Make Joint Custody the Norm

 Friday, July 17, 1998; Page A20

From The Post's article about Lady Catherine Mayer, the wife of the British ambassador, who is denied access to her two sons in Germany, it appears that the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction has the same shortcoming it has reflected from the beginning -- a lack of recognition of a child's right to two parents [Style, June 29].

One other recent Hague Convention case involves a father in Virginia and a Swedish mother. In that case, the divorce occurred in Virginia, and part of the divorce settlement was that disputes would be adjudicated in Virginia. Despite the provisions of the divorce settlement, the mother refused to return the child from Sweden to the father. The Swedish            Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the child's "country of habitual residence" -- to use the Hague Convention's language -- had become Sweden and that the mother had not illegally retained the child in Sweden. Ironically, the mother herself is the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative to the Hague Convention.

There are two problems that must be dealt with in the Hague Convention -- bias in courts and the unnecessarily bitter nature of conflicts over custody. As to bias, there are indications that courts in Hague Convention member countries frequently favor their own nationals, regardless of what the convention may say about not overturning the custody and visitation         arrangements made in another member state. This problem needs to be dealt with by monitoring individual court decisions where Hague Convention issues are raised. Countries whose courts habitually disregard the convention must be subject to corrective action.

The other problem is the continuing tendency of domestic relations courts in most Hague Convention states to treat the children of divorce as spoils, to be awarded to one parent or the other. Overwhelmingly, one parent (nearly always the mother) becomes the custodial parent. The other parent becomes a visitor with no effective role other than to pay financial child support.

The custody process needs to be defused. Both parents going into a divorce must know that they will neither obtain exclusive custody of the children nor be excluded from their children's lives. If joint legal and physical custody were the norm -- in the United States and in other signatories of the Hague Convention -- much of the acrimony would disappear. Parents would be less tempted to kidnap children if  they were ensured of a continuing role in their lives. The United States should set an     example in this context.

President                        Legislative Assistant  
Children's Rights Council, Washington