No Time For Goodbyes

Families: George Uhl must struggle with distance and international laws to regain his son.

June 11, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Like a ghostly imprint, the faint mark on George Uhl's mirror does not go away.

Look closely at the tiny smudge, and a hand print emerges. It was made by his son, David, two years ago. Uhl remembers clearly the day he held his only child up to the mirror above his living room fireplace. The boy reached out to touch his reflection.

It was April 29, 1998. David was only 11 months old. Within a matter of minutes, the boy was on his way to Germany. His mother, from whom Uhl was separated, pledged to return him within two months.

She never brought him back.

For two years, Uhl has lived in agony. He has seen little of his son. He was permitted a series of 90-minute visits by a German court just before Christmas last year. The only other opportunity came last April when he tried -- and failed -- to take his son back to the United States.

The 48-year-old physician considers David a victim of state-sanctioned kidnapping. Efforts to persuade German authorities to respect the custody provisions made in Baltimore County Circuit Court and signed by his ex-wife have been fruitless.

"I'm sorry, but I can't talk about this without being tearful," says Uhl, a without being tearful," says Uhl, a clinical neurologist and a federal research scientist, as his eyes well up, his voice chokes. "I love him, and I hope he understands that. It's such a horrendous thing."

The experience has placed Uhl squarely in the arena of international diplomacy and something called The Hague Convention of 1980. The international treaty requires custody decisions to be made in the country where a child lived prior to an abduction -- unless a return poses a grave risk to the child, such as in cases of child abuse or neglect.

The German courts have become notorious for ignoring that pact. Of the approximately 1,000 cases of foreign abduction pending with the State Department, 58 involve Germany, making it second only to Mexico. Some child welfare advocates believe the actual number of child abduction cases may be 10 times that figure because many aren't reported to the State Department.

Earlier this year, Uhl appeared at a press conference on Capitol Hill to support a House resolution calling on nations to comply with the Hague and spotlighting Germany -- along with Austria, Sweden, Honduras and Mexico -- for failing to "fully implement" its provisions. The measure passed the House last month without a dissenting vote.

Lobbying for international justice is not a comfortable position for a man more accustomed to studying molecular neurobiology in a lab, but Uhl is passionate about bringing David home. Placing political pressure on Germany through the media and U.S. politicians is his best chance to see his son, he believes.

"My wife is a kidnapper. The German government is complicit in this," he says.

Imagine witnessing the Justice Department's gyrations to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his Cuban father -- while the State Department simultaneously tells you there is nothing they can do to help get your son home. That's what life is like for Uhl.

"It's taken its toll; it's been a lot for George," says Uhl's mother, Jeanne. "There are times when you think this isn't really happening. Maybe that's just part of the body's defense mechanism so you can cope."

A happy beginning

It wasn't supposed to work out like this, of course. David was born May 8, 1997, to Uhl and his wife, Katherina Gotzler-Uhl. His birth announcement (on rocking horse stationery) informed family and friends that he was 7 pounds, 12 ounces and 23 inches long.

Uhl had met his wife by responding to a personal ad. She was a research fellow at Wilmer Eye Institute. She was 5-feet, 3-inches tall with brown hair and eyes, a native of Romania who had lived in Germany. She went by Katie.

He was, and is, a head of a lab studying the neurobiology of addiction for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins. He is 6-feet, 2-inches tall, 10 years her senior, and wears thick, wire-rim glasses. His blond hair is turning silvery-gray. He admits to being somewhat shy.

Uhl found her charming and engaging. They had been dating for only a matter of months when she told him she was pregnant. Uhl had long wanted a child but hadn't expected one quite so soon. Yet when the pregnancy was almost lost -- and Uhl had a chance to see his son in the flickering images of a computer ultra-sound machine -- he fell in love with the unborn child.

"We bonded early," he recalls. "We got attached in utero."

The couple wed in March 1997 in the Baltimore County courthouse. It was his first, her second. But even before David was born two months later, problems developed in their relationship. His wife was struggling in her work and talked about returning to Germany.

Turn for the worse

Things worsened when her mother moved in after David's birth, Uhl recalls. The arguments became more frequent and worse. He thought maybe it was a cultural difference. They talked about separating.

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