Hague Convention in Japan

James Cook wants his 4 kids back. His estranged wife, Hiromi Arimitsu, says they want to stay with her in Japan, and they’ve been fighting in Japanese courts for almost three years. Isn’t The Hague Convention supposed to make international custody cases easier?

Japanese Cooks

If child custody battles are messy and expensive when the parents live in the same city, they’re much worse when they live in different countries, and are fighting over where the children should live.

For three years of their lives, the Cook kids have not had their dad. Kids need their dad, they need both their parents. I can’t describe to you the hell that this has been.

Cook, who studied Japanese in college, and Arimitsu, a Japanese woman who attended a university in Minnesota, lived in the U.S. for almost the whole time they had been together.

Three years ago, Cook agreed that Arimitsu could take their 4 children to Japan for the summer – with a notarized agreement that she would bring them back. When that ended, they agreed that Arimitsu and the kids stay a little longer, while Cook looked for work.

By the end of the year, Cook realized his family wasn’t coming back. The problem: court officers failed to enforce the order, saying the children refused to be returned, and the Osaka High Court nullified the enforcement order under the grave risk of harm defense.

Hague Child Abductions

I have written – and will be speaking later this month – on international custody and child abduction cases under The Hague Convention.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is supposed to provide remedies for a “left-behind” parent, like Mr. Cook, to obtain the wrongfully removed or retained children to the country of their habitual residence.

When a child under 16 who was habitually residing in one signatory country is wrongfully removed to, or retained in, another signatory country, The Hague Convention provides that the other country: “order the return of the child forthwith” and “shall not decide on the merits of rights of custody.”

There are defenses though. For example, in the Cook case, the court considered whether there is a grave risk that the children’s return would expose them to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.

Outside Japan, the grave risk exception is very narrowly drawn because the exception can swallow the rule, and also, there is a belief that courts in the left behind country can protect children – just as easily as Japan can.

Big in Japan

Many suspect Japan is not really compliant with The Hague. Japan signed the Convention in 2013 – and only because of international pressure.

Under their law, Japan expanded the grave risk exception by making it a mandatory defense. Japan also requires Japanese courts to consider more things when the defense is asserted, such as whether there is “a risk”, as opposed to a grave risk.

Japanese courts also can consider if it’s difficult for parents to care for a child – a factor outside the scope of the Convention – which allows Japanese parents to complain about the challenges of being away from home.

The U.S. has determined that Japan was one of just two “Convention Countries That Have Failed to Comply with One or More of Their Obligations under The Hague Abduction Convention.”

Enforcement is a big problem in Japan. Japan cannot enforce their orders. The law Japan passed to implement The Hague forbids the use of force, and says children must be retrieved from the premises of the parent who has taken them.

According to research, about 3 million children in Japan have lost access to one parent after divorce in the past 20 years – about 150,000 a year.

For now, that leaves James Cook, who has found work with a medical device company, sitting in Minnesota, having no contact with his kids.

The Standard-Examiner article is here.