George Washington University Professor Joan S. Meier! Child Abduction Is Not Liberation!

NY Times Logo headerIn March 2013, I submitted a response to an editorial published on March 6th by the New York Times.  

March, 2013


Since February 2011, when a nationally-broadcast, three-part interview appeared on ABC , parents of children kidnapped to Japan have hoped that sympathetic and indignant responses to our aggrieved children’s circumstances might find their way into the U.S. media to aid in our defense. It was difficult for quite a long time  to understand just why this expectation was never satisfied. Wisps of coverage floated around the United States, but in major media the subject has been avoided. To me as a New Yorker, the silence of the New York Times in deference to military bases and corporate and financial interests that link the U.S. to Japanese elites was a sore source of disappointment. What easier fit could there be for the Times’ typical forward projection of itself as possessing a liberal-humanitarian view of the state as the guarantor of rights and medium of fairness? In a world increasingly riven with unmanageable catastrophe, emergency, and complex entanglements, illegal abduction of our children  and Japanese state policy of  admitting abducted children into court proceedings to terminate children’s parental rights appeared to be a clear form of preventable damage against which anyone could agree to be an advocate. Yet, the on-going, remorseless state-sanctioned practice – estimable at as as many as  150,000 state abductions per year, leaving millions of Japanese children with broken lives –  remained unremarked upon in the Times–  – until  March , 2013.

On March 5th, 2013, the newspaper of record published an editorial in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s February visit to Washington, during which the newly reelected conservative nationalist Prime Minister had assured the American president that after three decades of failure, delay, broken promises, and foot-dragging under the pretense of “further study,” the Japanese  had at last made a state decision and prepared legislation for adoption of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction,  – as it had done the year before under different political circumstances – under international pressure. [I want to return to the subject of the Times editorial shortly.]

The Hague Convention, devised and ratified around the world over 30 years and thousands of abductions ago, is still considered by diplomats and bureaucrats to be the sole direct instrument available for the return of internationally abducted children to their home countries and their traumatized families. The convention promises that its signers will act mutually to quickly and safely locate and bring children back to the jurisdiction from which they were abducted. Timeliness is greatly stressed to ward off more permanent damage to the children’s psychological health, and to the families’ relationships.  Japan, which on the basis of this restatement of its oft-repeated government-to-government promise is now about to be the last of the G8 States to shoulder the treaty’s mutual and reciprocally beneficial obligations, is perhaps the world’s greatest offender of this insufficiently-reported crime, despite its having been intimately involved in the drafting of the treaty.

But 30+ years is a long time to fail to address a fundamental problem of the rights of children: their right to the safe, stable protection of their family relationships.  The failure of Japan’s courts to order the return of a single child over this period is a stark testament to the direct involvement of the Japanese state in the international abduction of children and its power to muster willful resistance to what ought to be one of the more non-controversial principles of global governance. Indeed, the United States has more than enabled, it has nurtured Japanese recalcitrance with its undemanding sotto voce coaxing of the Japanese to do something about the epidemic of parental abductions from which we and the Japanese all suffer.

Parents whose children have been stolen and made inaccessible by the Japanese have pressed governments from Washington, D.C. to Paris to impress upon Tokyo that  all parties must be willing to use the power of the state to  put an end to this activity and return our lost sons and daughters. Left to the Japanese, thousands upon thousands of children have lost their families while their parents wring their hands, mourn, and try to protest inflamed emotions to bureaucrats in governments.

At last, so they say,  the walls are supposed to have tumbled! Accession to the Hague treaty is now scheduled to be in effect in Japan by March of 2014.

So why am I not happy? When accession takes place, no children abducted to Japan before accession to the treaty will be returned.  Accession to the treaty appears to do little or nothing to assure that abductions stop, or that parents and children’s rights are protected. Worse yet, it guarantees that the thousands of abductions which remain untouched and unresolved crimes, will remain permanently in that status. Yet the U.S. Department of State is pleased to declare victory.


The New York Times editorial, written by George Washington University Professor Joan S. Meier, and published on March 6th , first as  “When Abduction is Liberation,” then amended to “Home is Where the Harm Is,” is a defense of the Japanese practice of child abduction that makes no reference to and acknowledges no research into the state of Japan’s custody practices, its abuses of children’s human rights,  nor its notorious internal and cross-border child abduction crisis.

Resistance to joint custodial rights for both parents and their children, Professor Meier argues, is justifiable because “abduction is liberation” when to remain within the limits imposed by the rule of law would be as dangerous as dangling a leg and foot off the subway platform in front of a barreling #4 Express Train on the IRT. Thus, Professor Meier – a law professor and officer of the court – proclaims  that in her view, child abduction ought to be elevated to the level of a plausible, practical general remedy by the courts and approved by international agreement.

Here is more of how she performed this magic trick in her New York Times editorial:

“Data from signatory countries show that the majority of abductors are mothers with primary or joint custody… fleeing abuse” says Professor Meier, with catching concern. “Abductions” she explains, self-evidently “are actually means of keeping children safe.”
The words “abduction” and “anti-abduction activists” appear in scare quotes throughout the article, casting winking doubt on the truth claims of those parents and activists whose children have gone missing around the world to the alternate universe of Japan’s self-proclaimed, territorial jurisdiction over our children. With the sovereign power and authority of the Japanese State standing in defiance of even the most toothless and meager rules and practices of international governance, this advocacy and condoning of kidnapping makes Japan a supposed exemplar of superior protection of women from domestic abuse. 

