With practiced discretion, a black-suited butler pours tea for Catherine Meyer in the morning room of the elegant 13-room British Embassy residence in Washington, D.C. Here, Lady Meyer and her husband, British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer, regularly play host to the international elite. Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Barbara Walters, Ralph Lauren and thousands of others from the rarefied heights of culture and politics have been feted beneath the crystal chandeliers in the grand ballroom. Handsome and charismatic, the Meyers were not so long ago labeled "Diplomacy's Dynamic Duo" by The Washington Post. Yet as the ambassador's wife sits chain-smoking anxiously, it is clear that something is terribly wrong.

"I don't think I'll ever see my children again," says Lady Meyer, 46, who for the past five years has done all in her power to win their return. In August 1994 her estranged German husband, Dr. Hans-Peter Volkmann, sent Meyer a 21-page letter explaining that in the "best interest" of their sons Alexander, then 9, and Constantin, 7, he would not send them back to the London flat they had shared with her. He claimed that the boys, who had spent the summer with him in the woodsy German village of Verden, felt alienated in London. He quoted their sons as saying repeatedly that Germany was their home and that they wished to speak German, not English. "In an instant, your world is destroyed," recalls Meyer.

Through the courts, diplomacy and the press, Lady Meyer has since fought relentlessly to get her boys back, a battle detailed in her just-published book, They Are My Children Too: A Mother's Struggle for Her Sons. Many experts say the weight of international law is with her, as are such political allies as British First Lady Cherie Blair and French President Jacques Chirac. But Meyer has been foiled by a German appeals court that, without having heard her side of the case, allowed Volkmann to keep the children because the boys "have decisively opposed" returning to England.

Meyer says her ex now maintains that Alexander and Constantin have no desire even to see her because they feel she abandoned them. If that seems incredible in light of her desperate attempts to reclaim her sons, Meyer believes Volkmann and his locally prominent family have turned the boys against her. (Volkmann declined to be interviewed for this story.) During her few visits the boys' demeanor has ranged from chilly to hostile. Once, when Meyer approached them at school, she says, Alexander said, "Our paternal grandmother told us if we ever see you we should run and scream."

"They used to be normal, lively kids, but now they're totally closed and tense," says Brigitte Pahl, a friend whom Meyer recently visited with her two sons in Hamburg. "It's so sad. She was always a good, loving mother."

Yet, Meyer is undaunted. "She is absolutely determined to regain the love of her two sons," says Sir Christopher, 55, whose October 1997 marriage to her is the single happy consequence of her ordeal. The two had met that April, when he was Britain's ambassador to Germany and she appealed to him for assistance. If his political clout hasn't yet helped Meyer's case, it has allowed her to draw attention to the wider issue of custody kidnappings. In the U.S. alone some 350,000 such children are abducted by family members each year. Internationally the problem is so grave that 55 nations have signed a treaty—the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction—putting in place civil-court procedures to speed the return of kidnapped sons and daughters.

Meyer cochairs the new International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an advocacy group to be based in Washington and London that is designed to track kidnapped children and curtail abductions across national borders. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cherie Blair spoke when Meyer hosted an April 23 event launching the center. Meyer wept as Blair noted the "cruelty and injustice" of her plight.

Meyer, herself the product of an international marriage, was born in Baden-Baden, Germany (then in the French occupation zone), to Maurice Laylle, a French naval officer, and his Russian wife, Olga. In 1958, Laylle went to work for Mobil, moved the family to Africa, then settled in London when Catherine was 12. While at London University majoring in Slavonic and East European studies, she hired on as a commodities broker for Merrill Lynch. "I fell in love with the business," she says. A first marriage, to a broker, lasted just a year.

In August 1982, Meyer was visiting her half sister in Brittany, France, when she met medical student Hans-Peter Volkmann. "He was all bubbly, with a sort of childishness about him," she recalls. "I was drawn to that." They wed in June 1984 and set up house in Meyer's London flat. Alexander was born the next May, and a few months later Hans-Peter announced that he wanted to join a Frankfurt pharmaceutical firm. Reluctantly, Catherine sold her flat and left for Germany. "I didn't speak a word of the language," she says. "I didn't have friends. I was lost."

Over the next few years, Hans-Peter changed jobs several times, moving the family to New Jersey, Wiesbaden (where Constantin was born in 1987), Verden and Hamburg. "By this time, I spoke a bit of German," Meyer says. "I had friends. I became more myself." But she also realized that she and her husband had drifted apart. "We have completely different ambitions, completely different needs," she explained in a letter she wrote to him asking for a separation. Volkmann implored her to stay, but in April 1992 she moved with the children to London, where she had landed a job as a bond trader.

