Parents Fight Losing Custody Battle in Japan

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey going to Japan to help a father.

TOKYO Oct. 13, 2009— -- Parents, mothers and fathers from various countries met recently at a Tokyo train station to recount their worst nightmare – the moment they realized their child had been abducted.

Paul Toland received a call at work from a neighbor. "Are you leaving Japan?" the U.S. Navy commander said he was asked. "Are you moving?"

"What are you talking about?" Toland said. "No."

In the hour it took him to get home, everything was gone, including his daughter Erika. Toland hasn't seen her since 2004.

Franchesca Miyara said it happened when she went to pick up her son from day care. "He wasn't there. He wasn't there," the Puerto Rican native repeated. "July 20, 2006 – the day I became nothing."

American Steve Christie said his son was living with him at the time. "My wife abducted him when I allowed her to have dinner with our son," said the co-founder of the International Association for Parent and Child Reunion that was formed this year. "It took me three years to find him."

According to the U.S. State Department, as of May, there are 73 recorded cases of abduction to or retention in Japan. More than in any other country, these cases involve more than 100 children.

An additional 29 cases involve parties in Japan with one parent denied access to their child, such as is the case with Christie.

"Japan is a good partner and an important friend of the United States," said U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Citizens Services Michele Thoren Bond. "But on this issue, the news is not good. Each year, the number of children taken by their parents from the United States is increasing," Bond said earlier this year. "And especially, the number of children taken by their parents to Japan is increasing."

At Yurakucho train station on Monday activists held up a yellow banner that reads "Stop child abduction. Kids love both parents." They distributed flyers in Japanese and made pleas through a loud speaker.

In Japan, a Divorced Father May Just Sever Tie With Child

Perhaps a reflection of how these parents' plights are received here, most people who pass by don't pay much attention.

"The left-behind parents of children abducted to or from Japan," reads the U.S. Embassy Tokyo website, "have little realistic hope of having their children returned and encounter great difficulties in obtaining access to their children and exercising their parental rights and responsibilities."

Japanese law, with regards to divorce, typically follows the tradition of sole-custody in which one parent, usually the father, severs ties from his or her child.

There are cases of divorced couples in Japan splitting parenting and custody rights, but these are rare instances.

"The problem is that parents don't get to see their kids," said David Hearn, co-director and producer of the documentary film From The Shadows about child abduction. "And probably more importantly kids lose contact with their parents."

Some parents try to reunite with their children by battling their cases in court.

"It has been heart breaking," said Toland who recently flew to Tokyo from the US. "It dominates your whole life. I've spent maybe over $200,000 in attorney fees over the years."

Other parents resort to more desperate measures.

"I lost my mind completely," said Miyara clenching a photo of her son. The 28 year old said she went to her then-husband's parents' house with a long kitchen knife threatening to slit her own throat if they didn't give her back her son.

Miyara was promptly arrested, one of two times that resulted in her spending three months in jail.

Japan is the only G-7 nation that has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The Convention seeks to protect children across international borders.

What counts here is who, under Japanese law, is the child's primary custodian. In many of these cases, the primary custodian is the parent in possession of the child when the case is first brought to court.

Rep. Chris Smith Heading to Japan to Help U.S. Dad

This is regardless of if that view differs in another country, as is now the case with Christopher Savoie.

In the U.S., Savoie's first wife, Noriko, violated a US court order by taking their children out of the country and to Japan where she has primary custody of them.

In turn, Savoie flew to Japan and tried to take them back.

Now he is said to be in violation of "Japanese penal code 244" for forcefully taking away underage children, according to one of his lawyers Tadashi Yoshino.

Savoie is currently enduring another 10 day extension of jail time. If charged, he faces three months to seven years in prison.

With Japan's newly elected leadership, some have vigilant hope that current circumstances could change.

"The new administration under Prime Minister Hatoyama," said Toland, "has hinted at an openness to discuss this situation so I'm hoping we collectively, the parents, the U.S. congress, the U.S. state department can take advantage of this window of opportunity right now and push this issue."

New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who this year introduced legislation on international abduction, is expected to arrive in Japan this weekend to help with Toland's case.

In the meantime, on the ground here these parents search for the slightest clue, any detail, they can learn about their own children.

Toland heard his first eyewitness account in years of what his daughter is like. "She's shy. She doesn't talk a lot, but she laughs a lot," Toland said he was told. "She plays well with the other children and she was sad after her mother died."

Erika, who lives with her mother's parents, turns 7 this weekend. Toland hopes to be able to deliver presents to her. "Gifts that I get in my travels wherever I go," he said. "I buy something for her from that area so she knows that she was with me in my spirit when I was there."

In cases where the sole surviving parent is the left-behind parent, such as with Paul Wong as ABC News reported last year or even when the abducting parent passes away, as in Toland's case, Japan's government has not returned the child to the left-behind parent.

"In fact," according to Smith's website, "there is no known case of Japan ever returning an abducted Japanese-American child to the left behind parent."

This group gathered here is not discouraged. Each faces the unique challenges of their individual cases. Each hoping their years of perseverance pays off.

"I was in the room when one parent was reunited with their children," Hearn recounts. "It's overwhelming to be there. You have such feelings that are just oozing out and my hands were shaking," he said. "It's a tremendous moment and something I'll never forget."