Quenby Wilcox hasn’t seen her children in over two years. She has no access to her assets or her fledgling business. Her life has been thrown off course by an issue that affects millions of people around the world: divorce. As messy as ending a marriage can be on its own, Wilcox faces the added complications of competing national jurisdictions and international law.
Originally from Louisiana and Arizona, and educated at George Washington University, Wilcox ended up marrying a Spanish man, whose employment with a multi-national corporation took them all over the world. As a so-called “trailing spouse,” she followed her husband’s employment to Paris, Miami, back to Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Paris again, Bogota, and finally Madrid again. Often unable to get work permits or stay local long enough to cultivate a career, she focused her attention on raising their two children. But over time, says Wilcox, the marriage soured and her husband became abusive (While she refers to psychological abuse, she specifies that there was never any physical violence). When they got divorced in Spain, she says, she was left out in the cold.
“Basically, if you’re the foreigner and the spouse is the national, they win everything,” says Wilcox.
Unfortunately, such cases are not uncommon. Few legal protections exist for expatriate spouses, even in rich countries like Japan, Australia, and many European countries.
According to Paula Lucas, the founder of the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center,( www.866uswomen.org ) an American living abroad may face enormous obstacles, especially in abusive situations. Having escaped an abusive husband in the United Arab Emirates with her children in tow a decade ago, Lucas knows the legal difficulties of seeking international custody personally.
“There’s a bias to give custody to the national, rather than the foreign parent,” says Lucas. Furthermore, would-be divorcees often lack funds for legal help and face language barriers in court. They may be stripped of their legal standing in the country, denied visitation rights, and have difficulty accessing their assets if they leave the country. Worst of all, provisions of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty designed to protect children from being kidnapped and taken abroad, fail to adequately account for abusive circumstances (for more information, see The Hague Domestic Violence Project -http://www.haguedv.org ).
In the first six months of this year alone, Lucas’s Crisis center received 1,189 calls from 281 expatriated men and women, representing 254 children. “What you think of as an American when you leave the country is ‘I can come home whenever I want,’” says Lucas. But as Quenby Wilcox learned, that’s not always so easy.
Having spent 20 years outside the labor force, lacking a credit history, and facing a well-connected ex-husband, Wilcox returned to the United States with only a suitcase in her hand. She found a job at a D.C. temp agency, rented a room, and sought to make inroads with U.S.-based advocacy organizations. “All I want is my money and to go back to Spain and live with my kids.” So far, she’s tried the State Department, the Justice Department, the American Consulate in Madrid, and even got Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes to write a letter to the State Department on her behalf, but to no avail. “Everybody just keeps passing the buck.”
Until she can get her assets unfrozen, Wilcox is working to change the international legal provisions and judicial rulings that have caused her so much grief. And so, during her two week vacation from the temp agency, she is picketing at the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Justice, if not to change policy directly then to get support on her judicial quest. She has demonstrated with women fighting similar issues in American courts, as well as with men fighting for better visitation rights. Her Facebook causes page, (www.causes.com/causes/497298) entitled “Safe Child International,” has so far has attracted 400 supporters.
Once she raises some capital, her plan is to revive an idea for an organization she started in Spain called “Global Expats,” (www.global-expats.com) originally intended to help trailing spouses with childcare issues, cultural adaptation, and finding jobs. “I didn’t realize that one of the things I’d be doing in the future was assisting women with domestic violence situations.”
Given the myriad financial, emotional, and legal stumbling blocks expatriates face, they could surely use the extra help.