* These questions and answers do not constitute legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice. Please consult with an experienced attorney to understand the best options available to you.
Q. I am worried my spouse or ex-spouse might try to take our child out of the country without my knowledge or permission. What can I do to prevent this?
A. The Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP) allows the Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues to contact the requesting parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of any pending passport application. For information on the program and instructions on how to enroll your child, please visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/prevention/passport-issuance-alert-program.html.
Q: What is a Welfare & Whereabouts visit and why is it important?
A: Our most important function as consular officers is to protect and assist U.S. citizens or nationals traveling or residing abroad. A Welfare & Whereabouts (W/W) visit is a protective service in which a consular officer visits a vulnerable U.S. citizen, including in some cases a child in an international parental child abduction. Such a visit can be critical to determining the U.S. citizen’s general welfare and/or assisting them when they encounter difficulties. The Department of State and the U.S. Congress place a high priority on performing these protective services with sensitivity.
Q. Why is the Embassy or Consulate requesting to have a Welfare & Whereabouts (W/W) visit?
A: The Embassy or Consulate generally asks to schedule a visit at the request of the Office of Children’s Issues in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. The Department has no higher priority than the safety and wellbeing of U.S. citizens abroad, the most vulnerable of whom are children.
Q: What is the Embassy or Consulates’ role in W/W (Welfare & Whereabouts) visits?
A: The Embassy or Consulate is a neutral third party, whose sole interest is the health, safety, and welfare of the U.S. citizen child. The Embassy is prohibited from taking custody of a U.S. citizen, and cannot become involved in legal matters. Our primary concern is the health, safety, and welfare of the U.S. citizen child.
Q: Where is the W/W (Welfare & Whereabouts) visit held?
A: The W/W visit is informal and can be held at any location agreed upon by the consular officer and the child’s parent or guardian. In the past, visits have been at specific locations, but are most commonly held at a neutral third location, such as a hotel lobby, coffee shop, or café.
Q. What will happen during the W/W visit?
A. The consular officer and a local staff member will meet with the parent and the child at the predetermined location. The parent may elect to ask another party to be present as an observer (such as a trusted relative or attorney). The visit itself is an informal conversation, and generally centers on the child’s health and daily life. Occasionally, the consular officer may be asked to bring some things to give to the child. This will be communicated in advance, and the custodial parent is not obliged to accept them. Similarly, the consular officer may request to take a photo of the child. This request also may be permitted or declined by the custodial parent.
Q: What happens after the W/W visit is completed?
A: The consular officer will prepare a report to the Department of State’s Office of Children’s Issues detailing observations made during the visit. These observations may include the child’s appearance and demeanor, how they interacted with other people and/or objects in the environment, and statements they made about their life and interests. Reports on W/W visits involving IPCA cases do NOT include any information that could be used to identify specific dates, locations, or individuals. The focus is solely on the health and wellbeing of the U.S. citizen child, and often provide some measure of comfort to the absent parent. These reports can be made available to either parent, upon request.
Q: What if a request for a W/W (Welfare & Whereabouts) visit is refused?
A: The custodial parent has the right to decline a visit for any reason. The Embassy or Consulate cannot compel them to permit a visit and does not penalize them for exercising that right.
Q: The W/W visit was declined last year—why is the Embassy or Consulate making another request?
A: The Department’s interest in assisting and protecting U.S. citizens abroad continues, and the Embassy or Consulate is making the new request at the behest of the Office of Children’s Issues in Washington, D.C.
Q: What happens when my abducted child turns 16?
A: At the age of 16, under the terms of the Hague Convention the abduction case is considered closed. The Embassy or Consulate will communicate with the child by mail. The letter contains information on how the child is eligible to apply for a passport, if they wish, and provides instructions on how to apply. The letter also explains some of the other consular services and/or federal benefits that are available to them. For non-Hague Convention cases, the Office of Children’s Issues keep the case open until the age of 18.
Q. What is the advantage of filing for Return under the Hague Convention instead of just going through the “regular” court process?* Isn’t that just a more expensive option?*
A. Hague cases must be completed within a specific timeframe (6 weeks from date of filing) and may result in higher legal fees due to the time and effort required to meet the requisite deadlines. In Japan, the parent(s) may qualify for “legal aid” through the JCA which could offset some or all of the costs. The “regular” court process has no time restrictions and could be subject to “principle of continuity” considerations.*
Q: What is the “Principle of Continuity?*”
A: The “Principle of continuity” is commonly referenced in non-Hague family disputes in Japan and is often described as “the view that it is in the best interest of the child to maintain the status quo.*”
Q: How does the Hague process resolve our custody dispute?
A: This is a common misconception; the Hague process does not resolve custodial disputes. Instead, it determines which venue—or court of competent jurisdiction—should have jurisdiction and orders the child returned so that court can properly resolve the dispute. This is very similar to the UCCJEA in the U.S. We believe that a court in the country of a child’s habitual residence is, in most cases, the best place to make decisions on matters of custody and access.*
Q. But doesn’t it matter that my child is a citizen of ___ country?
A. A child’s nationality is not a determining factor in a Hague Return case. The focus of the Hague Return process is determining where the child habitually resides.
Q. What if my child travels to the U.S.? How might they be affected by court orders issued after they were taken from the U.S.?*
A. If the child has reached the age of majority (18 years), then the court orders would likely no longer have any effect. If the child is still considered a minor, then a court order could still be in effect. You may wish to discuss this with an attorney in the U.S. to see how this might apply in your situation.*
Q. Can you confirm if there is a warrant for my arrest?*
A. Consular officers are not law enforcement officers and are unable to confirm the presence or absence of an arrest warrant. You may wish to consult with an attorney in the U.S. for more information.*
Q. Will my child automatically lose his or her U.S. nationality if they choose to be a Japanese citizen when they become a certain age?
A. No; U.S. citizenship can be lost only by formally renouncing it in person before a consular officer at the Embassy or Consulate.