Many countries, including the United States, have become members of the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention contains an Article on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Pursuant to the child abduction provisions, the court "shall order the return of a child forthwith" upon proper petition of the court if a child has been wrongfully removed from another country. This creates a nearly automatic return order for any children in the United States which have been wrongfully removed from other countries. However, there is one small catch. The provision ordering the immediate return of a child only applies if a petition requesting the return of the child has been made within one year of the child's wrongful removal.
The one-year period attached to the child abduction provision of the Hague Convention has caused a growing split between lower courts. Some courts held that the one-year period is tolled (essentially put on pause) when the abducting parent has concealed the location of the child. Other courts held that the Hague Convention does not contain a provision tolling the one-year period and therefore, courts cannot impose one. In March 2014, the United States Supreme Court handed down the deciding vote and determined that United States courts cannot toll the one-year period for parents to file a Hague petition requesting a child's immediate return.
The U.S. Supreme Court based its decision largely on an analysis of the best interest of the abducted children. The Court reasoned that, regardless of whether a child's whereabouts were concealed, the child would likely be settled in a new place after a year had passed. Ordering automatic return of the child would uproot him or her from his or her newly established life, which may be detrimental to the interests of the child. In addition, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that the drafters of the statute could have included exceptions to the one-year period but did not.
In a concurring opinion, one Supreme Court Justice pointed out that although U.S. courts cannot toll the one-year period, judges still have the ability to return the child after the one-year period. If the judge determines that the factors favoring the child's return outweigh the factors favoring the child being settled in a new home, the court may order the child returned. In addition, the court may take the concealment of the child into account when weighing all of the appropriate considerations. In sum, the Supreme Court's ruling does leave a loophole open for courts to order the return of child when it is in the child's best interest to do so.