the policies or procedures in place,” Northcott explained.

According to a 2020 report prepared for federal lawmakers, many of these countries cited concerns over domestic violence and potential conflicts with legal systems as their reason for not becoming signatory countries.

The same report noted the United States averaged 208 days to reach a final settlement in Hague cases, compared with a global average of 164 days.

The report noted the different interpretations and implementation of the treaty in different countries often caused delays in cases being resolved.

For instance, 38% of existing outgoing cases to Mexico remained open at the end of the calendar year in 2019, and the report stated that in several cases “competent [Mexican government] authorities delayed taking appropriate steps to locate a child after a Convention application was filed.”

In 2014, Congress passed the Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act to provide “stronger diplomatic tools” and a more transparent U.S. policy for these kinds of cases. The Goldman Act authorized the Secretary of State to make sanctions or extradition requests to countries deemed as “noncompliant” with Hague Convention. The U.S. government also publishes annual reports on non-compliant countries and unresolved cases– one of the primary reasons Senators Feinstein and Tillis have been pushing for more awareness nationwide.

After KXAN started investigating Miura’s case, he received a message the State Department had reopened his Hague application. Meanwhile, the mother in the case asserts a Mexican court has given her custody of the little boy. KXAN is working to obtain those documents.

KXAN Photojournalist Andrew Choat, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Assignment Desk Editor Chelsea Moreno and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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