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Mother arrested in groundbreaking international custody case

There seems to be a countless number of divorced or separated couples who have battled over custody of their children. It's natural for parents to try to maintain the bond they have with their sons and daughters as a family breaks apart. But few reach the level of a current custody case that has stretched beyond U.S. borders.

Texas residents may have heard about the case of a mother who fled with her young daughter to her native Japan the day after her husband filed for divorce in February 2008. The case is unprecedented for a particular reason: Japan's stance on child custody.

Some 300 American children have been considered abducted by a parent or other relative who has taken them to Japan, which is one of few developed countries that haven't ratified the 1980 Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty that prevents child abduction cases and helps restore rights to parents whose children have been taken to another country by a family member. Japan has a tradition of sole-custody divorce that typically grants custody to mothers; many children remain separated from their fathers throughout their lives as a result. So when the mother in this case absconded to Japan with her daughter, her then-husband had little recourse.

The father was granted custody in the U.S. and eventually in Japan, but a court there later reversed the decision, saying it was in the child's best interest to remain in Japan with her mother. Finally, the father's local police department intervened and issued a warrant for the mother's arrest in February 2011. She was caught when she traveled from Japan to Hawaii to renew her green card, extradited and put in jail. Rather than go to trial, she has pleaded no-contest to felony child custody interference by a parent.

Although she is certainly not the first parent to flee to Japan (it's not clear whether she was aware of her native country's custody policies beforehand), she is the first Japanese citizen to be arrested for child custody interference. Although it's a felony in most states, it's not a crime in Japan.

If the couple's daughter is returned to the U.S. by Dec. 21, the mother will be released from jail and her conviction will eventually be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. But even if the daughter is returned, it's unclear whether she'll stay. The mother's attorney said the daughter wants to remain in Japan. When she turns 12, she'll have that choice. Until then, she'll live with her father, who has arranged counseling to help her with the transition. It's a transition the entire family must cope with -- just like any American family going through a divorce.

Source: Stars and Stripes, "Japanese mother must return child to States or face lengthy jail sentence," Charlie Reed, Dec. 8, 2011

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