Kidnaped : Thousands of Kids Have Been Taken Abroad in Custody Fights; It’s Almost Impossible to Get Them Back

Times Staff Writer

Our children, go the perpetual assurances of everyone from politicians to social workers, are America’s highest resource, its purest investment.

“That’s a bunch of verbiage,” snapped Glenda Geehan. Her son Luka, 7, was abducted from San Francisco by her former husband in 1986 and taken to Yugoslavia. She hasn’t seen her son since, their only contact having been one 30-second telephone conversation. And Geehan is not encouraged by remedies offered by U.S. government officials.

“It’s all hypocrisy,” said Holly Planells of what she sees as lip-service paid to the sanctity of American childhood. Huey, her 5-year-old son, was taken to Jordan by his father in 1986. Mother and son meet once a year in Amman. The two-week visit is divided into daily 12-hour meetings in a locked room. The boy speaks only Arabic.


“It is like visiting your son at a penitentiary,” said Planells. She paused and sighed deeply and lessened the shrill in her voice. “Here’s the real campaign issue: that American children are being denied their future as American citizens.”

Agencies of No Help

Carl Schwarz is somewhat more charitable. As a Los Angeles attorney, former military officer and one-time international business traveler, he recognizes the frailties and generalities of rhetoric. Still, he said, in his situation the U.S. government and its agencies “haven’t done a damned thing but screw up in numerous ways.”

His situation is that Marlon Schwarz, a teen-age son, was abducted to Britain in 1985 by Schwarz’s former wife. Despite a California court order awarding custody to the father, a British court has assumed jurisdiction and denied Schwarz access to his son.

In June, Schwarz defied that ruling and risked arrest for contempt. For three minutes he stared at his son across a London street. Police officers, summoned by his ex-spouse, ordered Schwarz from the area.

Schwarz, 52, the operator of a small West Los Angeles law clinic and still recovering from a 1984 bankruptcy, flew to London again this month, where he is appealing the Royal Court’s ruling.

Talking to the Media

He has made almost a dozen court appearances. The crusade has cost $15,000 and in London he sleeps in a Salvation Army hostel. In further defiance of the British ruling, Schwarz has taken his story to the British media, petitioned his son’s teachers for information and attempted to deliver birthday gifts to the school.

“I once asked (a Scotland Yard detective) to arrange a meeting in some safe setting, with me in chains if he wanted, but just to let me see my son,” said Schwarz. “They wouldn’t. In all this time (three years) I have seen him for one hour and 20 minutes and been allowed maybe two or three phone calls.”

This month, said Schwarz, maybe near Marlon’s home, possibly outside Westminster--the famed 16th-Century public school he now attends--he will again try to force a visit with his son.

“I have told the Official Solicitor that if they want to turn this into an international incident, fine,” he said before departure. “But I intend to go on seeing him (son) again and if any of their goons get within 5 feet of me, I will use equal force.”

There’s obvious desperation in his mood. Anger and frustration. Also a stubbornness and obsessive focus common to dozens of California parents who have lost their children overseas to kidnaping by former spouses.

Since 1975, the U.S. State Department has handled more than 2,500 cases of parental abductions. Conservatively, said a federal spokesman, that translates to 6,000 children, with California, New York and metropolitan Washington reporting the most abductions.

Currently, he said, the department has 650 “active files” and more than 350 children are added to the tally each year.

How many of these youngsters will be returned remains a hesitant guess. Said Sen. Alan Dixon, (D-Ill), one of several politicians currently committed to the issue: “We won’t ever get all these kids back. . . . We’ll make some gains, we’ll make some difference . . . but between you and me, the only people (parents) that ever succeeded were the people who had a little money and bought somebody to go snatch their kids back.”

Such as Cathy Mahone, a Dallas realtor.

Last year, Lauren, her 7-year-old daughter, was abducted to Jordan by Ali Bayan, Mahone’s former husband. Mother made the rounds of Texas courts, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of State. Typically, they could offer only token assistance.

So in January, Mahone, 32, paid $100,000 to a Fayetteville, N.C., security firm staffed by former Green Berets and Delta Force troops. Its commando team snatched Lauren from a school bus near the dusty Jordanian town of Jaresh, drove her to Israel and a flight to the United States.

