Christopher Savoie (“Father”) was arrested in Japan on September 28, 2009, for trying to take his two (2) children, Isaac Savoie, eight (8) years of age, and Rebecca Savoie, six (6) years of age, away from their Mother, Noriko Savoie, while she was walking the children to school. Father forcibly placed the two children into his car and drove towards the U.S. Embassy or Consulate Office in Fukuoka, Japan. His goal was to get the children into the U.S. Consulate Office in order to obtain passports for the children so that he could return them to the United States.
His plan failed as he was apprehended by the police before he could reach the Consulate Office. His pleas to the police in Mother’s home city in Japan that he was the “custodial” parent and that she was the parent who abducted the children from the United States were ignored by the arresting officers and the subsequent judicial officers. Instead, Christopher Savoie was arrested and charged with attempting to abduct his own children, a charge with a potential sentence of five (5) years imprisonment.
Facts of the Savoie Case:
- The parties lived in Japan for most of their marriage. Four years ago Husband had become a naturalized citizen of Japan. Recognizing that the marriage was not going well, Father convinced Mother to return to the United States to obtain a divorce in the State of Tennessee, his “home state”.
- Husband was fearful that Wife might want to take the children back to Japan. So Father and his counsel made provisions in the parties’ Decree of Divorce reflecting that Wife would be awarded spousal support, child support, and educational funds, on the condition that Wife would not remove the children from the United States to live in her native country, Japan.
- At the time the Final Decree was filed, the parties had not been in the United States for six (6) months. Accordingly, Wife’s counsel argues that the State of Tennessee was never the “home state” of the parties’ two (2) minor children for purposes of “custody”.
- Wife was granted “custody” of the two children, Isaac Savoie and Rebecca Savoie, by the terms of the parties’ Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce. During the month of August 2009, Wife sought permission to travel with the children to Japan for a “vacation” in her native country. The Domestic Relations Court in Tennessee provided to Mother the children’s passports so that she could return to Japan with the children for the “vacation”.
- The records reflect that Mother and the two minor children did travel to Japan for Mother’s vacation and that she and the children did return to their home in Tennessee.
- Instead of Mother returning the children’s passports to the Court when she returned to Tennessee, she kept them in her possession and subsequently left the country with the two (2) minor children and returned to Japan to live with her family.
- On August 13, 2009, Father was called by an agent of the children’s elementary school to advise him the children were not in school. Father immediately called his Wife’s family in Japan and was advised that Noriko and the parties’ two minor children had returned to Japan.
- Father then obtained from the Tennessee Court an Order reflecting that he was the designated custodial parent of Isaac and Rebecca and a warrant for Wife’s arrest was issued by the Court.
- As a result of diplomatic negotiations, on October 15, 2009, Father was freed after spending 18 days in jail. The announced basis for his release was that it was determined that he was not a flight risk. At this juncture it is not known whether the government will continue to prosecute him. But it is believed that one of the stipulations in his release was that he would leave the country and his children. Three days ago, Father did return home to the United States without his children. Mother continues to be recognized by Japan as the custodial parent of the two (2) minor children.
Japan has never executed the 1980 Hague Convention regarding International Child Abduction. Accordingly, Japan, although a modern and industrialized nation, does not recognize “parental child abduction” to be a crime. Furthermore, Japan will not recognize or enforce any Orders of Custody issued by any of the Courts of the United States of America.
Japan has its own legal system and a very different set of customs and ideas about custody. In Japan, if a divorce occurs, the Wife returns to her family of origin and once again becomes part of that family. Japanese law follows a tradition of sole-custody divorces usually granted to the mother. When a couple divorces, typically the father is forced to make a complete and lifelong break from the children without any visitation or contact. Although eight nations recently have placed pressure upon Japan to become a signatory to the Hague Convention, to date that has not occurred. However, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been reported as saying he wants to join the 80 countries that have endorsed the convention. But one needs to realize that even when dealing with a country that has adopted the Hague Convention, a parent may still be left without any practical remedy to enforce a U.S. court order.
In my next article about this topic, I plan to share the facts about a pending case in Montgomery County, Ohio, where our law firm represents a Husband/Father whose Wife also returned to her native country of Japan in July 2008, with the parties’ two minor children. International custody cases are very complex. Click here to read about a recent Hague Convention case we successfully litigated in Federal Court.
Also, stay tuned for an excellent follow-up article written by Judianne Cochran, a nationally recognized expert and consultant in international abduction cases. She will be sharing her tips about how to avoid many of these problems in the first place!
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Anne Shale is of counsel to Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues. She is a former registered nurse and concentrates her practice in Family Law and Divorce cases.