Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview With Carolyn Ann Vlk, Florida's Child Abduction Prevention Act bill author.

An Interview with Carolyn Ann Vlk, Author of Florida’s ‘Child Abduction Prevention Act’ bill.

Carolyn Ann Vlk is the author and writer of Florida’s Child Abduction Prevention Act bill. If the legislation becomes law, thousands of children and their parents in the state of Florida will be thankful that a tenacious mother who was initially trying to protect her own son from being abducted had the brains and audacity to try and write a law that would not only protect her own child, but children everywhere in the state.

Today, Florida’s ‘Child Abduction Prevention Act’ is moving swiftly toward becoming law. With two Senate Committees and one House Committee all voting unanimously for the bill’s passage into law, we were able to ask the tireless Carolyn Ann Vlk some important questions.

1. Florida's 'Child Abduction Prevention Act' bill is being referred to as potential landmark legislation if the bill is enacted into law. What can you tell us about this legislation?

This legislation is long overdue. When I first began researching child abduction I was shocked to find that most states, including Florida, had very little, if any preventative laws in place that would preempt abduction from occurring. It has been and continues to be my desire to set the State of Florida apart by creating laws that would protect our children, and by doing so, demonstrate Florida’s commitment to the safety of our children while also creating model legislation for other states to follow.

2. What is the present condition of parental child abduction in America?

The statistics are staggering. Approximately every three minutes a family member in our country abducts a child. The government and institutional reports state that there are approximately 380,000 parental abductions each year, though many individuals believe this number is much higher. So, child abduction is not a new problem, but it is a fast-growing one, nearing epidemic proportions. Yet, and despite the increases in both domestic and international parental abductions, preventative legislation has been slow in coming. I believe that a lack of education exists across the board, which only furthers the systems in place charged to protect the welfare of our children, from effectively doing so. Parents, attorneys, family court personnel, law enforcement officers, and policy makers have been uninformed, uneducated, and untrained in the areas of parental child abduction. Research is this area has not been forthcoming quick enough, either. This ignorance has served to empower potential abductors, who typically show little concern over the crimes they openly commit. I remain hopeful that change is imminent as we now have the attention of the people in this state and our lawmakers. We do have the ability to implement changes to better protect all children. Part of this change is Florida’s ‘Child Abduction Prevention Act’.

3. What would most readers be shocked to learn with respect to parental child abduction?

There are many things that stand out. That data from the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) indicates that a family member commits 78 % of all child abductions. Also, that nearly 70% of all law enforcement agencies do not have guidelines or the resources to respond to family abduction. Additionally, there are nearly 400,000 parental child abductions that occur each year. Of this total, it is believed that there are over 10,000 criminal international parental child abductions that occur each year. When considering those cases that are reported, you must keep in mind that some parents purposefully choose not to report, and that in some cases reporting is not allowed: for example, political asylum and dual-green card cases cannot file for a Hague application. In all international abduction cases the financial burden of the recovery of the abducted child falls solely on the left behind parent. And, in the cases of international abduction, many of these children never come home. Sadly, too many internationally abducted children have died due to this crime against our children. The fact is that parental abduction is a crime that is increasing dramatically each year, and there are few preventive laws in place that assess risk before it is too late.

4. What dangers does a child face when abducted internationally, and does this differ from a domestic abduction?

Any abduction, whether domestic or international, places a child in unnecessary danger. Children are often forced to assume a new identity and adjust to a new life away from everything and everyone that they have known. The abducting parent becomes a fugitive and thus, the child is forced to live a life on the run. The psychological damage that occurs to a child forced into this circumstance is immeasurable. I have now had the opportunity to have contact with adults who were abducted as children. All carry the scars of this abuse with them to this day. In speaking with them, I can tell you that the pain is still fresh some 20-30 years later. Living a life in hiding can also deny a child the right to an education, medical care, and lower their standard of living to the poverty level as the parent attempts to remain undetected. Parental alienation is real, and is to be expected. And even if the child is later returned, this type of damage can prevent a child from bonding with the left behind family. Unfortunately, in some of the most extreme cases, the abducting parent is so psychologically ill that the child is placed in circumstances where his or her life is in danger. These situations include being taken into countries where human life has little worth, being sold into the sexual slavery market or even being killed as a retaliatory action against the other parent.

5. For a parent who has had their child stolen from them by the other parent, are there significant differences between a domestic child recovery effort and an international child recovery effort?

