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Global deadbeats

International conference may tackle the problem of parents who head overseas to dodge financial duty

Anna Colaluca struggles to keep a finger on her country-hopping ex-boyfriend Claudio Campi. Their son Christiano was born in December 1997 with a severe case of spina bifida, a spinal defect that required seven surgeries and generated more than $220,000 in medical bills. But though a Pennsylvania court ordered Mr. Campi to assist Ms. Colaluca with the financial burden of raising their special-needs son, he is now more than $17,000 behind in child support payments and has chipped in only $280 for medical expenses. Until early this year, he had been able to escape court enforcement by living and working overseas.

Ms. Colaluca's plight is common in international child support cases. While the United States is clamping down on "deadbeat" parents-the 1998 Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act makes it a felony to cross state lines or U.S. borders to evade support debts over $5,000-complex laws and the lack of reciprocal agreements with other countries stymie international enforcement of child support agreements. And the problem isn't limited to American parents. "Every country around the world is struggling with how to encourage parents to accept financial responsibility for their children," said Michael "Doc" McCoy, who manages Child Support Intervention in Fort Worth, Texas, a private child support enforcement agency that takes on more than 1,500 new cases each year.

The U.S. government is chipping away at the problem. The U.S. Central Authority for International Child Support Enforcement is negotiating with about 30 countries, according to agency director Steven Grant, and has even hammered out agreements with a few. Still, he called international child support "a very unsettled area of law." The legal tangle arising from nonexistent, conflicting, or unenforceable agreements is further complicated by cultural differences. Whether it's translating languages, converting foreign currencies, or hiring international attorneys, parents fighting child support battles across international boundaries fight uphill.

Ms. Colaluca, for example, won her original judgment-for monthly support payments and 95 percent of medical bills-in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Penn., in March 1998. But Mr. Campi, living in Italy at the time, did not comply, even when Ms. Colaluca pursued the matter through an Italian court. Later that year, Mr. Campi moved north to the U.K., a country with which the United States has reciprocity for enforcing child support orders. The Allegheny court in August 1998 sent Ms. Colaluca's court order to an English court for enforcement. It took a year to schedule a hearing in the East Berkshire Magistrate's Court in Slough. Mr. Campi skipped the first two hearings, attended the third, failed to comply with the magistrate's order, then missed the next two hearings. Finally, under threat of arrest if he failed to appear, he showed up at a hearing held on Jan. 14, 2000.

Ms. Colaluca was present that day. The Berkshire court found Mr. Campi guilty of gross neglect and contempt of court. He agreed to cough up part of the support and overdue monthly checks, then promptly hopped a jet for the Philippines, where he now works for Headstrong, Inc., a U.S.-based firm. Since then, Ms. Colaluca has received three checks; two were three months late, and two payments are now overdue. Mr. Campi declined WORLD's request for an interview. So did his employer.

Attorney Gloria DeHart, an advisor and international negotiator for the U.S. State Department, said forging agreements with one country at a time is a tedious process. But she believes hope may be on the horizon. Delegates to a meeting of The Hague Conference on Private International Law, coming up in the Netherlands in March, may design a multilateral convention to replace the maze of individual international agreements that currently make cross-border enforcement so difficult.

All that is unlikely to help Ms. Colaluca any time soon. Christiano, now 3 years old, still can't walk, must be catheterized four times daily, and wears a shunt to drain excess fluid from his brain. The medical bills keep mounting. To fight back, Ms. Colaluca launched an international child support website where parents can research international law, link to child support websites, locate state and international contacts, and connect with parents facing similar struggles. Although she describes her relationship with Mr. Campi as a "roller coaster," she says the two talk every day. "I have a huge concern about him disappearing again," Ms. Colaluca explains. "You tend to be distrustful when it's happened before."

Leah Driggers

Leah Driggers