Lise Tanner is a typical aunt to her niece and nephew in so many ways — she remembers their birthdays, repeats their stories and gushes about their scholastic achievements.
But she also updates a website detailing their overseas detainment — perhaps not so typical.
The children have not been back to the United States — their homeland — for five years because of a travel restriction placed by their mother and her current country of residence, New Zealand.
Tanner, 46, a Gig Harbor resident, said this restriction — in place though the children are U.S. citizens — prevented the children from visiting their dying grandfather or attending his funeral in August 2011.
The story of the detainment is one of complex legalities and international diplomacy. (Because of sensitives and concerns pertaining to the strict privacy laws in New Zealand, the names of the children and their mother have been omitted.)
In 2010, Rick Johnson, Tanner’s brother and the father of the children, agreed to move the family to New Zealand for a three-year maximum overseas adventure. The children, at that time, were 5 (daughter) and 3 (son).
It has been a legal battle back and forth. We’ve stayed quiet because we thought the courts will work it out. But it doesn’t work out that way.
Exactly six months after the move, in January 2011, Johnson’s wife separated from him and moved from the house, filing a without-notice travel restriction with the New Zealand courts, which barred the couple’s children from leaving the country. Both couples subsequently filed for divorce — Johnson in Oregon and the children’s mother in New Zealand — and the ongoing legal tangle began.
“It has been a legal battle back and forth,” Tanner said. “We’ve stayed quiet because we thought the courts will work it out. But it doesn’t work out that way.”
Johnson, 44, speaking over the phone from where he remains with his children in New Zealand, said that he continues to fight for his children’s right to return to their homeland. His children are now 11 (daughter) and 8 (son).
“The issue right now is that the children cannot leave New Zealand for any reason,” Johnson said. “What we’re really looking for is a solution that’s in the best interest of the children.”
Johnson has argued, before U.S. courts and both the Lower and Higher courts of New Zealand, that his children have the right, as U.S. citizens, to return to America.
The issue right now is that the children cannot leave New Zealand for any reason. What we’re really looking for is a solution that’s in the best interest of the children.
The U.S. court agreed the children should be returned, as did the Family court in New Zealand in 2012, but the High court, on appeal from the children’s mother — who wishes to remain in the country — disagreed in 2013 and declared the children would stay in New Zealand.
Johnson’s appeals were denied and he was told to appeal to the New Zealand Parliament.
“The New Zealand courts have taken an exclusive approach with having denied the children a large portion of their culture, family and heritage,” Johnson said. “The biggest failure that’s occurred is that the courts haven’t taken into consideration the best intentions of the children.”
Tanner has not seen her niece and nephew since she last visited New Zealand in May of 2012. Johnson managed a trip to the United States in July of 2014. Because of the complicated international laws and unseen pitfalls of overseas custody battles, Johnson and Tanner have started Children at Borders, an organization to bring attention to their family’s struggle and situation.
“We want to be a voice. We want to reach out to as many people as we can to share information,” Tanner said. “We have a tremendous amount of experience on this now, especially for Americans.”
The New Zealand courts have taken an exclusive approach with having denied the children a large portion of their culture, family and heritage. The biggest failure that’s occurred is that the courts haven’t taken into consideration the best intentions of the children.
“I can tell you that I know more about this issue than I ever thought I would,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important for anyone with a kid to know.”
Felicia A. Soleil, a Gig Harbor-based family law attorney who provided resources and advice to Johnson and Tanner, agreed that there are numerous legal loopholes when it comes to international custody battles.
“It’s much different than people imagine,” she said. “People believe they are all these assurances between countries and there’s just not. There’s very little agreement between different countries’ legal systems.”
Soliel is a leader in the field of collaborative law, both nationally and internationally, and has been a Gig Harbor resident for more than 25 years. She helped to connect Johnson with local attorneys in New Zealand for more specific assistance with his legal battles.
“People don’t realize how easy it is for people to take your kids to another country,” she said. “It’s so very, very hard to get your kids back — and it shouldn’t be.”
Johnson has continued his legal struggle by filing a Human Rights Violation complaint with the United Nations against New Zealand, arguing that his children’s right to their nationality has been violated.
The kids know there’s a problem. We do what we can to try and protect them, but to deny there’s a problem doesn’t help them. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to reach a holistic resolution for the children.
“The system is overly complex for an individual,” Johnson said. “I can say that my congressmen and senators have contacted the State Department (about this).”
To further complicate matters, strict privacy and contempt laws in New Zealand have prevented Johnson from attracting public attention to his children’s situation. He’s been threatened several times with contempt of court for speaking out against the rulings of the New Zealand courts, he said.
“It’s a different environment,” he said of New Zealand. “I have a whole different appreciation for the freedom we have in the U.S.”
Jacquie Goodwill, a family friend and support system through the legal battles, has no hesitance in voicing her opinion on the matter.
“It’s an international diplomacy issue at this point,” Goodwill said. “As a first-world nation, New Zealand is allowing someone to stand behind their court system and facilitate alienation of a parent? I truly do not understand why New Zealand diplomats and politicians are not incensed ... this all is unconscionable to me.”
Tanner agrees, with more reserve: “It’s horrible but there’s no paths to take ... our goal is to bring the children home.”
Johnson, working doggedly through the legalities on a daily basis, also tries to keep his children separate from the struggle.
“The kids know there’s a problem,” he said. “We do what we can to try and protect them, but to deny there’s a problem doesn’t help them. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to reach a holistic resolution for the children.”
Children at Borders
To stay updated on the Tanner and Johnson family struggle, and for more information about other families affected by similar situations, visit www.childrenatborders.org.