The difficulties of locating, and the chances of a successful return become much more difficult and often times impossible once a child is removed from the United States. Locating a child abducted internationally is an extremely difficult task. The abducting parent has already planned well in advance and likely has assumed another identity along with the child. Essentially, they have the ability of going underground and then taking on a new identity. If you are fortunate enough to locate your child, you will then find that foreign governments are not required to abide by any civil order of the United States, and most do not. It becomes necessary to have legal counsel in both the United States and the country the child has been abducted to. This typically requires for the left behind parent to file a Hague Application – that is if they know where the child was taken to, and if that country is a signatory of the convention. Many nations, including most in the Middle East and Asia are not. Other nations such as Brazil and Germany do not uphold the spirit of the treaty they signed. And as you can imagine, the travel between the two countries, court costs and recovery expenses can quickly mount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more . . . and all this is at the expense of the parent who has been left behind. Precious few of these parents possess the resources necessary to become a Chasing Parent in an attempt to gain the return of a child criminally abducted out of the United States.

6. You are the author of Florida’s ‘Child Abduction Prevention Act’ bill. Why did you set out to write this bill, and what is the likelihood that his bill will pass into law?

I am parent of a child at risk of international abduction. I began this journey in early 2007 in an effort to protect my own child. My husband had begun threatening to abduct our son and take him overseas, so I began researching ways to prevent that from happening. I opened a child abduction prevention case through the NCMEC and set out to learn everything I could about how to best ensure the safety of my child. As my knowledge increased, my caseworker at NCMEC began referring other abduction prevention parents to me. I began attempting to educate them and direct and connect them to resources and prevention methods. As I listened to their stories I was able to better understand where the system fails our children. I have learned that the family court systems needs to recognize the risk factors present for potential abductors and to implement the necessary safeguards. Since that I time, I have been actively advocating for change. The proposed legislation is the culmination of my efforts to achieve that goal.

Today, we are making steady progress towards improving the child protection law in Florida. I am pleased that the bill has passed unanimously through two committees in the Senate and the one House of Representatives committee. All indications are that the voices of those uniting together to plea for abduction prevention legislation are being heard.

7. Will this bill, if it becomes law, reduce the number of abductions in the state of Florida?

Absolutely! Proper risk assessment and the implementation of preventative measures in cases where a credible risk of abduction exists can drastically reduce the numbers of families lives impacted by the tragedy of child abduction. With nearly 400,000 reported cases in our nation alone, there is no question that this law will impact Florida, and hopefully, other states will then follow.

8. Representative Darryl Rouson is a known child activist and defender of children's rights. What is it like working with him as well as Senator Eleanor Sobel?

In July 2007 I sent out a very large number of letters to Florida politicians requesting assistance and/or advice on child abduction prevention measures. Representative Darryl Rouson was the only lawmaker who stepped forward, and expressed great concern over the information I shared with him and his legislative aid, Henry Moseley. Representative Rouson was shocked to learn just how severe and dangerous it is for children who face abduction. He suggested we work together to find a solution to this national tragedy by creating law that would allow the courts to assess risk factors associated with a potential child abduction, and further create laws that would allow a judge to address these threats. He has remained the strongest advocate for the children of our State, and his dedication and perseverance should be recognized and applauded by all. He is a true warrior in the fight for justice for those members of our society whose voices are often not heard, our children. I will forever remain indebted to him for his tireless efforts and staunch support as together we strive to implement this model legislation in the great state of Florida.

Once HB 787 was filed, Senator Eleanor Sobel stepped forward immediately with an offer to introduce it in the Senate as SB 1862. When we met for the first time I was immensely grateful to see that Senator Sobel shares the same type of commitment to protect our most vulnerable members of society: our children. Since that time, I have gotten to see just how compassionate and dedicated Senator Sobel is to the cause of children. She too is a warrior, and she is extraordinarily respected in Florida’s Senate. Without Senator Sobel’s leadership, the hope and promise that children will soon have laws in place that will protect them from abduction may not be the reality. It has been a pleasure to work with her and I have deep admiration for the work that she is doing to protect the children of our state.

9. Working on such a monumental piece of legislation surely requires a team effort. What can you say about your team?

I believe it would be difficult to ever duplicate a finer team as the individuals who are committed day-in and day-out on making Florida’s ‘Child Abduction Prevention Act’ law. Unquestionably, each member of our core group possesses such passion and dedication to the cause of protecting children. And we each bring something different to the table in the way of expertise and experience. Our desire to correct the deficiency in existing laws is the common thread that inspires us all. I am humbled and appreciative for the effort that everyone has expended.

