Sandra Sawyer has not hugged her grandchildren or kissed their faces in four years.
She says the two children, 9 and 11, are “hostages” of New Zealand. Their father — her son — is wedged in a maze of international family law and politics that prevents the former Ashland resident from bringing his son and daughter back to the United States for visits with their grandmother, who lives in Ashland, and extended family in the Pacific Northwest.
A retired lawyer, Sawyer says the family has ferociously fought a five-year legal battle on behalf of “the best interests” of her grandchildren.
“We have engaged lawyers on both sides of the ocean and are still engaged in litigation to bring the children back to the U.S.,” she says.
Earlier this year, the children’s father, Rick Johnson, filed a complaint with the United Nations alleging a New Zealand family court judge’s decision violates their human rights.
“It is now, truly, an international case,” says Sawyer.
Sawyer, the widow of long-serving Jackson County Circuit Judge Loren L. Sawyer, says the story began when her son and former daughter-in-law moved from Portland to Auckland, New Zealand, in 2010. The couple separated six months later, and the children’s mother applied for a without-notice travel restriction on the children. The “no-fly order” filed in January 2011 has kept the youngsters in New Zealand for five years, say Sawyer and Johnson.
Due to the ongoing litigation and adhering to New Zealand’s strict privacy laws, the names of the children and their mother were withheld for this story.
While divorce proceedings were filed in both the United States and New Zealand, New Zealand took jurisdiction over custody matters. Although they were and are still U.S. citizens, the children remain under New Zealand’s jurisdiction, Johnson says.
Whether visiting on vacation, living there temporarily or as permanent residents, “any child that steps on New Zealand soil is under New Zealand jurisdiction,” Johnson explains in a recent telephone interview.
Sawyer says that the children’s parents have joint custody, but an “order preventing removal” can be filed if a parent fears that a former spouse might remove a child from New Zealand without consent. If the parent feels the situation is urgent, the order can be filed without notification to the other parent. Once a child leaves New Zealand, he/she becomes subject to the laws of the other countries or to international law.
Sawyer is puzzled as to why New Zealand is so adamant about retaining jurisdiction.
“The children are not New Zealand citizens,” she says. And the only affiliation with New Zealand is through their mother. All relatives, both paternal and maternal, are in the Pacific Northwest. Their mother, like their father, is from Ashland.
Sawyer last saw her grandchildren in 2012 when she visited New Zealand. After sustaining a broken neck and back some years ago, she says she’s not up to making the 20-plus-hour flight again. Family visits with the children and her son are via phone or Skype.
Because he won’t leave his children behind, Johnson remains in Auckland despite his yearning to return to the States. He last visited the Pacific Northwest in 2014, when he returned for a temporary work assignment.
“This place is home,” he says. “This is the kids’ home.”
Johnson was in Washington, D.C., last week to attend the annual iStand International Parents Conference. The three-day event spotlights what the iStand International Parents Network calls “a pandemic issue of international parent child abduction.”
The goal is to open dialogue between international, federal, state and local governments, nongovernmental agencies, diplomatic entities, the private sector and stakeholders.
While in D.C., Johnson planned to meet with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Tim Groser, New Zealand’s ambassador to the U.S. He also participated in the Embassy Walk, joining with other parents to “knock on doors of nations” and calling for more international cooperation and collaboration in the return of American children to American soil.
Approximately 1,200 American children are abducted or detained in a foreign country by a parent, says Alissa Zagaris, a co-founder of the two-year-old iStand Parents Network, who spoke via phone from Washington, D.C.
A parent advocate who fought for two years for her son’s return from Greece, Zagaris says the conference is an opportunity for Johnson to connect with other parents who have won the fight or continue to fight.
“He is part of a community,” she says.
Johnson’s case is not one of child abduction, but certainly one of “wrongful detention or retention,” Zagaris contends. And not only for the Johnson children, but for Johnson as well, she adds.
“He’s a forced ex-pat.”
She says that Johnson’s decision to remain in New Zealand during court proceedings is not uncommon.
“Parents will continue to reside in country to maintain relations with their children,” she says.
The decision, however, comes at a high price, she says. Because Johnson chooses to reside in New Zealand, the U.S. State Department has closed the case.
“They’re only a liaison anyway, passing along information,” she says. And because no crime has been committed, the U.S. Department of Justice has no jurisdiction over the case.
Zagaris says there is not much respect for the United States among the international community.
“It is very difficult for foreign nationals,” she says. “There is no trust or belief that (U.S.) courts will honor any agreement.”
Employment opportunities Johnson, a former project manager for Intel, have been few and far between in a country where technology and the required infrastructure lag behind the U.S. Johnson has to periodically return home for temporary work assignments.
Johnson has argued before U.S. courts and both the Lower and Higher courts of New Zealand that his children as American citizens have the right to return to America or at the very least travel freely between countries. He says he has tried to work within the confines of international law, but continually “hits a wall.”
A U.S. court agreed the children should be returned, as did the Family Court in New Zealand in 2012, but the High Court, on appeal from the children’s mother — who wishes to remain in the country — disagreed in 2013 and declared the children would stay in New Zealand.
Johnson’s appeals were denied, and he was told to appeal to the New Zealand Parliament.
“The New Zealand courts denied the children a large portion of their culture, family and heritage,” Johnson says. “The biggest failure that’s occurred is that the courts haven’t taken into consideration the best interests of the children.”
The children’s mother disagrees.
In an email correspondence from Auckland, she says, “New Zealand courts are remarkably child-focused, even appointing the children with their own lawyers. Court-appointed psychologists are also often used to determine what is best for the children and what the children want.
"The New Zealand courts would likely let (their father) travel with the children, but he didn't pursue his travel application further — only his application to relocate them permanently,” she says.
In 2014, Johnson attempted to invoke the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction — an international agreement that calls for the prompt return of children who have been taken overseas by a parent or kept overseas without permission.
“It was a yearlong process only to have it rejected,” Johnson says.
And, so, the U.N. complaint was filed.
“The issue right now is that the children cannot leave New Zealand for any reason,” Johnson says. “What we’re really looking for is a solution that’s in the best interest of the children.
“They’ve lost critical time with family,” he adds.
Sawyer relates a poignant remark made by her granddaughter recently.
“She said she wished there was a magic door where she could travel between New Zealand and the United States and see all those she loved.”
To help other parents navigate the mire of international child custody laws, Johnson’s family has created a 501(c)(3) charity called childrenatborders.org.
“We want to help other parents caught in the same situation,” Sawyer says.
Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at email@example.com.