Home in Milan: International Child Custody and the Hague

Last week, the Supreme Court decided a big international child custody case. The decision involved a baby brought here from Milan by her American Mother after her marriage to her Italian husband ended. At issue, where the baby’s ‘habitual residence’ is under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction – Italy or here.

Hague Milan Child Custody

An Italian Drama

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is a treaty that requires a child wrongfully removed from his or her country of “habitual residence” be returned to that country.

A removal is “wrongful” if it is done in violation of the custody laws of the country of the child’s habitual residence. The Convention requires that the countries signing the treaty “use the most expeditious proceedings available” to return the child to his or her habitual residence.

The mother, Michelle Monasky, a U.S. citizen, brought her infant daughter to Ohio from Milan, Italy after her Italian husband, Domenico Taglieri, allegedly became physically abusive. Taglieri asked a U.S. court to order the daughter’s returned under the Hague Convention.

The father argued that Italy was the daughter’s “habitual residence.” The district court agreed, finding that the parents had a “shared intention” to raise their daughter in Italy. An appellate panel affirmed, but in a divided opinion.

The Mother asked the Supreme Court to decide the matter, and it did.

International Child Custody and the Hague

I have written and spoken on international custody and child abduction cases under the Hague Convention.

The Convention’s mission is basic: to return children “to the State of their habitual residence” to require any custody disputes to be resolved in that country, and to discourage parents from taking matters into their own hands by abducting a child.

The key inquiry in many Hague Convention cases, and the dispositive inquiry in the Taglieri case, goes to the country of the child’s habitual residence. Habitual residence marks the place where a person customarily lives.

Many people don’t realize it, but the Hague Convention does not actually define the key term ‘habitual residence.’ There are a couple of ways to determine it. The primary way looks to the place where the child has become “acclimatized.” The back-up inquiry for young children too young to become acclimatized looks to where the parents intend their child to live.

Not abducted children

Under the Tuscan Sun

The Supreme Court affirmed the two lower courts and ordered the child returned to Italy, albeit five years later. The Court rejected the Mother’s argument that you need an “actual agreement” to determine habitual residence, and held that a child’s habitual residence depends on a totality-of-the-circumstances.

The Court noted that the Hague Convention does not define “habitual residence,” but relied on the Convention’s text, its negotiation and drafting history, and decisions from the courts.

The Hague Convention’s text alone does not definitively tell us what makes a child’s residence sufficiently enduring to be deemed “habitual.” It surely does not say that habitual residence depends on an actual agreement between a child’s parents.

No single fact, however, is dispositive across all cases. Common sense suggests that some cases will be straightforward: Where a child has lived in one place with her family indefinitely, that place is likely to be her habitual residence.

Relying on foreign law, the U.S. Supreme Court found that there was a “clear trend” among our treaty partners to treat the determination of habitual residence as a fact-driven inquiry into the particular circumstances of the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court also resolved a circuit split, and held that a trial court’s habitual-residence determination is primarily a question of fact, entitled to clear-error appellate review. The Court declined to remand for further fact finding, noting that the parties had not identified any additional facts that the district court did not already have an opportunity to consider during the four-day bench trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision is available here.

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