The U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion, its fifth, in a case involving the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. In settling the circuit court conflict, the Supreme Court addressed the undertakings requirement in grave risk cases.
Last Supper for Undertakings Plus?
Narkis Golan is a U.S. citizen who married Isacco Saada, an Italian citizen in Milan, Italy. She soon moved to Milan, and their son, B.A.S., was born in Milan, They lived in Milan for the first two years of B.A.S.’ life.
But their marriage was violent from the beginning. The two fought on an almost daily basis and, during their arguments, Saada would sometimes push, slap, and grab Golan and pull her hair, yelled and swore at her and frequently insulted her and called her names. Much of Saada’s abuse of Golan occurred in front of his son.
In 2018, Golan flew with B.A.S. to the United States to attend her brother’s wedding. Rather than return as scheduled, she moved into a domestic violence shelter.
Saada filed in Italy a criminal complaint for kidnapping and initiated a civil proceeding seeking sole custody of B.A.S., and also filed a petition under the Hague Convention and ICARA in a New York District Court seeking to return their son to Italy.
The U.S. District Court granted Saada’s petition, determining Italy was the child’s habitual residence and that Golan had wrongfully retained him in violation of Saada’s rights of custody.
But the trial court found returning the child to Italy would expose him to a grave risk of harm because Saada was “violent — physically, psychologically, emotionally, and verbally — to” Golan and the child was present for much of it.
Records also indicated that Italian social services had also concluded that “‘the family situation entails a developmental danger’ for the child and that Saada had demonstrated no “capacity to change his behavior.”
The trial court still ordered the child’s return to Italy based on Second Circuit precedent that it “‘examine the full range of options that might make possible the safe return of a child to the home country’” before denying return. To comply with these precedents, the District Court required the parties to propose “‘ameliorative measures’” for the child’s safe return.
The trial court rejected Golan’s argument that Saada could not be trusted to comply with a court order, expressing confidence in the Italian courts’ abilities to enforce the protective order.
The Second Circuit affirmed, concluding the trial did not clearly err in determining that Saada likely would comply with the Italian protective order, given his compliance with other court orders and the threat of enforcement by Italian authorities of its order.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split and decide whether ameliorative measures must be considered after a grave risk finding.
Florida Child Abduction
I have written and spoken on international custody and child abduction cases under the Hague Convention. The Convention is supposed to provide remedies for a left-behind parent, like Mr. Saada, to obtain a wrongfully removed or retained child 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 Convention provides that the other country: “order the return of the child forthwith.”
There are defenses though. For example, in the Golan case, the court considered Article 13(b), which states that a court is not bound to order the return of the child if the court finds that return would expose the child to a “grave risk” of physical or psychological harm.
The grave risk defense is narrowly drawn. There is an assumption that courts in the left behind country can protect children, which is why courts in some circuits are required to consider ameliorative measures.
Il Duomo di Washington D.C.
The Supreme Court noted that the interpretation of a treaty, like the Hague Convention, begins with its text, and nothing in the Convention’s text either forbids or requires consideration of ameliorative measures.
The Court held that judges may consider ameliorative measures with the grave risk determination, but the Convention does not require it. By requiring ameliorative measures, the Second Circuit’s rule re-wrote the treaty by imposing an atextual, categorical requirement that courts consider all possible ameliorative measures in exercising this discretion, regardless of whether such consideration is consistent with the Convention’s objectives.
The Court also held that a trial court “ordinarily should address ameliorative measures raised by the parties or obviously suggested by the circumstances of the case, such as in the example of the localized epidemic.”
First, any consideration of ameliorative measures must prioritize the child’s physical and psychological safety. Second, consideration of ameliorative measures should abide by the Convention’s requirement that courts addressing return petitions do not usurp the role of the court that will adjudicate the underlying custody dispute. Third, any consideration of ameliorative measures must accord with the Convention’s requirement that courts “act expeditiously in proceedings for the return of children.
The Court then remanded to allow the District Court to apply the proper legal standard. Recognizing that remand would delay the case, the opinion hinted the District Court will move “as expeditiously as possible to reach a final decision without further unnecessary delay.”
The opinion is here.