As Japan on Tuesday formally joined the international treaty for settling cross-border child custody disputes, the government, the judicial community and social workers began preparing to support parents and children separated as a result of failed marriages.
Tokyo became the 91st signatory of the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which sets out rules and procedures for the prompt return to the country of habitual residence of children under 16 taken or retained by one parent, if requested by the other parent.
With the treaty taking effect, Japan is no longer a “safe haven” for international child abductions. Parents who have had a child taken to Japan can receive public support from the Foreign Ministry or the central authority in their own country in charge of locating children who have been spirited away.
The central authority encourages parents to settle custody disputes through consultations. But if they fail, family courts in Tokyo and Osaka will try to make decisions on the matter within six weeks following the start of court procedures to ensure the prompt return of children. The court decisions can be appealed.
Tatsushi Nishioka, director of the ministry’s Hague convention division, said the ministry, which serves as the central authority here, will strive to locate abducted children with the support of police, local governments, boards of education and immigration authorities and contact the parent who took the children to Japan.
But the ministry will not disclose the whereabouts of any children to the left-behind parent as the abducting parent may have fled from an abusive spouse.
The Hague pact is not retroactive, so it will only deal with cases that occur after Tuesday’s entry. But it can provide assistance to parents seeking visitations, regardless of when they were separated from their kids.
“Before the Hague pact’s entry into force, parents who had taken their children to Japan found no merit in agreeing to consultations, but from now on, I think more parents will do so because chances are high that a court will order the return of the children,” Nishioka said.
He believes the international treaty will have a deterrent effect on future parental child abductions. As of 2012, there were a total of 192 officially recognized cases in which children were brought to Japan after being abducted in the United States, Britain, Canada and France, according to the ministry.
To prepare for implementation of the Hague convention, courts here sent officials to the United States and European nations to learn from their experiences, the Supreme Court said.
The top court said it expects the Tokyo and Osaka family courts to deal with several dozen cases a year that cannot be resolved through consultations. Of such cases, only a small number will result in the forcible return of children, it added.
A domestic law stipulating implementation procedures for the Hague treaty sets rules on the transfer of children by force based on a court decision for the first time in Japan.
It says court officials enforcing the decision can forcibly enter the abode of parents harboring children, but they cannot use force against children so as not to cause them physical or psychological damage.
With advice from child psychology experts, the Supreme Court also compiled a manual for about 450 enforcement officers across the country. The guidelines urge officers to exercise restraint in the use of force and to make every effort to persuade parents to release their children.
Those officers are usually involved in the forcible takeover of real estate and other property, and are not accustomed to handling children. The forcible transfers of children as a result of disputes between parents in Japan began about 15 years ago and there are only about 130 cases a year, the top court said.
In February, 20 such enforcement officers took part in a role-playing session to prepare for the seizure of children during a training event in Saitama Prefecture. The Supreme Court said it will hold similar training sessions annually based on real cases.
For parents who want to avoid court procedures, the ministry encourages them to settle their disputes through an alternative dispute resolution system. Five lawyer groups, in Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa, are entrusted by the ministry to provide ADR services basically free of charge.
Toshiko Kato, head of the Tokyo Bar Association’s Mediation and Arbitration Center Administration Committee, said 16 lawyers well versed in family law, psychologists and social workers will work as mediators to help solve cross-border child custody disputes.
For cases the ministry decides to support, the association will not charge commissions and translation fees if they reach a deal within four two-hour sessions. Parents need not be present at mediation sessions in Tokyo if they can join through Internet phone service Skype or by making international calls, she said.
“Negotiations under the ADR system can be flexible compared with court procedures and parents can resolve their disputes quickly. Clients also do not have to shoulder costs,” Kato said. “The point is whether parents who took their children to Japan will respond, recognizing the advantages of this system.”
The ministry also provides aid for visitations between separated parents and children through two organizations — the Family Problems Information Center, which has offices across Japan, and the International Social Service Japan based in Tokyo.
Support for up to two visitations will be available free of charge and parents can continue to use their services if they pay fees. The cost of accompanying children to a meeting with a noncustodial parent will reach up to ¥25,000 each time, according to the groups.