Foreign Custody and Sex Discrimination

A recent interstate child custody case from Mali sheds light on sex discrimination in foreign courts. Should an American court honor a foreign court’s custody order if the foreign country favors men over women in custody cases? An Indiana court just answered that question.

A Mother appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals a trial judge’s refusal to modify a child custody order from the west-African nation of Mali in favor of the Father.

The Mother argued that the trial judge was not required to enforce the Malian court’s order under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) because the order from Mali was the product of laws that violate fundamental human rights.

Indiana, like Florida, has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Under the UCCJEA courts must enforce foreign custody decrees if it was issued by the country that was the child’s home state.

Enforcement is especially required if everyone was given notice and opportunity to be heard, and the child custody laws of the foreign country don’t violate fundamental principles of human rights.

The big question was whether Mali child custody laws violate human rights principles as Indiana courts understand them.

Florida and the UCCJEA

I’ve written and spoken many times on international custody involving the UCCJEA and The Hague.

The UCCJEA is a uniform act, and was adopted by all U.S. states except Massachusetts; which still follows the older UCCJA.

The UCCJEA was made to harmonize custody, visitation, timesharing and parental responsibility because different states and countries have different approaches to family law issues.

Florida treats foreign countries as if they were states of the United States for purposes of applying the UCCJEA. So, a child custody order made in a foreign country in substantial conformity with Florida’s UCCJEA must be recognized and enforced here.

However, under the UCCJEA Florida does not need to enforce or recognize the foreign order if the child custody law of a foreign country violates fundamental principles of human rights.

That was the issue the Indiana court had to decide.

The Indiana Case

The Mother and Father are both dual citizens of France and Mali, and divorced in Mali. Both parties asked for custody of the children.

After the trial, but before the Mali court issued an order, the Mother took the children to France, and the Malian court then awarded the Father custody.

The Mother never returned the children, unsuccessfully sought Mali and France then moved to Indiana and filed her case there.

The Indiana court rejected the Mother’s argument under the UCCJEA that the custody laws of Mali violate fundamental human rights because it favors men over women.

The Mother argued that Mali’s divorce law is fault-based, have a preference for men in child custody decisions because under Mali law, the following were tru:

  • The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.
  • The husband is deemed the head of the household,
  • The husband has the right to choose the family residence, and the wife must live with him and he must receive her.
  • A woman is prohibited from running a business without her husband’s permission.
  • Mali has failed to outlaw female genital mutilation

However, the Indiana court found that Mali did not actually apply the statutory custody presumption in favor of Father.

Instead the Indiana court found that under Mali law, custody could be awarded to Father or Mother. Additionally, in the Mali case under review, the best interests of the children controlled this decision.

The Female Genital Mutilation Argument

A 1999 United States Agency for International Development funded study in Mali was conducted, and found that 93.7% of women had gone through some form of female genital mutilation, usually when they are young.

The Indiana court rejected the Mother’s argument about Mali’s failure to outlaw female genital mutilation – in part because it noted that the father had condemned the practice.

Under the UCCJEA, while female genital mutilation is itself a human rights violation, Mali’s failure to pass a law specifically prohibiting the practice does not in and of itself constitute a violation of fundamental principles of human rights.

The Indiana Court of Appeals decision is here.