Terrie’s Take offers the best piece yet on the Savoie Child Abduction Case

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UPDATES ON TWITTER: arudoudebito

Hi Blog.  Just received this.  It’s good enough to quote in full.  It’s the best, most thorough, most balanced opinion yet on the case, in my view.  Let’s see if I can do better tomorrow in my Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


* * * * * * * * * T E R R I E ‘S T A K E * * * * * * *
A weekly roundup of news & information from Terrie Lloyd.

General Edition Sunday, October 4, 2009 Issue No. 536


On September 28th this last week, news starting emerging on CNN and several other media about an American dad who was arrested in Fukuoka for trying to abduct his kids back, after his Japanese ex-wife had first abducted them from him in the USA. The Dad, 38-year old Chris Savoie, is now in jail in Fukuoka for some indeterminate period, while the police try to extract a confession from him.

Well… at least we think this is what is going on, because as many readers will know, the police can keep a suspect in detention for months for questioning, with very limited access to a lawyer, until they think the case is ready to send to the courts. This process is partly the reason why Japan has a successful conviction rate (versus a relatively low prosecution rate) in the 99%+ range.

Chris Savoie is not a wet-behind-the-ears foreigner who knows nothing about Japan and its customs. Indeed, he has led a highly successful business career here, and amongst other things built a pharmaceutical business called GNI in Fukuoka that went on to do an IPO on the Mothers market in September 2007. He is a strong Japanese speaker, has a PhD, and according to press reports naturalized as a Japanese national several years ago. So his being in jail is both a surprise and then again it isn’t.

No one other than Savoie himself knows what was going through his mind when he had a friend drive a car along side his ex-wife and two children, aged 6 and 8, while they were walking to school. However, according to reports he jumped out of the vehicle, bundled the kids into the car and raced to the U.S. Consul’s compound in Fukuoka. This was a big mistake, because at the compound he was not allowed entry by the guards, and since his ex-wife had already alerted the police, they soon arrived on the scene and nabbed both him and the kids.

While we don’t know what Savoie was thinking, we do know the facts surrounding his decision to try to get his kids back:

1. His wife is on record in a U.S. divorce court as stating that she would not abduct the kids, despite Savoie’s fears that this might happen.

2. She did abduct the kids and she clearly didn’t expect to return them to the U.S. Indeed, she was taking them to school, meaning that they weren’t just on holiday.

3. As readers will know from our previous commentary on this subject (http://www.japaninc.com/child_abduction), there are NO recorded cases of U.S.-Japanese kids abducted from the U.S. being returned to the custodial parent in the U.S. by court action, and only 3 that were mutually resolved between the parties. This among 102 open cases of abduction known to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and possibly several thousand unreported cases which have probably happened over the last ten years.

4. Previous cases we have heard of indicate that it is not a crime for a spouse to take the kids into hiding in Japan. The idea being that the abductor waits until the kids acclimate to them, before resurfacing. If the kids have been with that abducting spouse for more than a year, then typically judges will award that spouse custody on the basis that the kids should have a “stable home life” and better to have them not experience another major change. Until now that’s been the pattern of rulings, anyway.

5. While joint custody may be legally allowed in Japan, there has been no tradition nor legal enforcement of joint custody arrangements. So if a spouse, almost always the Japanese spouse, has possession of the kids and doesn’t want the other parent to see them, then the left-behind spouse can’t.

Given that Savoie has probably been aware of the legal situation, it is not so surprising that he attempted to get his kids back by taking preemptive action. He will have realized that the Family courts in Japan would pay no heed to his U.S. custodial rights (he has sole custody) and that Japan is well known globally as a destination for child abductors, not all of whom are Japanese. If he wanted to see his kids again, kidnapping them back again was about all he really could do. Otherwise he would have joined the ranks of hundreds of other left-behind parents who desperately miss their kids and can’t do anything about it. They are powerless in the face of a 19th century judicial values system.

