A father's three year legal battle to spend time with his daughters appears to be coming to end this week, with the ruling of the Supreme Court of Argentina that Victoria (age 7) and Sophia (age 5) must be returned to their father's custody.
Dennis Burns's story begins in September, 2010 when he and his then wife Ana Alianelli began a divorce in Colorado. Ms. Alianelli, an Argentine national, wanted to take the couple's two children with her live in Argentina while Mr. Burns wanted the children to remain with him in Colorado. After over a year of court battles, the judge assigned to the divorce case ruled that the children should remain in Colorado with their father.
Three weeks later, the children's mother used their Argentine passports to get the children on board a plane for Buenos Aires and cut off all communication between the children and their father. While the US Passport Office has implemented a number of reforms to ensure that children cannot be taken across international boundaries by one parent without the consent of another, the agency can't stop children with dual citizenship from using their legitimate foreign passports.
Mr. Burns tried to get relief from the Colorado court and the judge ordered Ms. Alianelli to return the children but that order could not be enforced on her in Argentina. As a general principle of International Law, courts in one country are supposed to respect the decisions of courts in another country under a legal theory called "comity" but when that has proven to be ineffective, nations have turned to treaties to enforce rights granted by one country but exercised in another. The problem of international child abduction was serious enough that The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction was created. That treaty is now almost 35 years old and most nations of the world (Argentina included) have signed on, but enforcement is still slow and inconsistent at best as Dennis Burns was to discover.
One problem is that the treaty must be applied within the context of the legal system of the country where the child has been taken. In this case, Argentina's court system allows for several appeals at various levels which is why it ultimately required a ruling from the highest court in the country (whose decisions are not appealable) to finally order that the girls must be returned to their father. That voyage currently hangs on the U.S. State Department issuing travel documents for the children so that they can be re-admitted into the United States, but Mr. Burns is hopeful that his long wait will finally be over in just a few weeks.
The U.S. House of Representatives is currently working on House Resolution 3212, a bipartisan bill which would authorize the United States to use sanctions against countries that do not enforce their Hague Convention treaty obligations vigorously. Broad strokes like H.R. 3212 may have some impact in the long term, but for now, Dennis Burns will soon left with what may be an even greater challenge than his three year trek through the mire of state, federal, and international law: integrating his daughters into his life (and himself into theirs) after three years without contact.
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