by Jeremy D. Morley
Difficult issues arise under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act when children are taken overseas for visits and do not return. A recent New York case illustrates some of the issues.
In Kassim v. Al-Maliki, 2021 WL 1774145 (NY App. Div. 2d. Dept. May 5, 2021), the Appellate Division, Second Department reviewed a Family Court order dismissing a petition for habeas corpus and custody of children who were taken from New York City to Yemen in 2016 where they have since remained. The father claimed that he and his wife consensually relocated to Yemen with the children. The mother claimed that they went to Yemen for a visit and that after they arrived there the father confiscated her and the children's passports. She further explained that it was only after she signed a divorce agreement under duress that she was given her own passport and that she had then returned alone to the United States. Once she was back in New York, she had commenced a case against the father for habeas corpus and child custody.
The Family Court dismissed the case without a hearing for lack of subject matter jurisdiction since the children had long been in Yemen, and the mother appealed.
The appeal court overturned the dismissal of the case. It ruled that the trial court “erred in concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to determine the mother's petition without conducting a hearing” as to the issue of whether New York or Yemen was the child's home state, since “there are disputed issues of fact regarding the circumstances under which the parties moved from New York to Yemen.”
In substantial part, the issue in the case concerns the provisions of section 102(7) of the UCCJEA that a “period of temporary absence” from a state counts as part of the required period six consecutive months of residency in the state before the commencement of a child custody proceeding. On this issue, see Jeremy D. Morley, International Family Law Practice, Sec. 7:6. (Westlaw INTFLP § 7:6).
Courts have developed three distinct tests to determine whether absences are temporary or permanent:
1. Duration. Some courts focus solely on the length of the absence, holding that the child's physical location must be the central issue.
2. Intent. Some courts consider the intent of the parties, and specifically whether the parties intended to be away for a limited amount of time and which state they viewed as their place of permanent domicile.
3. Totality of Circumstances. Finally, some courts require an examination of all the circumstances surrounding the absence, including the duration of the absence, whether the parties intended the absence to be permanent or temporary, and any additional relevant circumstances. The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Monasky v. Taglieri, 140 S. Ct. 719 (2020), applying a totality of circumstances test to the interpretation of the key term of “habitual residence” in the Hague Abduction Convention, may well encourage the use of the same test for interpreting “temporary absence” in the UCCJEA.
A separate issue, not addressed by the Appellate Division decision but likely to arise on the remand of the case to the Family Court, is whether the child custody law of Yemen falls within the scope of the “escape clause” contained in UCCJEA Section 105(c), as expanded in New York pursuant to Section 75- d (c) of the Domestic Relation law.
The UCCJEA Model Act provides (UCCJEA § 105(a)) that a court “shall treat a foreign country as if it were a state of the United States for the purpose of applying” the statute, but in Section 105(c) that this need not apply “if the child custody law of [the] foreign country violates fundamental principles of human rights.” The language is extremely narrow. It extends only to a “child custody law” that “violates fundamental principles of human rights” and appears on its face to be limited to the law as written in a foreign statute.
However, New York has expanded the scope of the escape clause significantly. The New York legislature added the words, “or as applied” to the provision, so that it reads, “(c) A court of this state need not apply this article if the child custody law of a foreign country as written or as applied violates fundamental principles of human rights.” (Domestic Relations Law, Sec. 75-d(c)). On these issues, see Jeremy D. Morley, International Family Law Practice. §§ 7:23 – 7:28 (Westlaw INTFLP § 7:23 et seq.).
This will presumably allow a court in New York to consider both Yemen's laws concerning child custody as they are written in the Personal Status Law of Yemen, which contains arbitrary provisions based on age, gender and religion, and also how those laws are actually applied in practice.