Mother and daughter have since changed their names and assumed new lives in another state to reduce the possibility of a counter-abduction.

“The saddest part of all this,” said Mahone from hiding, “is that Lauren and her father are not going to have any relationship at all. She has lost her daddy.”

There have been other mercenary rescues.

Bob Burton of Santa Barbara, a Vietnam War veteran, a former member of military and civilian intelligence communities, and a bounty hunter who was a technical consultant on the movie “Midnight Run,” recently returned abducted American children from Mexico and Peru.

“Any parent interested in such a recovery should anticipate spending between $35,000 and $55,000 for an operation in the Americas,” he said. “For a Middle East recovery, you’re talking $130,000 and up because of the risks, distance and operational difficulties involved.”

On any mission, he added, it is advisable to take the contracting parent along “to minimize the kidnaping scenario and to comfort the child . . . because in this business, you’ve got to be somewhere between Dr. Spock and Atilla the Hun.”

Some youngsters are returned by abducting parents unable to live with their consciences--or unable to live on the reduced opportunities of their overseas homelands.

Georgia Hilgeman of Campbell, near San Jose, made seven trips to Mexico before coming back with her daughter Monica, now 13. It cost her $93,000, with $21,000 of that spent on legal assistance and bribes in Mexico.

In 1980, as a result of her experiences, Hilgeman formed a support group, the Vanished Childrens’ Alliance. It is currently handling 400 cases involving 600 children, the majority taken in criminal kidnapings and parental snatches to other states. A minority of 10%, Hilgeman said, involve parental abductions to overseas destinations, to Mexico, to Guatemala, to Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Israel and other nations.

Those working for the return of kidnaped children concede there have been isolated successes through formal, legal means, usually with America’s allies--Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands. Such as last month’s return to the United States, by companion orders of British and American courts, of the 5-year-old son of actor Peter O’Toole.

O’Toole had refused to send the boy home to his mother after a 10-day visit to Britain. A British court said he must. Then an American court ruled that the boy will live with his father during the school year and his mother during school holidays.

But the vast majority of parents of abducted children spend their lives meandering sadly through the ultimate exasperation. On one hand they are victims of an undisputed criminal act. On the other, they complain, quick and permanent and legal resolution is apparently made impossible by government indifference and tangled priorities.

Here, as seen through the experience of Geehan, 33, a personnel consultant in San Francisco, is how it doesn’t work.

In 1981, Geehan married Paul Djurovic, a graduate of Hastings Law School, an immigration specialist and licensed private investigator. Djurovic, although born in Yugoslavia, had lived in the United States for 16 years and was a naturalized citizen. A son, Luka, was born. The marriage failed and Glenda and Paul divorced in 1983. They agreed, she said, on joint custody of Luka.

In July, 1986--after Glenda had agreed that her former husband could take Luka to Yugoslavia on vacation--Paul Djurovic telephoned from Frankfurt, West Germany.

“He said that he was never coming back again and that he was disappearing with Luka,” said Geehan. “I was hysterical. I lost control. I screamed in helplessness into the telephone. He was just talking, not listening, just saying that if I gave him sole custody of Luka he would come back.”

Djurovic’s subsequent letters from Yugoslavia proved to San Francisco law enforcers that he had indeed left the country. A warrant was issued for his arrest for child stealing. In addition, a federal charge of interstate flight to avoid prosecution was filed and Luka Djurovic’s name was entered in the bureau’s National Crime Information Center computer.

Realistically, however, neither warrant can be enforced unless the subject returns to the United States. Nor will there be extradition by foreign governments who consider parental abduction a domestic matter best left to the courts of interested nations.

Angus MacKay, a public affairs officer for the British Consulate in Los Angeles, confirmed that to be the official attitude in the case of Carl Schwarz and the quest to visit with his son.

“These cases are matters for the courts to decide and our (government) involvement in them is really minimal and consists usually of directing people to the appropriate authorities in either country,” he said.

So when Glenda Geehan took her case to the Department of State, its response was characteristic and universal. She was mailed literature that outlined steps an individual may take to reduce the risk of abduction, and civil procedures to be pursued following an abduction.

