Broken Bond

UPDATED 10/09/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/09/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Like any proud father, Joseph Cooke keeps photographs of his children close at hand. "Everyone says my son looks just like me," he says. "You can see it in the picture." But for Cooke, 32, a substitute teacher from Queens, parental pride is tinged with anguish. Eight years ago, with their marriage in trouble, his then wife, Christiana, took their son Daniel, now 10, and daughter Michelle, now 9, to her native Germany. Severely depressed and desperate, she checked into a clinic and asked German authorities to place the children in foster care—temporarily, she thought. In fact, Danny and Michelle have been there ever since. And even though a U.S. judge granted him full custody, Cooke has spent more than six years locked in a nightmarish battle with the foster parents, who have refused to give up the children, and the German government, which has not only ruled against him but ordered him to pay child support. Blaming his own financial hardship and the foster parents' resistance—visits were canceled—he hasn't seen his children since 1995. "It's a loss you live with every day," he says.

But now at last he has a glimmer of hope. After The Washington Post reported on his plight in May, the story resonated at the highest levels of government, prompting President Clinton to intervene. At a summit in Berlin, the President asked German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to help resolve the matter. As a result, Cooke expects to visit Danny and Michelle soon, for the first time in five years. "I want to let them know I fought for them," he says.

To give them the full picture, Cooke will have to explain some nuances of international law. Though a 1980 treaty requires that children's home countries decide custody matters, it makes exceptions when dislocating a child might harm his or her mental or physical health. German courts invoked that exception in the Cooke case, maintaining that it would traumatize Daniel and Michelle to remove them from the home—and culture—they have come to call their own. It is an argument frequently made in Germany, which Congress has condemned along with Austria and Sweden for consistently violating the treaty. "The case is a terrible tragedy," says Thomas "Weber of the German ministry of justice. "Both sides need to introduce measures that can prevent something like this from recurring."

The ordeal began in 1992 when Cooke, a New York City native, was working as a merchandising manager in Chicago. Christiana, 33—whom he'd met in 1988 while serving in the Army in Stuttgart and married soon afterward—had grown withdrawn. Now living in Concord, Calif., and studying to be a systems technician, she says she felt desperately lonely as a homemaker. "He went out all the time," she recalls. "I was stuck in the house." Moreover she claims Cooke was prone to outbursts, during which he would scream and shove her. He denies it—"I never abused her," Cooke asserts. In the summer of 1992, Christiana says, she fled with the children, spending several days in a Skokie, Ill., women's shelter, where she says she was advised to take Danny and Michelle to Germany. She flew with them home to Stuttgart, where her father is the police chief. In December she entered a clinic and was diagnosed with "reactive depression in acute conflict situation." With her relatives unable to care for Danny and Michelle, Christiana asked the government to place them with a foster family until she could get back on her feet. And so, without notifying their father, authorities sent them to live with Franz and Else Weh in the German town of Binningen. "I didn't know," Christiana says, "they were going to steal my children."

She returned to the U.S. in January 1993, staying with an aunt in Walnut Creek, Calif. Christiana then filed for permanent residence. In her petition she cited domestic abuse. The Immigration and Naturalization Service granted her request. (Cooke says he was never even contacted by the INS.) At some point—they disagree about precisely when—Christiana informed him that their kids were in a foster home and gave him their number. But when he called to say he was coming to Germany for the children, Cooke says, the Wehs wouldn't acknowledge that they were there. Three days later the Wehs (who declined to be interviewed) secured an injunction preventing him from taking his children. When Cooke phoned again, Franz Weh threatened to have him arrested if he showed up.

The law seemed to be on Cooke's side. A New York court granted him a divorce in 1994 and gave him full custody, uncontested by Christiana, who Cooke says never raised abuse allegations. But when Cooke arrived that year to get Danny and Michelle, he says a German judge told him to stay for three months to get re-acquainted. He waited two weeks before his first visit. "When I first saw them, I couldn't stop crying," says Cooke, who recalls Danny giving him a high five. "We always high-fived each other. I knew he remembered me from that gesture."

But in three months Cooke saw the children briefly just three times—he says the Wehs canceled on a half-dozen other occasions. In March 1995 a German district court ruled that the children should stay with the foster family since they had bonded with the Wehs. Cooke appealed twice, but that October another court upheld the decision. "Every passing year made it all the more difficult to move the children from the place that had become their home," explains Weber, the German justice official.

Cooke returned to the U.S., where he had quit his job and moved into the Queens house of his mother, Patricia, 56, an administrative assistant at an accounting firm, so he could devote his time and limited resources to fighting for his children. In the next year and a half he visited Germany four times for hearings and meetings. "You think about them all the time," he says of Danny and Michelle. "You'd go to a movie and see a dad with his kids and get all upset." On a brighter note, he met real estate broker Rosemarie Paterno at a local gym. They married in August 1995 and have a daughter, Azura, 3, and son, Thomas, born in February. Still, says Rosemarie, "he has a part of him that's really missing."

So does Christiana. She wrote her children regularly, and in 1997 she spent a month in Germany, during which she was allowed three 45-minute visits with her son and daughter—always joined by the Wehs. Danny especially was distant. "Brainwashed," she says. "It was emotionally devastating. I couldn't go back anymore." Still, Christiana, who previously asked the German court to give the children to Cooke, says she would now prefer to see them live with the Wehs.

Fearful of Germany's threat to have him arrested for nonpayment of child support, Cooke was reluctant to revisit the country. In 1998, though, the Wehs agreed to let Cooke's mother see the children. Determined to forge a bond, Patricia made seven visits in two years but kept the details from her son to avoid upsetting him. "He would say, 'Are they okay?' I would say, 'Fine.' "

Cooke graduated magna cum laude from St. John's University last year and is now in graduate school. This past spring he finally spoke publicly about his struggle at the request of Lady Catherine Meyer, the wife of the British ambassador to the U.S., whose German ex-husband has had her two sons in Germany since 1994. "If we don't go to the media," says Meyer, "the world will not know our plight." She was with Cooke in March at a Washington, D.C., news conference where he began to tell his story but broke down in tears. The display inspired The Washington Post piece on Cooke's case, which Bill Clinton called heartrending.

In June the President and Chancellor Schroeder agreed to appoint a joint U.S.-German panel to resolve Cooke's and similar cases, and in July the panel said it would help clear the way for Cooke to visit his children, though the timing is unclear. Cooke has no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead but hopes for some resolution. "They are my children and I want what's best for them," he says. "We're going to work on starting a relationship."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Eve Heyn in New York City, Jessica Skelly in Cologne, Frances Dinkelspiel in Concord and Elizabeth Velez in Washington, D.C.

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