But what is surprising is that he chose to get his kids back in a way that exposed him to many untested theories. One of these theories has been that it is OK to abduct your kids back. Indeed the police often do turn a blind eye to home disputes and will allow “mini-abductions” to happen. There was a case some years ago where Chinese American Samuel Lui tried, like Savoie, to abduct his child back on the streets of Osaka. Like Savoie, he also had sole custody rights awarded in the USA. Lui failed in his attempt, subsequently turning himself in to the Osaka police, who after questioning him for a day, rapped his knuckles and effectively said, “Don’t do it again.”

But in trying to regain possession of your kids, once trespass and violence or threat of violence are used, that is where a person steps over the line. Savoie must have known that the police here can pretty much arrest people whenever they want. If we’d been him, and were committed to such a drastic action, we would have used our local contacts to hide out for a while and figured out how to get the kids out of the country. As a Japanese, if he’d successfully kept off the police radar for more than 6 months, he might have even been able to apply to the courts for sole custody in Japan and have gotten away with it.

In the last couple of days, details surrounding Savoie’s divorce have emerged that paint him in a less than flattering light. In particular he seems to have been engaged in an affair with a person who has since become his new wife, and that this probably occurred around the same time he brought his ex-wife and kids to the USA. Comments of disgust about his possible manipulation of the ex-wife abound on U.S. comment boards of major news sites carrying stories about the case.

HOWEVER, again, we can only speculate about what really happened, and until the facts are made public, we can probably assume that Savoie was acting logically throughout — in that he was trying to get his soon-to-be ex-wife and kids into a jurisdiction (the U.S.) where the law protects BOTH parents rights and upholds the concept of joint custody. Whether his behavior is cruel or is manipulative is beside the point. Savoie would have known that if his divorce was contested in Japan, he would have been 100% guaranteed to have lost his kids, and would have been at the whim of his wife whether or not he would be able to see them ever again as children.

This situation is caused by the Japanese judiciary’s refusal to accept that divorced parents should have equal access to their children. The view of most judges (based on interviews with judges that we have done in the past) is that kids need to be insulated from the hurt between divorcing parents by giving them just one care-giver. But this is a traditional view and has no basis in fact. Child psychologists outside Japan generally agree that kids need the love and attention of both parents, even if they are divorced. Splitting the kids from one parent naturally causes them to side with the other (Parental Alienation Syndrome: PAS), which causes them to have complexes about the missing parent later in life.

PAS also works in reverse, because as the left-behind parent gets alienated, they simply stop paying child support, causing poverty and depression for the (typically) single-mother family. The fact is that if the Dads are not encouraged to feel a connection to their kids, and given that Japanese family law courts have little or no power to enforce child support judgments, then why would ex-Dads feel like paying for offspring who won’t even acknowledge them as a parent? Yes, the law says they should pay, but given the lack of legal enforcement, building a feeling of responsibility by the Dads is the only other way to get the money flowing again.

This situation is wrong and needs fixing.

Since there appears to be little will by the judiciary to change their ways or values, any change in the status quo needs to be a political one — using outside political pressure (“Gaiatsu”). This is a long-term project unfortunately, but it does give us a possible motive why an otherwise intelligent individual such as Savoie may have been driven to try kidnap his kids when such an undertaking would have such a high possibility for failure.

Finally, our take is that what he did is not right, but under the current legal system, it is understandable. We think similar incidents will happen again until things change.


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16 comments on “Terrie’s Take offers the best piece yet on the Savoie Child Abduction Case

  • great story, but he forgot a few little or big details like how after the so-called victin noriko got 800,000 dollars in cash she flew back to japan with the kids dispite what she stated to the court in franklin. basicly she got her money and then took off with the kids in tow.

  • >5. While joint custody may be legally allowed in Japan, there has been no tradition nor legal enforcement of joint custody arrangements.

    I am afraid he is confusing joint custody with visitation rights. Joint custody is not allowed and will not be allowed in foreseeable future in Japan. Visitation may be granted in divorce agreement but legal enforcement is weak in Japan.

    >Yes, the law says they should pay, but given the lack of legal enforcement, building a feeling of responsibility by the Dads is the only other way to get the money flowing again.