She also was told that the department could provide her with a list of attorneys to represent her in Yugoslavia. She is considering this option.

But in essence, said Geehan, “I was told it was out of their hands and there was nothing they could do.”

Yet these, insist left-behind parents, are American children held hostage.

Compare limited government attention for them, they suggest, to government action on American adults held hostage in Iran or listed as MIAs in Southeast Asia.

Said Planells, 26, another parent whose loss has forged an East Coast support group, American Children Held Hostage, of Brentwood, N.Y.: “I get incensed that we can barter--like for the Soviet refuseniks--with the evil empire, yet we can’t negotiate with a country that basically we’re on good terms with.”

A spokesman for the State Department’s Office of Citizens Consular Service called the comparison with hostages and dissidents “interesting . . . but I think that probably on several grounds the analogy would fall down.

“One, these (hostages and MIAs) are all distinct groups of people either persecuted or disadvantaged on group grounds, ethnic grounds . . . those people who are to some extent the hostages of foreign governments or groups under the control of foreign governments.

“Two, the reality is more a legal one and an individual one. This (the abducting parent) is an individual who is conducting not a political act but a personal act in taking a child away from the jurisdiction of a court.

Not the Same Thing

“It is not an act of terrorism, a political kind of undertaking . . . and we have no judicial standing in foreign situations,” he said. “We are not lawyers, we are in no way privileged to approach judges and make petitions. It is our strong feeling that the people there, speaking the language, being citizens of that country and dealing in family law, are in a much better position to give legal advice than we would be.”

Embassy and consular officials, he said, do attempt to locate abducted children and make “whereabouts and welfare checks.” They visit the children, investigate their education, nutrition and hygiene and act as a two-way conduit for letters and photographs.

All of which, accused Planells, is little more than a pacifier. The hidden bottom line, she said, is that the U.S. government places strategic and economic considerations before the fates of children--especially in Middle East countries.

“They are just not going to go to bat for a bunch of children, even although the numbers are in the thousands,” she said. “We (parents) go into these meetings and hear the State Department bragging: ‘Oh, yes, in one Jordanian case we went all the way up to the prime minister.’

“That was in my case. So I brought it up in a hearing and said: ‘Yes, so what? Two years later I still don’t have my son.’ ”

And her son, she claimed, is as much a hostage as any American in Beirut because “he is an American citizen who holds an American passport and who is not allowed to leave.”

The considerations are enormous and tangled. How far can an American mother’s court petition travel in a Middle East country where culture dictates a woman has no rights? What geopolitical wisdom is there in making the return of one or two children a condition of an F-16 shipment to Kuwait?

And how just are any American negotiations for children held overseas when there is an embarrassing flip side--a steadily growing population of children abducted by American parents, including military personnel, and returned to hiding in the United States.

Said a State Department officer on the latter situation: “I’ve heard reports over the years, from as far back as the ‘60s, that the number is from 100,000 to 300,000.”

And the advice given these foreign ex-wives or former husbands who ask their governments or American embassies for assistance? “They also are told it’s a judicial matter best worked out through the courts and an American lawyer.”

Within this welter has grown numerous private, nonprofit groups dedicated in total or in part to the interests of parental abductions.

There is Hilgeman’s group in California and Planells’ organization in New York. The Society for Young Victims is in Rhode Island and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Washington. The Adam Walsh Resource Center is in Orange and Find the Children is in Los Angeles.

They share information and strategies, post pictures and flyers, refer cases and exchange developments . . . and make slow, but definite progress.

Largely in response to pressure from such organizations, the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations met last month to consider the State Department’s role in international parental abductions.

“We are trying to devise a plan by which State would be able to have additional ways to have these children returned,” said a spokeswoman. “Or at least obtain some visitation rights for the left-behind parent.”

She added that subcommittee representatives held “private negotiations after the hearings” with three countries where American children are being held. She declined to identify the countries.

“But they (discussions) are becoming definitive . . . with a very positive response,” she said. “I think that it is an issue which deserves far more attention that it has received and I think it is imperative, if it is to go any further, or if big strides are to be made quickly, that it is taken directly to the people.”

Action Taken

This summer, the issue reached a small milepost.