The assistance of Peter Thomas Senese, the author of the critically acclaimed ‘Chasing The Cyclone’, and the producer/narrator of ‘Chasing Parents: Racing Into The Storms of International Parental Child Abduction’, to bring this legislation to the forefront of Florida’s legislators has been immeasurable. Peter Thomas’ professionalism, dedication, organization, commitment, and skills as a writer, speaker, filmmaker, and advocate has had a far-reaching effect. Whether it was sending a vast number of Florida’s lawmakers copies of ‘Chasing The Cyclone’, or directing them to view the documentary film on abduction, ‘Chasing Parents’, or creating the bill’s website, or flying into Tallahassee to speak before our legislative government, or paying for airline tickets so other advocates can petition our Senators and Representatives, Peter Thomas Senese has been open, fully committed, and unselfish. His willingness to share his personal story as that of a chasing parent while recovering his own child has touched the hearts of many, including the legislators he has met or communicated with. I am eternally grateful for his dedication, his ability to educate our lawmakers by providing them with copies of ‘Chasing The Cylclone’ and creating the documentary ‘Chasing Parents’ – all have played a significant role in creating further understanding for our lawmakers. I deeply respect his commitment to assist with the implementation of a law that will prevent other families from experiencing the tragedy of child abduction. Peter Thomas Senese’ impact has been far reaching.

Ken Connelly, the author of ‘Throwing Stones’ has been completely committed to the cause of protecting children from the fate of parental child abduction – a tragic and terrible experience he and his brother faced as children. Ken’s willingness to fly to Tallahassee and advocate for this bill to become law has had a substantial and meaningful weight upon lawmakers as he was a victim of the exact type of crime this legislation is trying to prevent. Ken has provided lawmakers with copies of ‘Throwing Stones’ – his fascinating book on child abduction, while also directing them to ‘Chasing Parents: Racing Into the Storms of International Parental Child Abduction’ he consulted on. His ability to share the tragedy of abduction while also pointing out how critical it is to have preventive laws in place in this state have been well-heard by our lawmakers. Unquestionably, his desire to educate others in all areas of abduction has been immeasurable, and this bill is that much closer to reality because of Ken’s outspoken advocacy. Ken is direct, honest, committed, and highly informed on all areas of child abduction. It is an honor and a privilege to work with him.

Captain William Lake is the loving father of a young girl who has been criminally detained and remains in Japan. It is now going on six years since Captain Lake’s daughter first started her journey into the world of abduction. Captain Lake has been a full and complete source of information – and through his testimony you can see and hear the sense of concern others have regarding child abduction – surely they do not wish to be in the shoes that Captain Lake and his family are presently in. Nevertheless, Captain Lake has demonstrated consistent unselfishness and commitment. He has come to Tallahassee on several occasions to testify before both the Senate and the House. He has spent endless hours meeting with legislators and their legislative aids, all in the name of protecting other children. I am most grateful to Captain Lake’s unmovable commitment to protect the children of our state.

Henry Moseley, Representative Darryl Rouson’s legislative aide has been a dynamo in Tallahassee. From the beginning, Henry recognized just how severe of an issue child abduction in our state and our country is, and how failure to have preventive laws in place only aids a would-be abductor. With this realization, Henry spent a great deal of time researching and understanding all the critical components of child abduction. And then armed with this knowledge, he has worked with great dedication and he has helped orchestrate this bill’s movement into both the House and Senate. Without Henry Moseley, I doubt this bill would have moved as quickly and as far along as it has. Henry Mosley is as hard-working as they come, is extraordinarily intelligent, honest, and committed to the welfare and best interest of the children of Florida.

So that’s our core team: one parent who has tried to protect her child from being abducted, one adult who was parentally abducted, one parent who presently has a child still missing, one parent who recovered their child, and one legislative aide, like the rest of us, who is committed to protecting our children.

10. Florida’s Child Abduction Prevention Act bill has had two Florida Senate committees pass the legislation unanimously, and, one House committee thus far has also unanimously passed the bill. What is next, and can we expect this bill to become law?

Next up is to be put on the agenda to be heard in the Senate in Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations. In the House we need to be heard in Policy Council and Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council. In order to be heard we must be placed on the agenda. The public can help ensure that this occurs by contacting the Chairs of the Councils to inform them that child abduction prevention is an urgent and critical necessity for our state and is in the best interest of our children. I am confident that if we have the opportunity to be heard that indeed the Child Abduction Prevention Act can become precedent setting legislation.

11. What's at stake?

The lives of hundreds of thousands of children each year whose lives are forever interrupted and negatively impacted by this preventable crime.

12. Is there anything else you would like to add?

If ever there was a time when the children of our state needed the public to step up it is now. Please take a few minutes of your day to contact the Senators and Representatives and voice your opinion regarding the critical nature of implementing this legislation. Think of your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors. No one is immune from this crime as it crosses all racial and socio economic barriers. Please unite with us and let your voice be heard and help us to prevent this heinous crime.