Parents fight to regain children taken across borders

FORT WORTH -- Barton Hermer still remembers that moment on the dance floor when his new romance turned serious.

Hermer and Simmone Cohen were slow-dancing about three months after meeting on a singles cruise out of Venice, Italy. Christmas was approaching, and the couple seemed to be growing closer.

As they danced, Cohen "kept smiling at me like she was the happiest woman in the world," Hermer remembers.

Hermer, originally from Plano, was 47 at the time and living in New York. He asked Cohen, then 37 and a Londoner, why she was smiling.

"I'm looking at our unborn children in your eyes," she said.

The romance, however, was short-lived.

"It turned out that it was all a scam she engineered to have a baby with a foreigner and take it to London," he said.

Cohen had a baby girl about a year later, but the couple never married. For three years, Hermer has been fighting to bring his child back to Texas. He has not seen his daughter in almost two years."I still carry her pacifier with me," he said. "It's all I have left."

Hermer's plight is familiar to thousands of parents whose children have been taken across international borders. Every year, about 500 parents lose access to their children this way.

Texas parents are at the epicenter of the issue, which is rampant in border states. Almost half the border-state children taken by their parents to other countries are believed to be hidden in Mexico, said Maureen Heads, a supervisor with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"It really depends on the country they go to," Heads said. "I've seen issues get resolved within weeks. On the other hand, I've seen cases where the children never get returned."

Even when parents know where their children have been taken, cross-border jurisdictional battles can make these cases expensive and complex to litigate.

For parents who know where their children are, the lack of adherence to the law in some countries and the failure to enforce the law in others make the process of retrieving a child more difficult.

The U.S. State Department says there is an epidemic of parents sequestering their children behind international borders. The risks are especially high in contentious divorce cases when one parent has ties to another country.

Federal officials estimate that the number of children hidden by their parents in other countries has jumped 60 percent in the past three years. Each year in the United States, about 200,000 children are taken from one parent by the other.

In Hermer's case, the United Kingdom's High Court of Justice Family Division and a Collin County District Court have ruled in Cohen's favor over whether the U.S. or the U.K. has jurisdiction. Once jurisdiction is settled, the two parents will negotiate custody.

Hermer has appealed the Collin County decision to a Dallas court. Oral arguments were scheduled to begin Wednesday.

"I've lost everything because of this," Hermer said. "But this is my only child, and I will not give up until I get her back."

Tarrant County state District Judge Judith Wells said the honeymoon is too late to address custody issues.

"Even in cases where there is no evidence that an abduction might take place, there might be a long, protracted legal battle over the issue," Wells said. "You need to think long and hard about that before marrying someone from a foreign country."

Vacation gone awry

Cohen and Hermer were engaged Dec. 31, 2007. Their daughter, Alessia, was born Nov. 13, 2008, in North Texas.

Hermer, who was unemployed, said he took care of the baby while Cohen ran her business from their home in Plano.The couple planned to vacation with Alessia in London in September 2009 when, Hermer alleges, Cohen told a customs official that he was trying to enter the country illegally.

Hermer was sent home and Cohen and Alessia were allowed to enter the United Kingdom.

Hermer said Cohen ended the relationship via e-mail, saying that Alessia would remain in England and Hermer would "have to do his best to see [Alessia] when he could," according to court documents.

Cohen could not be reached for comment.

Cohen's former attorney, Polly O'Toole, said Hermer is obsessed with the idea that Alessia's home country is the United States. Hermer could have argued his visitation and custody rights in the U.K. courts but chose not to, O'Toole said.

Hermer's appellate attorney, Jessica Janicek, said arguing the case overseas would require her client to give up his claim that the United States has jurisdiction.

The State Department verified that it is investigating Hermer's case but would not discuss details.

A State Department letter said Hermer is a cooperating witness in a federal criminal investigation and asked that evidence from the Collin County civil case be preserved.

Richard Higbie, a State Department special agent, asked to take sworn statements from Hermer related to "international parental kidnapping, conspiracy, misuse of a passport and mail fraud."

Hermer's appeal says:

Cohen applied for Medicaid and Women, Infants and Children assistance from Texas on June 1, 2009.

Hermer and Cohen bought round-trip tickets for their September 2009 vacation to London and planned to return to Texas on Dec. 9, 2009.

Cohen obtained a British passport for Alessia without Hermer's knowledge.

Hermer said the U.K. court blocked all this evidence.

"A lot of times, it just comes down to the international court protecting their own citizens," said Howard Berger, director of the U.S. Global Missing Children's Fund.

A daunting process

The laws and treaties that help parents regain custody of children taken across international borders have barely kept pace.

The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction was designed to resolve issues surrounding missing children, said Laura Dale, a Houston attorney.

The Hague Convention was signed by 73 nations and is used to establish jurisdiction, but not custody, in international parental child abduction cases and to prevent parents from cherry-picking countries where they believe the courts will give them a more favorable ruling.

The United Kingdom is a Hague partner. Hermer filed letters with the court from the U.S. Global Missing Children's Fund and the U.S. State Department questioning the court rulings.

Berger is concerned that the court's failure to allow Hermer's evidence might impede due process in future Hague cases.

"I was shocked to find that in a good number of cases, the U.K. does not follow the law," Berger said.

In countries such as Japan and India, which have not signed the treaty, and in Hague-member nations where enforcement is weak, retrieving children can be daunting.

A State Department report released in April lists Costa Rica, Guatemala, and St. Kitts and Nevis as noncompliant with the Hague treaty. Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and the Bahamas are listed as having patterns of noncompliance.

Even when court orders are followed, a judge can change the outcome.

Since 2007, Alaa Weiss had told a court that he feared his ex-wife would disappear in Dubai with his children. The court agreed.

But on July 19, a Tarrant County judge reversed her ruling and said Weiss' ex-wife, Rania Arwani, could take their children to Dubai, which is not a party to the Hague treaty.

"This is a mistake that cannot be reversed," said Weiss, an Arlington resident.

"This is not something that I can stay quiet on. Her heart has always been in Dubai."

U.S. law often fails to serve parents, some say. The United States cares more about people who are trying to get into the country than those who are trying to leave, Dale said.

Airport security doesn't typically review parental consent for minors to travel abroad, and a federal program alerting parents when a passport application is submitted for a minor is easily overcome, Dale said.

"We have no exit visas," Dale said. "The airports don't ask whether someone has permission to leave with a child."

In the end, the nature of the cases makes them difficult to decide, said Abed Awad, a New Jersey litigator.

"The judge must pierce through the objections of anger, ignorance and bigotry to achieve a fair ruling," Awad said.

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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