Although family mobility has been global for decades, the United States Supreme Court, for the first time,[1] has interpreted a provision of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty to which the United States is a contracting state.  The treaty’s full text can be found at


    The Hague Convention is implemented in the US by the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA), 42 USC §11601 et seq.  It determines which forum will decide a custody dispute – not the custody dispute itself.  See, Friedrich v. Friedrich, 78 F.3d 1060 (6th Cir. 1996).  With authority to hear Hague cases in every state and federal jurisdiction, there are literally thousands of Courts that could be presented with a case. It is no wonder a Hague issue is only now being decided by this country’s highest Court.

    In general, a parent seeking return of a child must show that the child was abducted or wrongfully retained in violation of that parent’s custody rights, which depend upon the laws of the state from which the child was removed.  That country must have been the child’s habitual residence.  The parent must act within one year.  The Convention applies to children under age sixteen.  The Court may refuse to return the child if the parent seeking return agreed to the removal or retention or if there is a grave risk that the child’s return would lead to physical or psychological harm or if the country to which return is sought violates fundamental principles relating to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.[2]

 Kentucky construed Hague’s return provisions over a decade ago. In Harsacky v. Harsacky, 930 S.W.2d 410 (Ky.App. 1996), the Court of Appeals refused to order return of American born children to a mother in Finland because she had failed to prove that the children were wrongfully abducted or retained in the United States, and that Finland was not the children’s habitual residence.  Two years later, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ordered a child returned to her father in Greece from which the mother had wrongfully removed her child.  Janakakis-Kostun v. Janakakis, 6 S.W.3d 843 (Ky. App. 1999).   


Resolving a split among the Circuits, Abbott v. Abbott, 560 U.S. ____ (2010) holds that the right to veto a child’s removal from the country constitutes a custodial right enabling its violation to invoke the return remedy set forth in the Hague Convention.  In so doing, the United States joins the majority of nations in this interpretation, though not necessarily the majority of Circuits. Justice Kennedy’s majority Opinion was joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Alito, and Sotomayor.  The decision is consistent with Kentucky law, which associates custody with decision making, rather than physical control of the child.  KRS 403.330(1).

    In Abbott, the father was British and mother American.  They married in 1992, and their son was born in 1995.  The family moved to Chile in 2002, but separated in 2003.  A Court in Chile granted the mother what most in the United States would label as sole custody while granting the father visitation rights.  However, under the laws of Chile,  parents with the type of visitation rights granted the father automatically have a ne exeat (no exit) right, namely a right to consent before the mother could take the child out of Chile. 

    The father obtained a British passport for the son, and the mother obtained an Order that the father be prohibited from taking the boy out of Chile.  In 2005, while the proceedings were pending in the Chilean Court, the mother herself removed the child without the father’s permission.  A private investigator found the child in Texas, and in 2006, the mother filed for divorce in Texas.  She further sought to eliminate the father’s veto authority and to impose supervised visitation for the father in Texas.  The Texas Court granted the father visitation so long as he remained in Texas.  As reported in the Opinion, that litigation is not concluded. 


    The father began Hague proceedings in May 2006.  The Federal District Court determined that the father’s ne exeat rights did not constitute a right of custody under the Hague Convention and denied the return remedy.  The Fifth Circuit agreed in 2008.  Interestingly, the Fifth Circuit relied on a Second Circuit case, Croll v. Croll, 229 F.3d 133 (2000), holding that ne exeat rights were not custody rights under the Convention.  A dissenting Opinion was written by then-Judge Sotomayor who considered ne exeat rights to constitute a right of custody because it allowed decision-making authority regarding a child’s international relocation.  Justice Sotomayor’s consistency resulted in her joining  the majority in the Abbott case.  

    Justice Kennedy analyzed that the ne exeat right indeed constitutes a right relating to determination of the child’s residence.  The father’s rights affected the child’s language, identity, culture, and traditions.  The right also enabled the father to control or prevent disruptions in his visitation by hypothetically conditioning his consent to relocation in a country where the father could obtain employment, thus allowing him to have continued contact with the child.

    Justice Stevens filed a dissenting Opinion joined by Justices Thomas and Breyer.  The dissent disagreed that the ne exeat rights constituted a right of custody invoking the return remedy under the Hague Convention.  Justice Stevens analyzed it as being closer to a right of access, which does not require the return remedy, but rather cooperation of the contracting state to allow that access to the extent possible.  Veto power based on Chilean law, the dissent reasoned, is not synonymous with the affirmative authority to establish in which country the child lives. Thus, the veto power would not “transform” the father into a custodian.


The decision has been criticized by women’s rights advocates for domestic violence survivors who are concerned that it would burden the ability of women to flee abusive situations.[3]  That can certainly be a disturbing consequence of the Hague Convention’s focus on forum rather than results. Perhaps this issue could be more fully developed in construing the defenses and exceptions. Yet, on a positive note, this decision could give momentum to the decisions in other countries in which children abducted from this country are found.

    The ultimate tragedy is that this dispute began in 2005, when the child was approximately 10 years old.  He is now 15 years of age and nearly grown. Successful mediations involving international parental child abduction have been reported.  This solution should be considered by any attorney assisting a parent in a Hague Convention case and  that case evaluated for its ability to benefit from this alternative process.

Respectfully submitted.

    Bonnie M. Brown

[1] Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Family Law Reporter News Archive, 5/18/2010.

[2] See Graham/Keller, Kentucky Practice, Domestic Relations Law, §14:48.

[3] See B.N.A. Archive, supra.

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