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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011

Dad seeks visitation reform


An American man who has been separated from his 6-year-old son following his divorce from his Japanese wife completed a month-long 1,500-km bike ride from Kyushu to Tokyo this week to raise awareness about the issue of child custody.

News photo
Pedal power: Kevin Brown, originally from Illinois, bicycled from Kumamoto Prefecture to Tokyo trying to press for the rights of children to have access to both parents. KEVIN BROWN/KYODO

Along the way, he stopped at local government offices to lobby for children's rights to have access to both parents.

Kevin Brown, a 45-year-old English teacher and the founding director of the group Children First, based in Aichi Prefecture, said that during his visits to more than 10 prefectural and municipal offices he explained that steady access to both parents should be guaranteed in line with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Brown, a native of Illinois, was parted from his son four years ago when his wife moved from Nagoya to Kumamoto Prefecture. Every six weeks he travels by overnight bus to see his son for five hours — the maximum amount of time agreed on during the divorce settlement.

"When I started research, I was really disappointed in what I found — the sole custody system. Usually, the winner is the person who abducts the kids first," Brown said. "I want a kind of unlimited access to my son. Once every six weeks is not enough."

Brown said he learned of the Japanese child-custody system in the middle of the divorce proceedings, which were finalized in September.

"I would like the kind of American system where, you know, every other weekend, overnight visits, birthdays, holidays, you get to see the kids," he said.

Brown said that since his son was only 2 when they were parted, he only speaks Japanese and has difficulty communicating with his father, who doesn't speak much Japanese.

Family courts tend to give mothers sole custody after divorce and it is not unusual for children to stop seeing their fathers after their parents break up. Brown pointed out that the average visitation awarded to parents without custody is four hours a month.

Brown said he underlined during his meetings with local government officials that Japan, which ratified the U.N. convention in 1994, has not implemented policies to secure children's access to both parents, and that the country is the only Group of Seven member to adopt the sole custody system upon divorce.

Article 9 of the U.N. pact says state parties "shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child's best interests."

Brown said some local officials in charge of child welfare weren't aware of the issue related to visitations, as they are focused on protecting children from abuse and are "not too familiar with good parents not being able to see their kids."

Although some told Brown that local governments are limited in what they can do as the matter is normally dealt with by the central government, he said the awareness-raising tour was meaningful as "the first step in making change."

Japan recently launched preparations for joining the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which establishes procedures for settling international child custody disputes.

Brown's case won't be covered by the pact because it is not retroactive, only applying to cases that occur after it enters into force in Japan, and also because it deals with cross-border parental child abductions.

In late September, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed Tokyo's decision to enter into the Hague Convention but asked Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda during their summit in New York that the Japanese government also "focus on the pre-existing cases," according to the U.S. State Department.

Noda said he was aware of the 123 active cases involving children who have been taken from the U.S. to Japan, and vowed to "take special care to focus on these particular issues," the State Department said.

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