    This is not true. With the family court ruling, the mother can legally freeze and take any asset the father has in Japan if he defaults payment. If he hides his assets or sends his assets to overseas to evade from seizure, he shall be levied a criminal punishment.

    — The 2-Channel Lawsuit proved how unenforceable that is.

  • How can Terrie or anyone say he was wrong to take his kids? As far as we know, and can assume, the Japanese courts had not yet awarded custody to the mother. She had no more right to take them to school, as he would to take them to Disneyland.

    Noriko is [invective deleted] holding his children hostage. Would a prisoner be regarded as manipulative if he tricked his guard in an attempt to get himself and the hostages out of jail?

    If my wife offered custody and $800,000 to live in Furano, I would take it.

    — Hey, don’t knock Furano!

  • @jim

    I thought the promise of getting the money was what was supposed to keep her in the US, so I doubt they just dumped 800k in her bank account.

    Unless you have a source for that claim, it isn’t safe to make it.

  • We should write to CNN Anderson cooper AC360 thanking him for bringing this to the public in the US and internationally. I hope this would encourage them to follow up on this story and keep it alive.
    Lets hope that the main story highlights the injustice that NJ have here, regarding the kidnapping of children.

  • Whether she took $800K or not, what was said in the U.S. courts, what Mr. Savoie did or didn’t do, add complications that are open to subjective opinion from both sides.
    Many of the details of this case (and others) are tragic and absolutely worth reporting. However, when the details of each case become the subject of the debate, they arguably detract from the central issue: That Japan has no good reason not to embrace the Hague treaty and update its domestic laws in the same spirit – if only for the benefit of better protecting its own citizens from child abduction.

    This case has not only highlighted the international aspects of custody (which will always be complicated), but also the plight of any parent, Japanese or not, who may at some stage be disadvantaged by archaic family law in Japan.

    — Zigzacktly. And that’s what I’ll be focussing on in my Japan Times column tomorrow.

  • I would just like to point out that while I have commented a lot on posts related to this issue, I am not the same Justin who posted the Furano comment. Debito, you need to have a unique username system!

  • Curt Sampson says:

    It says she was *awarded* $800,000 in cash. This does not mean she actually received the money, as anybody who’s ever dealt with a court award knows.

    This whole thing rather stinks, and it appears to be blowing up into a Fox-news level opinion spew-fest rather than any real reporting of the situation.

  • “it appears to be blowing up into a Fox-news level opinion spew-fest rather than any real reporting of the situation”

    And, I’m sure, it’s the kids who are suffering the most, as usual. Pulled back and forth between two countries, torn between two parents, their father in jail, and their family’s personal business blowing up into an international incident, to say nothing of the identity issues they might be experiencing as bi-racial kids. Oy, I just can’t find anything good about this situation at all.

  • Justin Time says:

    Sorry Justin, I didn’t mean to take your username. I will use Justin Time instead.

    In response to M&M – the main, practical reason Japan has for not signing the Hague Treaty is because there currently exists no mechanism for enforcing it, i.e. the cops going out and grabbing the kid after the judge tells them to (instead of the parent). It’s a pretty big problem, but of course, unjustified. Still, I think it would be better to argue that bi-national kids have special needs; which is to say that it is in the bi-national child’s best interest to _not_ habitually stay in the same country for their entire childhood, and that the cultures of both parents should be considered.

    In response to Curt Sampson – It doesn’t matter whether she had actually received the cash or not, since she would have done so had she stayed on in Tenn. Also (to Justin), that doesn’t mean she could never return to Japan. Of course she could, just not always with her children necessarily.

  • Debito,

    I think Terrie’s as well as your article in the Japan Times hit it right on head. The kids are the real victims, by allowing one parent to deny access to the other parent for apparently no good reason, will do far more damage. Until Japan signs the Hague Convention these sad cases will continue to happen again and again.

    Kudos to both you and Terrie.


  • Curt Sampson says:

    Justin Time: Actually, my point was, even had she stayed in Tenn., there’s no guarantee that she would have received the money. Getting an award and collecting it are two quite different things, as anybody who’s been through that sort of thing knows.

