U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on international child custody case

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently in a child custody case that could have broad implications for California parents involved in child custody battles across national boundaries.

Chafin v. Chafin centers on a dispute between an American father and a British mother over the custody of their daughter. The child was born in 2007 while the father, an Army sergeant, was stationed in Germany, according to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the mother and child moved to Scotland while the father was stationed in Afghanistan. In 2010, while the family was living in the U.S., the father filed for divorce and requested custody of the child. The mother, however, sought and received permission from a federal judge to take the child to Scotland pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The Hague Convention

The Hague Convention is an international treaty signed by over 80 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., which requires that child custody decisions be made by the courts in a child's home country. Its purpose is to protect children from international parental kidnapping by ensuring that the laws of each country are respected by the others. The treaty does not address the outcome of child custody disputes, but merely establishes which court should make the determination.

In Chafin, a federal judge ruled that the child's residence was in Scotland and granted permission for the mother to return to the U.K. with her daughter. Within hours, according to CNN, the two had boarded a plane to Scotland - before the father had time to appeal the decision. Currently at issue before the Supreme Court is the question of whether the father should be permitted to continue with his appeal in the U.S., or whether his case is moot because the child is no longer in the country.

Potential implications

The Court has yet to issue a ruling in the Chafin case, but the eventual outcome could have major implications for California families and others throughout the country who are involved in international child custody disputes. The case could set an important precedent for the amount of discretion that U.S. courts have in deciding where children should reside while international custody disputes are litigated. Because such cases often drag on for months or years at a time, the decision is likely to have a substantial impact on families involved in such disputes.

As CNN reported, Chief Justice John Roberts noted during oral arguments that a ruling in favor of the child's mother in the Chafin case could create an "unfortunate" incentive for a custodial parent to flee the country with a children before the other parent has an opportunity to intervene. On the other hand, returning the child to the U.S. for an appeal would require just the sort of shuttling between nations that the treaty is intended to avoid. And, because a Scottish court has already issued an order for the child to remain in Scotland, it is unclear whether an appeal in the U.S. would have any effect. The Court is expected to rule on the case in a few months.

Legal help for international child custody issues

Resolving issues of child custody during divorce can be a complicated and challenging process, particularly when the laws of multiple states or countries are involved. If your child has been taken abroad or out of state against your wishes, it is important to seek help from a skilled child custody lawyer with experience negotiating complex issues of domestic and international law. An attorney knowledgeable in these matters will work hard to protect your parental rights and fight to reunite you with your children.