Lilly Waken’s husband and two young daughters left home for a party and never came back. Frantically she called police, she called hospitals--then she learned her Arab husband had bought three one-way tickets to Damascus, Syria.
That was 18 months ago, and Waken hasn’t seen her children since.
Her husband returned to Miami once--without the children--for a divorce hearing. A judge awarded Waken custody of their two girls, but her husband, Mohammed, ignored the court order and slipped out of the country.
Lamia has since turned 3; Dalal is 6. Waken wonders where they are, and whether they remember her.
“My heart is stolen, my soul is gone,” she said from her Miami home, where she keeps the girls’ room ready for them. “Unless your children were taken, no one can know the pain I live with.”
There are others who know. U.S. parents are seeking to bring home more than 1,000 children taken from this country by a mother or father, according to State Department records. And children’s advocates believe many more cases go unreported.
Often the children are snatched during a divorce. The abducting parents usually have strong ties in the other country. But sometimes an American-born mother or father will take off for an unfamiliar nation to flee U.S. law.
Left-behind parents suddenly find a maze of foreign laws and customs standing between them and their children.
Finding a missing child within the United States is daunting. But finding a missing child abroad often seems hopeless--especially for those like Waken who cannot afford specialized attorneys, private detectives and international travel.
“Most of the mothers live a kind of quiet agony if they don’t have the money,” said Shayna Gluck Lazarevich, who has searched Serbia for her two children for 4 1/2 years.
Even those with money to spend often find it’s not enough. After Lazarevich’s ex-husband kidnaped their two children from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., a bank seized his $70,000 account and turned it over to her.
The money paid 10 lawyers, and helped Lazarevich take her custody case all the way to Serbia’s highest court--winning at each step. It helped her travel to Serbia to search for the children. It took her to Washington to seek help.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III championed her cause, and 90 members of Congress signed a petition for the return of her children. She met with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
But 11-year-old Sasha and 8-year-old Andre are still missing.
Serbian officials have been unable or unwilling to find the children and turn them over to her. The civil war in Bosnia only makes things worse. And her money has run out.
“I’ve done everything right and still I don’t have my children,” Lazarevich, 32, said during one of many visits to Washington.
“People don’t sense the agony, the anguish, the desperation that parents feel,” she said. “That must be understood before we will get any real help.”
Parents searching for their children in other countries get only limited help from the U.S. government. A State Department brochure warns them, “You must direct the search and recovery operation yourself.”
The department does offer some basic help in finding children. “We will attempt as best we can to locate the child and visit them and report on their health,” said State Department spokeswoman Nyda Budig.
The department will ask another nation to check travel and school records for a missing child’s name, for example. But some nations don’t keep complete records. And some missing children live under false names.
And, Budig points out, some parents don’t even know which nation their children are living in.
Many parents complain that consular officials don’t do enough to help them. Maria Rojas of Centreville, Va., is organizing a march in Washington this summer to demand more help for parents searching for internationally abducted children.
“My children are U.S. citizens, but the people at the State Department don’t want to be bothered with them,” she said. “They just don’t care.”
Finding a missing child is only the start.
A parent must then take his or her case to the foreign country’s legal system. Most nations do not recognize custody orders from U.S. courts. Even when criminal charges have been filed against the abducting parent in America, many nations will not honor a U.S. request for extradition.
And some nations may discriminate against women or Americans.
The State Department will give a parent information about a foreign legal system, but cannot intercede in court on the parent’s behalf, Budig said.
“Most children who are taken abroad are not returned,” said Betty Mahmoody, an American who escaped with her daughter from an abusive husband in Iran.
She formed an organization to help parents of children kidnaped abroad, called One World: For Children. Mahmoody said the group has helped parents of 900 children taken to “difficult” countries; only 49 were returned.
“Most of the time, it’s an impossible situation,” she said.
The State Department has logged 5,500 cases of international child abduction by parents since it began keeping records in 1978. The number rises each year.
Eighty percent of the cases are now considered inactive. But it’s unclear how many of the children have come home.
Some cases were dropped from the files when the State Department didn’t hear from the left-behind parent for two years; others were closed when the missing child turned 18. Officials are sifting through the files to compile statistics, Budig said.
Although it’s difficult to document, the State Department says the odds of bringing a kidnaped child home from abroad are improving.
In December, President Clinton signed a law making it a federal felony to kidnap a child to another country. But it’s too early to assess the impact that will have, said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Assn.
“It’s very easy to pass a law to say certain things will become federal crimes without providing the resources to investigators and U.S. attorneys and federal courts to fulfill the intent of the law,” he said.
Mahmoody said, “Every deterrent we have is helpful.”
Perhaps the biggest advance came in 1988, when the United States signed a treaty with 30 other nations, agreeing to return kidnaped children to their home countries. Courts in the home country then will resolve any remaining custody disputes.
The Hague treaty has been proven successful in returning children to the United States from the mostly Western nations that have ratified it.
But almost half of the 806 abductions reported to the State Department in 1993 were not covered by the Hague treaty. The Middle Eastern countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria--among the nations least cooperative in returning children to the United States--have not signed.
“The State Department isn’t doing a whole heck of a lot to give the parents in non-Hague countries any hope,” said Frederick Rooney, a Bethlehem, Pa., attorney who does pro bono work for women whose children are in the Middle East.
There is another treaty in which nations agree to work together on children’s issues, including international kidnaping. It is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989.
The treaty has been signed or ratified by 170 nations, including some Mideast countries such as Syria and Iran. But the United States has yet to sign it, so it’s of no help to U.S. parents.
President Clinton has ordered a review of the treaty, to be completed this spring.
Meanwhile, the American Bar Assn. has been educating judges and attorneys about the risk of child abduction during divorce cases. Often parents’ fears are dismissed, Davidson said.
Lazarevich, for example, told the court that her former husband, Dragisa, had threatened to take their children to Yugoslavia. But the judge granted him unsupervised visits anyway. During one of those weekend visits, he abducted the children.
Children’s advocates say stricter controls on passports and children’s travel would make it tougher to sneak a child out of the United States.
Waken suspects her girls are now living with their paternal grandparents in Saudi Arabia. “I would do anything to get them back,” said Waken, 32.
She pulled out a photograph of her daughters as she last saw them--the curly-haired baby and smiling older sister--and described the Christmas presents she keeps wrapped and ready for their return.
She was reluctant to put the photograph back in her purse, pausing to kiss each face.
“I just want to hear my daughters’ voices at least,” she said. “I don’t want them to forget me.”