On July 1, the United States became the 10th signatory nation of The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The international agreement specifies that abducted children are to be returned to their pre-abduction status and location until legal custody is resolved.

Yet for those already victimized by child abductions, the move produces no answer. The treaty’s powers are not retroactive. Nor will it benefit children taken to countries that have not signed the treaty, such as all the Middle East nations, Japan, India, Australia, Canada, Mexico and the Central and South American countries.

On a higher note, however, the State Department recently directed all embassies and consulates to appoint a coordinator to handle parental child abduction matters.

And Sen. Dixon has introduced legislation to make overseas parental abductions a federal crime.

“I continue to become disturbed by the fact that our government really doesn’t do more in these cases,” said Dixon. “Here’s Germany, England, Canada, Israel, countries that are our closest friends . . . some of the major countries where these abductions take place. Yet nothing is being done. You mean to tell me we can’t do things with those countries to get these children back?”

Dixon has met with left-behind parents. On behalf of one, he wrote a letter to the King of Saudi Arabia. There was a meeting with Saudi Embassy officials, the Saudis’ American lawyer and the senator.

“That lawyer told me: ‘Let’s face it. If everything you say is true, that the husband is a drunk and he beat his wife and children and he has criminal violations, in Saudi Arabia that doesn’t matter.

“ ‘They still do not give the child to the mother. They give the child to the family of the father.’ ”

Meanwhile, a community of American parents must wait and ache.

Bob Easterbrook, 42, of Oceanside has a son, 5-year-old Hali. This year, during a bitter legal tussle with Jo, his former common-law wife, Easterbrook was awarded custody of the boy.

“By that time, she (Jo) had left the country on a flight to Israel and taken Hali with her,” he said. Easterbrook has done all he can with local and federal law enforcement and the State Department. “If she trips over her shoes and falls in front of an FBI agent somewhere, they might arrest her.”

He has no address for his wife in Israel and, indeed, no firm proof that she is still living there. Legal fees, money for a private investigator and expenses for nine out-of-state court appearances while seeking custody of his son, have impoverished Easterbrook, a self-employed aviation parts broker.

“All I want is to have a part in raising my son,” he said. “I’m not a perfect person. Who is? But a child deserves two parents. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the kid. I have to keep telling myself, like (treasure hunter) Mel Fisher, that today’s the day. That someone will call and say they saw my boy. . . .”

Glenda Geehan understands his hurt.

“My son and I had a really good relationship, we were very close and that’s something that never leaves you,” she said. “It’s almost like having a terminal illness. It’s always there. You work to be strong and to be a whole person for others and there are times when you get a real spurt and nothing seems to be wrong.

“Then, coming home from a ballgame, you see a cute little boy with blond hair and he is Luka’s age and you just put your head down and start crying. . . .”

Schwarz remembers last year in London and two court supervised, court chaperoned meetings with his son Marlon: “He shook my hand. From the exuberant 11-year-old I remembered, he’s now the English prep school scholar.

“And he’s saying that he doesn’t want to see me. He has said ‘yes’ there were good times . . . but that there are all sorts of bad memories and that he has nothing to say to his father. The second meeting . . . I tried to take a photo of him and I said: ‘Look, lots of people love you at home. I don’t have a photo. They don’t have a photo. Won’t you let me take a photo?’ ”

But Marlon refused to be photographed. He turned his head away. “I think maybe it has been drummed into his head that I’m going to get his photo in order to get a passport to take him out of the country. . . .”

For Holly Planells--her annual trips to Jordan financed by her income-tax refund and loans from her father--the visit with son Huey are a parent’s worst torture.

“My mother and I sit there for hours. We give him (Huey) baths and do things that aren’t done for him the whole year. I bring Q-tips to clean his toenails and ears. I bring shampoo and soap and toothbrushes and toothpaste and it’s like bringing stuff to a child that is in a refugee camp.

“I see him so happy. Then there are times when we . . . when he sees us leaving . . . he dies. He cowers in the corner. But when he is with us and we’re playing . . . I just . . . excuse me, I’m crying . . . he is so happy.

“He whispers in my ear . . . he wants to go home with me and I tell him: ‘Some day I’m going to come and get you out of here. I want you to know that I will never let you go.’ ”