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Climate improving for return of abducted American children

Several developments are under way that could lead to the return of a number of the 2,500 American children who have been abducted in recent years to other nations, generally in marital disputes. The issue is particularly timely now, with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Washington this week for diplomatic talks. US officials reportedly are expected to press him to return some of the American children who have been abducted to Saudi Arabia.

According to the US State Department, some 43 American children have been abducted to Saudi Arabia, making it one of the more frequent destinations of those who have spirited away their children. But Saudi Arabia trails behind West Germany (with 265 abducted American children), Mexico (186), the United Kingdom (137), and Italy (120).

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Sen. Alan Dixon (D) of Illinois, the leading Senate champion of these children, met late last week with several high-ranking State Department officials on the Saudi situation. He says he believes that the coming together of the new developments will create a pressure for release of these children which ultimately will bear fruit: ``It's a cumulative thing.''

The developments within the US include growing congressional interest in the issue, the perception of several parents that the State Department now is more willing than in the past to support parental efforts to regain their children, and Senate passage of three relevant amendments to the State Department authorization bill offered by Senator Dixon. In order to become law, the amendments must survive a Senate-House conference, expected shortly.

One amendment would approve a major international treaty, called the Hague Convention, that would facilitate the return of about half the children. The second amendment would authorize the establishment in the State Department of an office to handle each international child-custody situation on a case-by-case basis.

The third amendment would for the first time make it a federal felony to abduct children internationally, which would give the State Department leverage if it sought to pry abducted children out of a country to which they were taken.

The amendment on the Hague Convention, if it became law, would be the final step through which the US accepted this treaty. By itself, it could solve ``50 percent of the cases,'' Senator Dixon says.

The Hague Convention essentially binds nations which approve it to return abducted children to the country in which they had lived before the abduction. The practical effect in the case of an American child abducted to the United Kingdom, which has signed the treaty, would be to require that the child be returned to the US, thus leaving American courts to decide which parent should have custody. Nearly half of the 2,500 children abducted to date now reside in nations which have agreed to this treaty, although some have not completed the process of putting it into effect.

In the absence of the treaty, it usually is a court in the nation to which the child is taken that decides who has custody.

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However, no one believes the treaty by itself will solve all the problems, inasmuch as many nations of the world - primarily in the third world - are considered most unlikely to agree to the convention. Generally it is very difficult even for Americans who have valid US custody decrees to regain children taken to these nations. This, Dixon says, is where the new office that he proposes in the State Department should be able to help by intervening to obtain their release.

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