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Clinton Presses Germany On Custody

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Thursday Germany would set up a working group with the United States to look into child custody disputes involving American parents, but warned he could not interfere in court rulings.

German courts have consistently ignored a treaty which requires that custody questions be decided in the country where a child lived, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante.

German courts have made it clear they believe that no matter what a treaty may say, any child is better off in Germany. There are no consequences for not complying with the treaty -- and at least until now, the U.S. government has been more interested in close relations than in separated families.

But the pressure of more than 50 outstanding U.S.-German custody cases brought the issue to the summit, and Schroeder announced that a panel of experts would look into the problem.

"We are both agreed that help is very much needed in this field," Schroeder told a joint news conference in Berlin with President Clinton, who arrived earlier Thursday.

But Schroeder stressed that despite the "tragic" circumstances of many custody disputes, he could not interfere in the independence of the German courts.

Schroeder was responding to criticism -- raised by the president during their talks Thursday -- from U.S. child custody campaigners who accuse German courts of favoring German parents and of flouting international treaties.

According to State Department figures, Germany is one of the worst offenders in enabling U.S. parents to get access to a child taken to live there against the wishes of one parent.

As hard as the administration worked to reunite Elian Gonzales with his father, the U.S. typically can do little or nothing for American parents caught in international custody disputes.

In an interview released earlier Thursday, Schroeder defended German courts' handling of child custody disputes.

"We have always fought for the well-being of children to be at the core of divorce and custody cases. That is the only standard," Schroeder told the Berliner Zeitung daily in an interview to be published Friday.

"The times in which Germany would routinely change the decisions of the courts are over, thank God," he said, referring to the Nazi dictatorship which regularly interfered.

Schroeder told the news conference that Germany and the U.S. would establish a working group of experts to check all custody cases still pending and do everything possible to speed up the process.

Schroeder, himself three times divorced and a former family lawyer, admitted in the newspaper interview that German authorities had made mistakes in the controversial case of the two children of New Yorker Joseph Cooke.

Cooke lost his children Danny, 10, and Michelle, eight, after his German-born wife checked into a mental health clinic in 1992 and put them in the care of the authrities.

Despite eight years of effort and a U.S. court order, Danny and Michele Cooke still live in Germany.

But with Thursday's announcement, their grandmother has new reason to hope.

Grandmother Patricia Vooke says, "I would just like to see my son's face light up again."

Schroeder said the German authorities should have tried harder to trace their father, who would have been easy to find. But the chancellor said he was not in favor of returning Danny and Michelle to the United States now.

"If one were to rip the children out of their foster family and send them into a completely new environment without them knowing the language, then one would correct an earlier mistake with an even worse one," he said.

The emotional topic of international custody disputes has been thrust into the spotlight with the high-profile case of Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez, whose Miami relatives want him to stay with them rather than return home with his father.

President Clinton Thursday welcomed the rejection by a U.S. court of a political asylum application filed by the Miami relatives on behalf of Elian, saying the boy's place was with his father.

"We have tried to honor the principles that the chancellor and I discussed today in the cases involving our two countries in that case," he said. "I was very pleased with the decision."

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