Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Child relocation to Japan

Custody dispute crossing borders: Mom wants to take daughter to Okinawa

Newark Star-Ledger, May 01, 2007

The state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a Hillsborough child custody case with international implications.

After the breakup of her marriage, Erika MacKinnon wants to return to her homeland, Japan, along with her 7-year-old daughter. A network of relatives and better job prospects should translate into a better life for mother and child, according to her attorney.

Erika's ex-husband, Ronald MacKinnon, challenges that notion. Relocating the child to her mother's hometown on Okinawa could make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for him to visit her, he said.

Unlike North American and European countries, Japan never signed the major treaty on child custody issues, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction.

"Japan will not recognize foreign custody orders or foreign ar rest warrants in child abductions," said Walter Benda, a Virginian who came home 11 years ago to find his ex-wife had taken their two daughters to Japan.

"I don't think there's much you can do ... if the Japanese parent doesn't want to act in good faith," said Benda.

Jeremy Morley, a New York lawyer specializing in international family law, said he is "very frustrated" by the haphazard response of American courts.

"What the court needs to appreciate in this type of case is that if a child goes to Japan, and the custodial parent wishes to keep her there, it could be the last the other parent will ever see of her," Morley said. "Some courts recognize that, some do not."

While there have been high-profile cases elsewhere involving abductions to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the issue is a new one for New Jersey.

"The precedent in New Jersey is a case involving a parent who moved to Wisconsin," said Michele D'Onofrio, who represents Ronald MacKinnon. "That doesn't fit the facts of a case where a parent wants to take a child halfway around the world."

For that matter, the idea of "abductions" does not fit this case either, said Christina Reger, Erika MacKinnon's attorney. Rather than bolting for Japan, her client has dutifully gone through the American legal system, prevailing in the lower courts, she said.

"She was only 19 when she came to this country" in 1991, after meeting Ronald MacKinnon when he was stationed on Okinawa with the Marines, Reger said. Erika held a series of low-paying jobs while her husband worked construction, she said.

"She has absolutely no family here, no support group, limited financial prospects," Reger said.

In contrast, Erika MacKinnon's fluency in English opens many opportunities in the Japanese job market, and her mother and sister can help with child care, Reger said.

Moreover, since the girl was born, Erika MacKinnon has taken her to Okinawa for extended stays every year, Reger said. Even when Ronald called her in the middle of one of those trips to say he was leaving her for his high school sweetheart, "they still came back," she said. …

"The court should reconsider reopening the case to take testimony on that point," Morley said, and possibly require a bond be posted to pay for the trips.