And yet there is something deeply wrong about this claim to truth and justice obtained by fleeing the jurisdiction and stealing children.  Children are abducted because abductors fear that they may be scrutinized in court, and fear what may be revealed of their own human imperfections. They may, they fear, be forced to share and divide parenting time; and that is what they do not want to do.  Children’s interests are secondary in this construction of reality. But Professor Meier is determined to play the abductor’s advocate.

A fundamental mistake of Meier’s editorial  is a failure to reckon with a deep bias against what contemporary research indicates: that domestic violence has both male and female victims, and  both male and female perpetrators. Based on an outmoded and heartless paradigm which perpetuates the prejudice that mothers are gentlewomen are victims, and fathers are aggressive, universal perpetrators, Meier seizes on the awful history of intimate partner violence and assumes that the law is unreformable and provides no recourse for women.  Meier bases her moral claim for the rightness and justifiability of international child abduction in her editorial on the assertion that courts do not take the need for intimate partner violence protection seriously when custody is at issue. Therefore, the answer is to abduct the child and disappear, while working on maximizing temporal separation and reassignment of the child’s caregiver.

What we parents experience in the courts, however, is something more, and something that may be quite different: we see an underfunded, backed-up government institution that is too slow in addressing the urgency of the child abduction emergencies in our lives, just as it must also be excruciatingly slow in stepping in to prevent intimate-partner violence. Professor Meier fatally fails to acknowledge the traumatic depth of cruelty and violence against children and families that child abduction represents, and instead affirms the infallibility of the pathology that justifies and perpetuates it.  I would not recommend that anyone follow Joan Meier into battle behind this banner, but many will. And the children and overpowered parents are to be the intended victims.


There are many more differentiations Professor Meier fails to make. Advocates for Japanese abduction often portray themselves for general consumption as possessed of an immutable cultural practice in the permanent termination of relationship with their divorcing parent as a custom that is deeply embedded in an historic national imaginary. Yet this execrable practice is far more modern in its origins. Only in the 1970’s did Japanese courts begin to place children nearly exclusively with their mothers, just as the first studies were being undertaken here and around the world that demonstrated the severely under-appreciated intimacy of father-child bonds, and the psychological, emotional and social importance of fathers in achieving well-being in their children. That Professor Meier wants all men to be lumped into her gender mulcher is one kind of message to children, but not one I would endorse for my sweet, unprotected son. My commitment to feminism and gender justice won’t allow me to abandon my boy to such broad and inhumane characterizations. There is no poetry in it; and little of the complexity of human need for love and desire for bonding can be found there. In the end, it powerfully reinforces a conception of gendered behavior that leaves him nothing to aspire to.

And though the causes may be complex, one can’t help but make note in this context of the drastic demographic time-bomb that plagues the Japanese today: the lowest birthrate in the developed world. (The birthrate bottomed out in 2005 at 1.26 children per couple.)  That, combined with a severely high rate of suicide leads one to look at abductions and frequent permanent, traumatic separation from a parent as one among several factors that severely discourage the Japanese from attempting to raise families. It also  cries out for an examination of ways to change the system and scope of Japanese family law to allow for strong bonds between children and both of their parents to develop where they are now being thwarted, so that they can continue undisturbed beyond the breakdown of marital relationships.


Professor Meier’s efforts have a history that can’t be covered in this editorial, but there is a final point I’d like to make.  

As we speak, the Japanese Diet has  approved first-round legislation that will allow the implementation of the Hague Convention in Japan amidst a heavy public relations emphasis laid on how the Japanese parent will be able to circumvent its provisions, preserving the damage already done, exploiting the xenophobia and violence of the restive and influential-beyond-its-numbers Japanese right, by evoking the  scarecrow of the “foreign,” “dangerous father” as Professor Meier calls us, a message she personally brought to members of the Japanese Family Bar Association in April shortly after the Times published her pro-abduction editorial. It is clear that this was a part of an attempt to undermine efforts by anti-abduction activists from Japan, the United States and around the world to convince the Japanese people that what really must be revised in order to protect children’s family rights from harm are the family laws requiring single family custody, and exclusion of the other parent. This is what Professor Meier’s editorializing seeks to inhibit: recognition of the protective parent-child bond in law.


The soul-murdering harm which child abduction does to a confused, lonely child is permanent. The harm done to the parent left behind, whose baby has been pulled permanently from his/her arms out of narcissistic vengefulness produces much psychic misery (and an indecently high incidence of alcoholism and suicide among unprotected parents).  

There is also a tremendous, un-addressed and  unacknowledged harm which incitement to abduction does to the perpetrators themselves, who are compelled by the circumstances the abduction creates to justify excessive lying and dissimulation to cheat their children out of a parent that loves them for the rest of their lives. Such parents who possess a moderate level of intelligence or sensitivity must live with guilt and fear, knowing that one day the situation they have created can inevitably be reversed, and the abduction can and will be exposed.

All these must be accounted understanding in the full light of day. In a country plagued by zero population growth, exposing the creeping fear and undermining lack of confidence its people experience, so that it has become increasingly rare for families even to want more children, the paradigm of Professor Meier’s ‘violent, harmful home’ and ‘child abduction as liberation’ tropes can only contribute to passing fatherlessness on to the next generation.

It is time to face the reality of 2 1/2 million children who do not know their fathers in Japan. It is time to bring abducted children home.

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