    However, it seems from the restraining order hearing that she did receive the money, so I don’t think that there’s an issue there.

  • I’m afraid I don’t think you can separate the details of the case – i.e. the reasons for divorce – from the chid custody/visitation issue.

    OK, Japanese custody laws are unfair and weighted against foreigners, and they need to be revised. However, this case is a pernicious one and not one which will be of any help in persuading the Japanese to amend their laws because the man in question is allegedly an adulterer who broke up the marriage so that he could be with another woman. The Japanese will interpret it as a confirmation that their way of doing things defends them against feckless and selfish behaviour. Own goal. Big time. They will also interpret the American court’s ruling trying to prevent the wife from traveling to Japan as cruel and a-moral, because it works on the assumption that there is no fault in a divorce and grants equal rights to parents however badly behaved they might (or might not) have been. If allegations are true, Savoie has tried to use the Hague convention to put his wife in an insidious position – to force her to stay in a country which is not her own where she has no family and no job – so that he can have his cake and eat it. What he has done makes American law and international law look bad.

    Using this case to support the argument that Japan should readdress the custody/visitation issue does nothing to help people who have barmy spouses who disappear without trace (sometimes while still married) into the boonies with the children leaving a bereft parent with no power to visit or even to find out where they are. All in all, the most sensible route would seem to be for advocates for legal change to dissociate themselves from Mr Savoie and focus on more cut-and-dried cases where the injured parent is 100 per cent wronged against – or at least, where they’ve done nothing to compromise people’s sympathy.

    I think we also have to be careful when debating custody/visitation law. Obviously it causes great harm in cases where children are separated from much-loved parents. However, it also has one distinct effect – it deters parents from walking out on families for what might be considered by many in Japan as trivial reasons (e.g. to set up home with somebody else, because they don’t ‘love’ their partner any more, because sex is not forthcoming, because their partner doesn’t live up to expectations etc., etc). The assumption is very much that the children’s feelings come first, and that if that involves stifling or suppressing parents’ feelings and desires, so be it. The Japanese will look over at the west and the horrific level of family breakdown there and get the impression that their way works – ignoring, of course, the cases of people in Japan who are trapped in violent or cruel marriages by the fear of losing their children. This is yet another reason why those who wish laws to be changed should choose more watertight cases than this to champion.

    On the subject of the money.
    Japan allows spouses to punish unfaithful partners by suing them for hurt feelings – not really a familiar concept in the ‘no-fault’ world of western divorce. This makes Mrs. Savoie’s acceptance of the 800,000 dollars more easy to understand. It’s not a question of buying her off. It’s a question of apologizing.

    — I’m happy to champion any watertight case. Let’s have one with a simon-pure spouse trying to get away from an evil spouse by taking noticeable, decisive, unimpeachable actions. Funny thing is, we’ve never had one, moreover with all the media planets in conjunction like this, for all these decades of kidnappings to and within Japan. It’s a tough call.

    No matter whose “side” you take, it’s undeniable that the Savoie Case has catapulted the Child Abductions issue into the international spotlight more effectively than anything ever before. That’s a sad situation ‘cos the Savoie Case is so impeachable. But we gotta work to raise awareness and make the best of what we have. Believe you me, I’d rather the Savoie Case not be representative of what us left-behind fathers go through. Sigh.

  • Justin Time says:

    Pipkins, you strike me as someone who has not had the experience of being married with children. How do you know what Noriko’s behavior was during the marriage? If she had ceased conjugal relations for 3 years prior to Savoie’s affair, would you still regard him as poorly? Perhaps Savoie thought it was in the best interest of his children to put off divorcing his wife for as long as possible, even if he knew it to be inevitable, since he thought there was a high likelihood of never seeing them again after the divorce occured.

    Why is it bad for the American Savoie to want his children to be able to speak English and function in American society? Couldn’t Noriko have at least waited a couple years before abducting them, so her children would at least be able to make some sense of their heritage in later years?

    This idea that husbands leave their spouses for some trivial reason when they have children is a ludicrous myth.

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