A Virginia woman lost her son when he was whisked out of the United States by her former husband, a Turkish native, who took the child to Turkey, where the long arm of U.S. law could not reach them.
That was in 1954. Elaine Mordo has suffered 32 years without her son. Now she has a grandchild she has never seen.
"How I survived it," Mordo sighed, "I do not know. It's like a part of you has died."
Mordo is not alone. There are an estimated 350 incidents each year where children are spirited from America by one of their parents--often the parent who lost custody in a divorce settlement--to foreign countries where U.S. law has no jurisdiction, according to the State Department. Few are ever solved.
The files of more than 2,300 cases involving children 18 years of age or under remain open.
A Georgia man was separated from his son seven years ago, when his former wife took the boy to Israel, her home country. He has not seen the boy since.
An Illinois woman has not laid eyes on her two daughters since last year, when they were snatched by her former husband, a native of Saudi Arabia, who took the girls to his homeland.
Another woman from Virginia was held hostage in a motel room at knifepoint by her brother-in-law last summer while her Jordanian-born former husband made off with their 8-year-old son. The brother-in-law was later arrested, convicted and jailed. The ex-husband fled to Amman, Jordan, with the boy.
The nations are different and the circumstances vary. But these cases are held together by the common threads of pain, anguish and utter frustration.
"It's been a nightmare," said Susan Mubaydin of Springfield, Va., who still carries a matchbook in her purse bearing the name of the New York motel where the abduction took place. "I need my son with me. He's my only child, and he's all I ever had."
Patricia Roush-Samupam of Cicero, Ill., whose Saudi Arabian husband ran off with her two daughters, said: "I've been near a nervous breakdown for a year. I spend most of my time crying."
For the parent left in the United States, the road to recovering the kidnaped child is fraught with dead ends. For some, telling their story over and over again helps. But there comes a time when the search becomes more painful than the original torture.
"Why beat a dead horse?" said the Georgia man, whose son now lives in Israel with his mother. The man said he is tired of fighting. He preferred not discussing his case and asked not to be identified.
"The horse I beat was terribly expensive in emotion and money," he said. "I haven't seen my boy in seven years, and I wouldn't recognize him if I saw him. As far as I'm concerned, it's a dead issue."
Where can parents turn?
The obvious choice is the State Department. After all, it deals with foreign governments on a daily basis. But State Department officials say their hands are tied.
"These cases are not much different than cases involving Americans arrested overseas," said Dona Sherman, a spokeswoman in the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. "Families say, 'Well, go over there and spring them!'
"We can't do that. The fact is we leave the Constitution behind when we go overseas. We are subject to the jurisdiction of a foreign government. The rules of behavior and law are dictated by that government. It is frustrating."
Moreover, the State Department considers such cases domestic incidents and refuses to take sides in settling the disputes, although it will help find the child and check on the youngster monthly to make sure he or she is "treated fairly in accordance with the laws in that country," Sherman said.
Shaky Legal Ground
When parents approach the State Department, they are provided information on the court system of the nation involved, a list of local lawyers and little more.
However, the chances of actually winning a court case in a foreign country are slim.
"We've had some success at getting children returned," Sherman said. "But the numbers are not that great. I think it can be assumed the person who is there in that country . . . is going to have the advantage."
Philip Schwartz, former chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s committee on international family law, said: "Unless the U.S. parent presented a very substantial case to counteract the likely preference for the local citizen, the chances are they would have very little hope."
Cordial diplomatic relations between the United States and the country involved also does not count for very much. The No. 1 destination for parents fleeing America with their children is West Germany, largely because of the mixed nationality marriages resulting from many U.S. military installations there. Mexico is second.
Muslim Nations Difficult
The problem becomes more acute when dealing with unfriendly nations or those where religion or culture are vastly different from the United States.
In Muslim countries, it is nearly impossible to settle custody disputes through legal channels.