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International Child Custody Disputes

Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban child who became the star of an international custody battle a decade ago, released his first comments on the incident on the recent 10th anniversary of his return to his father in Cuba. He reported that he is happy to be in Cuba, and extended his gratitude to “a large part of the American public” for reuniting him with his father.

Gonzalez was only five years old when a fisherman found him floating off the coast of Florida in an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day of 1999. His mother and others fleeing Cuba drowned trying to reach American soil, while his father remained on the island. Gonzalez’s relatives in Miami refused to give him up after he was found, and Fidel Castro led marches in Cuba calling for his return home. U.S. immigration officials ruled that Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba, which created an outrage among Cuban-Americans. Armed federal agents raided the home of Gonzalez’s uncle in April of 2000 and seized Gonzalez from a closet to return him to Cuba.

Several American parents have waged notorious international custody battles in the years following Gonzalez’s ordeal. David Goldman of New Jersey very recently ended a highly publicized five-year child custody battle for his son, who was taken to his mother’s native Brazil for vacation and was never returned. Instead, Goldman’s wife divorced him and remarried a Brazilian man. When she died in 2009, her Brazilian husb\and moved to adopt the child. After five years of fighting, Goldman was permitted to return his son to American soil on Christmas Eve of 2009.

International custody battles are fairly common, and were supposed to be simplified by the signing of The Hague Convention agreement in 1980, which preserves whatever status quo child custody arrangement existed immediately prior to an alleged wrongful removal of a child under the age of 16. However, conflicting court systems and accounts of parent-child relationships can sometimes trump international law.