Following her 2009 divorce, Noriko Esaki Savoie was given partial custody of her children along with her ex-husband; soon thereafter, she returned to her native Japan, taking her two kids with her. After it became apparent that she would most likely not return to the United States with the children, full custody was awarded to the father and a warrant for her arrest was issued by a Tennessee court.
In early May 2011, the father was awarded $6.1 million dollars on behalf of his children. The suit against his ex-wife was based on false imprisonment, emotional distress and breach of contract. However, the difference in laws between the United States and Japan make it unlikely that the father will ever receive a penny of the award, which is fine with the father, who only wants to see and have a relationship with his children.
Child Custody Across Borders
In a somewhat significant difference from the United States, Japan typically only awards child custody to one parent - usually the mother. Courts in the U.S. typically award joint custody to both parents. It is this key difference which has, most likely, kept Japan from becoming a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This treaty addresses international custody disputes and, had Japan been a signatory, could have helped the father bring his children back to the United States.
While the law does not forbid a mother or father from moving with the children to another state or country following a divorce (called "parental relocation"), the law does require the court's consent to do so. Before a parent can relocate with the children, a court needs to lift the residency restriction of the child custody agreement (which applies to the children and not the parent). For the court to do so, there needs to be a compelling interest. Courts will look at the best interests of the children when making this determination.
For questions regarding child relocation or custody, speak with an experienced family law attorney near you.