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Michigan dad's plight spotlights when parent takes kids

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
  • Eric Haan says his wife kept their sons in Mexico and he hasn't seen them in nearly 2 years
  • Last year alone, more than 1,000 American children were victims of international parental abduction
  • The number of new abduction cases decreased 31.3 percent from 2009-13, according to federal data

Eric Haan feels like he's living in a "Twilight Zone" episode.

Twenty-two months ago, his wife of six years took their two young sons — Pablo, now 4, and Joshua, now 3 — during a family vacation in Mexico and he hasn't seen them since, Haan said.

" 'Nightmare' is a pretty accurate description," the 47-year-old from Frankfort said. "It's insane."

Last year, more than 1,000 American children were victims of international parental abduction, according to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

But there is one encouraging sign: The number of American children reported to have been kidnapped by parents and taken to other countries dropped 32.7 percent from 2009-13. While experts welcome the decline, they say the odds those children will be returned home remain small.

Haan said he last spoke to his sons during a short phone conversation in January. Other than that, he's wondered how they are for the last 670 days.

"I miss my children, and it's on my mind all of the time," he said. "The time they've been gone is time I can't get back."

He said he's worried about what his wife is telling their sons about him.

Peter Thomas Senese, executive director of the I CARE Foundation, which advocates for global anti-abduction policies, said abductions typically happen one of three ways:

■A parent takes children out of the country without a court order or the other parent's consent, he said.

"A parent planning to abduct will carefully conceal their intent," Senese said.

■A parent travels to another country with children but without the other parent and doesn't tell the other parent he or she is not planning to return, Senese said.

■Families travel overseas and during the trip one parent charges the other with domestic violence or child abuse, has him or her arrested and petitions a court for a restraining order and custody of the children, he said. The foundation estimates 70 percent of all international parental child abduction cases happen this way.

Based in New York and established in 2010, the foundation is a self-funded research organization.

I CARE has created an international travel consent form to provide courts and law enforcement with clarity on parents' custodial rights. The forms are available in 20 languages on the foundation's website, www.theicarefoundation.org.

In addition to the drop in the number of victims of international parental abductions, the number of new abduction cases decreased 31.3 percent from 2009-13, according to the U.S. State Department.

More than 90 countries have signed the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The 1980 treaty seeks to protect children from abduction across international borders by maintaining the child custody arrangement that existed before a parent abducted a child from one member country to another.

However, the United States is the only country under the treaty that regularly provides statistics on the number of international parental child abduction cases, Senese said. Treaty signatories aren't required to report statistics, he said.

"So we don't know what's going on globally, though we know the reported U.S. outbound abduction rate has declined by 38 percent since 2009," Senese said. "I doubt we're seeing measurable declines in most other countries."

Experts disagree on how many children are returned to their home countries.

The return rate for children under the Hague Abduction Convention is about half, according to a State Department report given to the Senate in June.

The rate for non-convention countries is lower, and many of those countries have never returned a child to the United States, according to the State Department.

However, Senese said another State Department report puts the court-ordered return rate from Hague Abduction Convention countries at about 12 percent.

Such figures indicate the odds of getting children back are against parents like Eric Haan.

Haan said he met his wife, Karla Montemayor, in 2007 through a mutual friend on a business trip to Mexico. They fell in love, got married the next year and lived in St. Joseph, a small lakefront town in southwest Michigan.

Pablo was born in 2010 and Joshua arrived the following year.

In 2012, the couple moved to Frankfort, a town of 1,280 about 40 miles southwest of Traverse City.

That summer, the couple faced marital struggles but got counseling from their pastor. By winter, Haan said he and his wife agreed they had worked their issues out.

They even discussed with their pastor the possibility of providing marital counseling for others after they returned from a Christmas vacation trip to Mexico to visit her parents, he said.

But during the visit to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in January 2013, Karla and her father accused Haan of domestic violence and he was arrested, Haan said.

Montemayor didn't return calls last week seeking comment.

Haan said the ordeal has cost him more than an estimated $100,000 in legal and travel costs. He said Mexico's courts require him to stay in the country. Meanwhile, he is appealing his case to federal court in Cancun.

He has started an organization, End Abductions Now, to help get his kids back home to Michigan and to warn others. He has also posted his story on the foundation's website, endabductionsnow.org.

"It's something that I'd never thought would happen to me in my wildest imagination," he said.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2058

Top child abduction destinations

Countries with the most children taken from the U.S. in 2013:

■Mexico: 326

■Canada: 50

■India: 35

■United Kingdom: 32

■Germany: 25

■Jordan: 25

■Colombia: 24

■Japan: 23

■Dominican Republic: 19

■Egypt: 19

Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs