How the U.S. Could Do More to Aid Kidnapped Children

Too many families are affected by children being kidnapped and taken abroad.

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A missing poster still rests on a tree outside the home of Amanda Berry Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Cleveland. Berry, 27, Michelle Knight, 32, and Gina DeJesus, had apparently been held captive in a house since their teens or early 20s, police said.

Though we do not yet know the full story, one cannot help but think how recent events in Ohio have brought home what must be every parent's worst nightmare: to have a child vanish without a trace.

In the Cleveland case, three young women, children really, were abducted and imprisoned for nearly a decade by men they apparently did not know. This makes this case somewhat unusual because most child abductions are committed by a non-custodial parent or other family member, usually but not exclusively as an act of retaliation against a former spouse, in-law or live-in lover.

These are difficult cases to prosecute. What might, on its face, seem to be a straight-forward act of kidnapping often evolves into a "he said, she said" debate that, in the opinion of many, leads law enforcement to be less than vigorous in its search for the offending adult and, unfortunately, the missing children.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should the Alleged Cleveland Kidnapper Get the Death Penalty?]

This is especially true on the nation's southern border, where the best place to hide a child is out of the country. It is almost as easy to slip into Mexico as it is to get out of it, meaning that it may be becoming a haven of sorts for people to hide children who should not be in their physical custody.

There are international mechanisms to address situations like these when they occur. To take advantage of them, however, requires expensive legal counsel, papers filed in The Hague – which is in the Netherlands, by the way – and it may take months, if not years, for cases to be adjudicated. Families involved in such cases are already stretched to the point of bankruptcy under the weight of legal fees, the cost of private investigators and everything else that is required to find the missing children before any action can be taken. The burden of moving forward is often too much to bear.

The decisions of U.S. courts are flagrantly ignored, especially by local officials in Mexico if, as in one case currently unfolding that has been brought to my attention, the parent who has taken the children has applied for Mexican citizenship. It doesn't matter that the children are reportedly living in a hovel with no electricity, no running water and are not going to school.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

It doesn't matter that they allegedly spend most of the day locked inside their residence while their mother and grandmother are at work. It also doesn't matter that their father was given physical custody by the Texas courts or that their mother abducted them during a visitation. In fact, say those close to the father who have asked to remain unnamed, it took months for officials in the Texas county involved to take the case seriously.

The law may be on the father's side but the geography is on the mother's. There are those in Congress and in the governor's office who have looked into things and have tried to be helpful, but the sad reality is that, with local officials in Mexico apparently threatening to arrest anyone who shows up to rescue the children or serve a warrant on the mother and take her into custody, there is little they can do.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The same can be said for children who are taken by a non-custodial parent outside the United States to other countries like Iran or China or Cuba. It is no easier to get them back than it is to get kidnapped children back from Mexico, yet the cases are fundamentally different for one reason: It is harder to get to those places because of the safeguards already in place that make it difficult, if not impossible, to get on a plane or a ship without signed documentation giving both parents' approval for the trip. For Mexico, all you have to do is get in the car – or, depending on your point of origin, walk. For those who are not so creative, there are plenty of smugglers happy to provide assistance, for a price.

In total, the number of children being taken into Mexico is small, perhaps three hundred per year. In real terms, however, to the families who are affected, even one is too many. Washington needs to make this more of a priority than it has been. It would not be wrong to link any reform of U.S. immigration policy, which the Mexicans apparently want, to forcing them to get serious about helping these missing children get home to the people who love them and to whom U.S. courts have already ruled are the better parents.

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