According to a separation agreement finalized in Germany, Alexander and Constantin would visit their father on holidays. In Meyer's view the boys enjoyed the best of both worlds—the urban sophistication of London and the lush rural beauty of Verden. "They were very close to Catherine—the little one simply adored her," says Meyer's mother. "They had plenty of friends." Constantin was amiable and athletic. His big brother was more temperamental and meticulous—his treasured Lego blocks and toy knights were always carefully arranged in his cupboard. On weekends, Meyer says, she and her sons would in-line skate, swim and host sleepovers for friends.

In the spring of 1994, Meyer saw an odd change in Alexander. She says he returned from a visit with his father "repeating like a robot, 'I am German, and I want to go to a German school But in a few weeks the child was back to his old self, and on July 6, Meyer went with the boys to the airport to see them off to Germany for the summer. "Mummy, you won't be sad without us," Alexander said as they hugged. "We will be back soon, remember." Six weeks later, Volkmann's letter arrived.

Then began Meyer's tortuous journey through international family law. Citing the Hague treaty, which Germany had signed, the British High Court of Justice granted her an injunction demanding the boys' return. The case was then heard in a German court in Verden, where a local social worker testified that while the children loved their mother, they had been unhappy in London because "they endured Nazi taunts"—a complaint Meyer had never heard. Still, the judge ordered Volkmann to turn the boys over to her immediately.

Instead, he drove off with them. The next day in Celle, in northern Germany, a court allowed Volkmann an appeal. "When Meyer saw Alexander at the hearing a month later, "he kicked me," she says, and Constantin "didn't look at me." She ran sobbing from the courtroom. After interviewing her sons briefly—and without hearing from Meyer or looking at London school reports stating that the boys had been flourishing—the judges ruled for Volkmann because of the children's strong desire to remain in Germany. They noted a loophole in the Hague treaty: that a child need not be returned if he or she "objects...and has obtained an age...at which it is appropriate to take account of its views" or if the child would suffer "psychological harm." The decision seemed based partly on the anti-German teasing the children said they experienced. But the boys had also complained that their mother was absorbed in her work and spent too little time with them—which Meyer denies.

Most wrenching for Meyer was the way Alexander and Constantin had turned against her. In explanation she points to research suggesting that children in custody battles are often programmed to reject one parent and give unquestioning loyalty to the other. Columbia University medical school child psychiatrist Richard Gardner has called the phenomenon parental-alienation syndrome. "The victimized parent is portrayed as all bad, with no positives," he says. "The alienating parent is all good—no defects." Volkmann has denied such mind control. "We're not some banana republic," he told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

In March 1995 the Verden court transferred temporary custody to Volkmann. Meyer was allowed to visit the boys once a month; typically, she says, Volkmann made sure it was in a locked room at his house with someone else present. Such conditions were "degrading," Meyer said in a June 1996 letter to the boys, suggesting that they wait "until we are able to be together again normally." The situation did not improve, and she would not see them again for almost two years. Meanwhile she continued her battle in the courts, and friends in the British Parliament and the French government vainly petitioned Germany on her behalf. Her consuming campaign cost Meyer her job, leaving her on public assistance and mired in despair. But in 1996 she wrote her first book on the struggle, Two Children Behind a Wall, which was published in Europe. "It was like an exorcism," Meyer says. "It allowed me to say to my children that Mommy did not abandon you and did everything to try and see you."

In 1997 she met in Bonn with Britain's new ambassador to Germany, Christopher Meyer, then separated from his first wife, with whom he has three sons. "There was a lot of magic in the air," he says. Catherine demurs. "I was tired, had bags under my eyes and was skinny as a rake," she recalls. "I was a lost cat." A commuter romance developed, and when Sir Christopher was appointed ambassador to the U.S. in the summer of 1997, he asked her to come as his wife. The only problem was that she wasn't yet officially divorced. That obstacle was overcome, but not before Catherine took an agonizing step. She abandoned her custody fight after her lawyer advised her that prolonging the battle would delay the divorce. Her sustaining hope was that she might be granted improved visitation rights and be able to rebuild her relationship with her sons. At her divorce hearing that September it was ruled that she would be allowed to see the boys on neutral ground. But the few visits since have hardly been all she had longed for. "You've forced the press to write lies," Constantin told her in February. "We don't want to see you." Last month, Volkmann reneged on an agreement to allow the children to visit Meyer in Hamburg for four days. The boys, he maintained, objected.

And so every passing day brings Lady Meyer's boys closer to adulthood—and farther from her. "Five years is a long time," she says sadly. "When it's a child, it's almost their whole life." Still, she clings to the fragile hope that she might one day rebuild their bond. The ambassador, meanwhile, has attempted personal diplomacy and found it wanting. "I've tried to strike up a man-to-man relationship with her former husband in hopes that common sense and humanity can prevail," he says. "But I have to say I don't seem to have succeeded."

Richard Jerome
Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C., Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin and Ellin Stein in London

  • Contributors:
  • Margery Sellinger,
  • Karen Nickel Anhalt,
  • Ellin Stein.