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Ga. Custody Appeal To Be Heard

February 26, 1998

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (AP) _ Christiane Lops wants to take her two young daughters back home with her to Germany, where they lived with her until, she says, her ex-husband abducted them.

Michael Lops says he had no choice but to bring the girls to the United States because Ms. Lops had abandoned them.

Their custody fight, which was scheduled to be heard today in federal appeals court in Atlanta, has become an international dispute involving a treaty that legal experts say judges frequently misunderstand.

Ms. Lops is seeking help under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a treaty that provides for the speedy return of children taken from their home country.

The treaty, ratified by the United States in 1988, ask judges to not decide custody but merely to return abducted children to their home country so courts there can take up the issue.

``Some courts don’t have the faintest idea what this is,″ said Bill Hilton, an attorney in Santa Clara, Calif., who specializes in international abduction cases. ``They tend to want to handle this as a custody dispute.″

On Nov. 5, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation seized the Lops girls, 7-year-old Carmen and 6-year-old Claire, from the home of their grandmother, Anne Harrington, in Martinez, Ga.

The girls had been living with their father in North Augusta, S.C., but his mother often took care of them at her home in Georgia.

Ms. Lops filed petitions in Aiken County Superior Court in South Carolina and in federal court in Georgia, asking to be allowed to return to Germany with her daughters.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr. in Augusta, Ga., agreed that the girls had been wrongfully taken and ordered that they be allowed to return to Germany with their mother.

They were at the airport, heading home, when attorneys for the father and grandmother won an emergency stay from the federal appeals court to keep them here. Then Judge Peter Nuessle of South Carolina ruled that the case was still his and ordered Ms. Lops and the girls to move to his state so he could rule _ only to have Bowen, the federal judge, stay that order and put the case before the appeals court.

Hilton said the conflicting jurisdictions likely have delayed the Lops case. Another complication is that United States refuses to provide free legal service for foreign parents whose children are found here _ a service other countries provide. Ms. Lops’ lawyers are working for free to represent her.

``The Hague treaty is the best we got,″ said David Thelen of Lawrenceville, who is assisting Ms. Lops. ``But the United States needs to step up to the plate.″

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