A Parent's Rights: While the Spotlight Is on Elian Gonzalez, a Jacksonville Attorney Is Fighting to See the Daughter He Hasn't Seen in 3 1/2 Years ... Custody Battle Abroad

Article excerpt

Jim Rinaman was living the American dream. He was married, had a year-old baby girl and was leaving the Army to start a law practice and live in a big house in a nice part of Washington.

"As far as I knew everything was going fine," said Rinaman. Fine, until his mother-in-law from Germany visited in 1996 and convinced Rinaman's German-born wife, Sylvia, to bring their child for a "visit" to the homeland.

Now, Rinaman, who is divorced and has returned to his hometown of Jacksonville, is living the nightmare of thousands of Americans parents whose children are taken by spouses to foreign countries and never returned.

In Rinaman's case, he has pleaded with his ex-wife to return with the girl, made eight visits to Germany and spent $70,000 trying to bring her back.

Despite the 20-year-old Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abductions, an international law that is supposed to return children to the country of their "habitual residence," Rinaman has been unsuccessful in even visiting with his daughter, Julia, who turns 5 next month.

"It's like a death in the family," said Gloria Rinaman, the child's grandmother, who blames the German government but says the U.S. State Department could be doing more to force the issue.

While the U.S. government is paying lots of attention to the rights of Elian Gonzalez, his Cuban father and his American relatives, it does little to help the growing number U.S. parents whose children are taken to foreign countries, these relatives say.

The courts in Germany, which is a signatory to the Hague Convention, ruled against returning Julia to the United States, citing one of the clauses and saying Rinaman gave permission for his daughter to go to Germany. Rinaman had received a petition for custody in Washington, but German courts failed to act on it in time and have not enforced a visitation order he subsequently received in the German courts.

Rinaman has had little contact with his ex-wife. She failed to show up for a custody hearing in Dusseldorf. She asked the court to transfer their case to Bonn, where she said she moved about a year ago, but Rinaman said he has been unable to locate her in that city. The Times-Union was unable to reach Rinaman's ex-wife.

All the while, Rinaman has been flying overseas and using German lawyers to navigate an unfamiliar legal system.

"We are a single family fighting against a sovereign nation, and the odds are not with us," Gloria Rinaman said.

The Jacksonville family -- which includes Rinaman's father, one of the best-known lawyers in Florida -- is not alone. The State Department says it has become involved in about 11,000 international child abduction cases involving American parents. Other estimates are higher.

The U.S. Justice Department says about 350,000 parental abductions occur each year. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say about 5 percent involve children taken overseas.

Many Middle East and South American countries are not signatories to the Hague Convention and have little to compel them to find or return children taken there illegally by non-custodial parents, experts say.

In the 54 countries that signed the treaty, there is often conflicts with their own laws, a lack of enforcement and biases against foreigners, said Nancy Hammer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Hammer, director of the center's International Division, estimates that the United States returns about 90 percent of children brought here illegally.

By comparison, the State Department's own figures show the number of "resolved" cases out of Germany at 30 percent. Of those, the department did not say how many resolutions involved sending children back to the United States.

Rinaman did not find out his wife's plan to stay in Germany until she faxed him a letter from Germany three weeks later. …