September 9, 2013
Maximus Kawabata-Morness is five. Max would have started kindergarten on Tuesday. But 42 days ago his mother abducted him and took him to Japan. Kris Morness has no idea where exactly his son is. Morness is heartbroken, frantic. But, sadly, he is not really surprised.
Ever since he and Chie Kawabata separated at the beginning of 2011, Morness has been dreading and expecting this.
Japan is a black hole for abducted kids. It does not recognize Family Court orders from other jurisdictions and has become a safe haven for parental child abductors. More than 300 Canadian-born children and 3,000 or more American-born children who have been abducted by their parents and hidden away there.
“I know I can’t reach her [Kawabata] through the law,” says Morness, who lives in Vancouver. “Japan is effectively immune.”
In desperation, the video game developer has taken the unusual step of crowdsourcing help through a website called http://www.ChieKawabata.com.
Morness hopes strangers will help him locate his son. And, because his ex-wife also works in the tech industry, Morness wants her current employer and any prospective employers to know that Kawabata contravened a court order forbidding her from taking Max to Japan and that police are recommending that Kawabata be charged with first-degree custodial interference in Washington state where she had been living.
(If convicted, Kawabata could be jailed for up to five years and fined up to a $10,000.)
Posted on the site are court documents and transcripts from the couple’s messy and lengthy divorce and custody proceedings, along with the police report confirming that Kawabata abducted Max on July 26 and Kawabata’s last email to Morness on Aug. 2.
In it, Kawabata says that she is in Osaka and has taken a leave of absence for the month of August to visit her cancer-stricken mother.
“The torment I have endured in recent years have left me (and therefore Max) emotionally ruined and have forced my hands to take this step that I wish I did not have to take,” she wrote, adding that Skype calls with Max could be resumed the next week “as I have never wanted to deprive you of time with Max”.
But since Aug. 2, Kawabata hasn’t replied to any of Morness’s daily emails.
(Kawabata also did not respond to my attempts to reach her via email and through social media.)
The website hasn’t yet resulted in any breakthrough tips. But news of Max’s abduction has been posted on various gamers’ websites, tech eZines and blogs.
Over the past three years, Morness has spent close to $80,000 in legal fees getting court orders to ensure that Max would spend half of his vacation time with his dad plus every other weekend in Vancouver and that three times a week, they would connect on Skype.
In March 2012, Kawabata went to court asking for permission to relocate to Japan with Max. The judge ruled that would not be in Max’s best interest.
A year earlier, Morness registered Max in a U.S. state department’s children’s passport issuance alert program for kids at risk of abduction.
Under that program, when a passport application is submitted for a registered child, the department and/or the passport agency must alert the other parent.
But somebody screwed up.
When Max’s passport came up for renewal in March, Morness gave the passport book to Kawabata.
Instead of only applying for a passport book, Kawabata applied for the book and a card, which is valid for American residents travelling to Canada and Mexico.
Regardless, Morness was not notified that Kawabata had applied for the two different travel documents. He found out only after Kawabata gave him Max’s card, but not the passport.
The department admitted the error, but refused to revoke the passport.
“I even went to the border to tell them my story and provided them a copy of all the relevant materials. They did nothing,” says Morness.
“I even asked the court to force her to surrender it, but they [the court] didn’t do it. And then she used it to leave.”
On July 26, Kawabata and Max boarded a plane in San Francisco bound for Tokyo.
Nobody stopped Kawabata. Unlike in Canada, the United States has no exit controls, no requirement for a parent to prove that the other parent is aware that the child is leaving the country.
On Aug. 9, the Superior Court of Washington granted primary custody of Max to Morness and instructed Kawabata to hand Max over to Morness and his passport within 72 hours of returning from Japan.
That’s not likely to happen.
Japan has yet to implement the 33-year-old Hague Convention. It passed the necessary legislation in June, but it is not yet in force.
Morness worries if his son doesn’t return soon, Max may be lost forever.
Without regular contact, the five-year-old might forget him.
Although Max has used Skype almost all his life, he needs help logging on. Max can’t read yet, so he isn’t able to find the website Morness has created, the photos Morness has uploaded to YouTube or respond to an email.
Worse, the longer Max is gone, the more likely it is that he will forget how to speak English. Morness only speaks English, yet it is Max’s third language.
Max’s first language is Japanese. Even though Kawabata was educated at American universities, she speaks only Japanese to Max and, up until last summer when Morness insisted that he go to an English-speaking daycare, Max had been going to one where only Japanese was spoken.
Max’s second language is Spanish, which is the language his nanny spoke to him.
With time working against him, Morness sends Kawabata an email every day requesting a time and date that he can speak Max via Skype.
Every day, he hopes for new information about the police investigation, Kawabata’s location and for news of Max.
Every day, Morness waits and hopes that Kawabata will have a change of heart.
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