Alan Kaneda obtained joint legal custody of his daughter, Marina, in a divorce proceeding last year.

Options few after
mom abducts girl

Courts hold no clout for
a Honolulu man whose
daughter, 5, was taken
to Japan

For more than a year, the divorced parents handed off their child each week in a supermarket parking lot without a hitch.

Missing Kids

The case of Marina Kaneda, 5, is among those highlighted in a one-hour television special, "Hawaii's Missing Kids: Eyes of the Innocent," which aired Saturday night and is scheduled to air again at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 8 on KHON.

The program features unsolved cases of missing children in Hawaii.

Alan Kaneda would rendezvous with his ex-wife at the Kahala Times so he could take his daughter for part of the weekend.

Kaneda was able to spend time with Marina, now 5, under terms of a custody arrangement ordered by a state judge in 2003.

But those custody visits ended abruptly six months ago.

On a Friday afternoon in late May, Kaneda waited in the supermarket parking lot, just as he had done many times before. But this time, his ex-wife and his little girl failed to show up.

As he wondered where they were, Marina and her mother were on a plane en route to Japan, the mother's home country.

Kaneda hasn't seen either of them since.

Today, Marina is among the kids listed as missing by the state's Missing Child Center Hawaii, an arm of the attorney general's office.

Marina's mother, Chiharu Wakao, is identified on the center's Web site as the child's suspected abductor. In November, Wakao was indicted on a charge of first-degree custodial interference, a felony, for allegedly removing Marina from the state and interfering with Kaneda's custody rights. A warrant was issued for her arrest.

Kaneda and his ex-wife were awarded joint legal custody of Marina as part of their 2003 divorce on Oahu. The court gave Kaneda three to four days of visitation a week.

No one is certain how many Hawaii parents are affected by international child abductions, in part because such cases often are not reported to state authorities. Only five are pending with the Missing Child Center, though experts say that significantly understates the problem.

But Kaneda's efforts to try to reunite with his daughter underscore the hurdles that left-behind parents face, especially when the child is taken to a country, such as Japan, that doesn't recognize U.S. custodial orders and doesn't abide by an international treaty governing how such cross-border disputes are handled.

Kaneda has racked up thousands of dollars in expenses for legal fees and other costs, including hiring a private investigator in Japan to track down his ex-wife. His attorney estimates Kaneda easily could spend $30,000.

And his prospects for reuniting with his daughter appear to be slim.

Consider these indicators:

» The U.S. State Department says it is not aware of any case in which a child taken by a parent to Japan has been ordered returned to the United States by Japanese courts, even when the left-behind parent has a U.S. custody decree, according to the agency's Web site.

» Since the late 1990s, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has handled 26 abduction cases involving a parent in Japan, but not a single child has been recovered in those cases.

» Even if federal kidnapping charges are filed against the suspected abductor and the FBI gets involved, the suspect typically doesn't face prosecution as long as he or she remains in Japan.

Japan won't authorize extraditions in such cases, said Lena Alhusseini, international case specialist for the national center. "Parental abduction is not a crime in Japan," she said.

But if a suspect attempts to return to the United States, he or she would be subject to arrest based on the outstanding charges.

When Kaneda's ex-wife and daughter failed to show up at the Kahala supermarket in May, he said he went to their apartment and Marina's preschool and talked to neighbors and friends, searching for clues to their whereabouts. He also checked Honolulu hospitals, fearing the pair may have been in an accident.

His ex-wife's landlord and a family friend knew where they had gone, but the landlord and friend wouldn't divulge that information until Kaneda's attorney got a court order requiring them to talk.

Once he realized what happened, Kaneda said he was devastated.

"I've been having contact with my daughter for five years, and then suddenly she's gone," he said. "It's very heartbreaking."

Kaneda filed a motion in July with Hawaii Family Court to get sole physical and legal custody of Marina, arguing that his ex-wife "interfered with my visitation by removing the child from Hawaii without my consent and knowledge," according to the court document.

Wakao responded in a court filing that Hawaii no longer had jurisdiction over the matter because she and her daughter now live in Japan.

She also said she left Hawaii to protect her daughter from Kaneda's abusive behavior and noted that the child had increasingly become resistant to spending time with her father.

Kaneda denied the charges and questioned why his ex-wife didn't raise them while she was in Hawaii.

"She's hoping to find whatever she can to make him look like a bad father now," said Gary Singh, Kaneda's Honolulu attorney.

Wakao, through her Honolulu attorney, declined comment.

"Neither my client nor I feel that it is appropriate to argue this case in the press," said Mark Shklov. "We have been litigating and we will continue to litigate this case in Family Court, which is the proper forum for the resolution of private and sensitive family matters. It is not in the best interest of the minor child to subject her and her family to publicity."

The Honolulu Prosecutor's Office said it will actively pursue the custodial interference case against Wakao. But in practical terms there's little that can be done while the suspect remains in Japan.

Alhusseini of the national center said international custody disputes in which the parent with the child is a Japanese citizen in Japan must be litigated in that country, no matter what a custody agreement from elsewhere says. And Japanese courts generally allow the Japanese parent to keep the child, she said.

Experts who deal with custody disputes say Hawaii probably has more international abduction cases than a typical mainland community because of the number of marriages involving foreign nationals here and the state's proximity to Asia.

Oahu resident Sharon Martinez said her ex-husband abducted their three children and took them to Mexico in 1991. Three years later her son, then 13, was reunited with her, but her two daughters never were.

Martinez said U.S. residents who marry foreign nationals don't think about the added complications that can occur if the marriage ends in divorce and a dispute arises over child custody. Differing cultural values and other factors can add to the dispute, she said.

"People, when they get married to someone from a different country, don't even think about these issues," said Martinez, a board member with Friends of Missing Child Center Hawaii.

Left-behind parents in Hawaii often don't pursue legal remedies to regain custody of their children because of the many obstacles, according to Singh, Kaneda's attorney.

"I'm sure they're out there," he said of the parents. "The problem is, do you have the time, do you have the funds to pursue it? It's going to cost you money."

Kaneda, 40, a real estate agent, said he'll persist despite the stiff odds.

"I've got to at least try," he said. "At least when my daughter grows old, she'll know her dad did all he could."

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