Five Minutes to 5 on a Friday
Kathryn Smith Root helps families by building bridges across borders
Published in 2020 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on July 6, 2020
Updated on July 10, 2020
It was 1988, Kathryn Root’s third year at Ronald Allen Johnston & Associates, a family law firm.
“I was in the office at five minutes to 5:00 on a Friday, and the phone rang,” she recalls. “And it was someone associated with a national missing children’s association.” A father on the East Coast had received a tip that his missing preteen son could be found in Portland, and he needed an Oregon lawyer to help him enforce his state’s custody provision. “I said, ‘Well, I do family law. I’ve never done anything like that. But it’s Friday afternoon, and I know where the law library is. I guess by Monday I can figure it out.’”
She did, and the child was eventually reunited with his father.
“Fast forward about one year later,” Root says. “I’m sitting in my office again, five minutes to 5:00 on a Friday. And the phone rings, and it’s somebody calling from the United States State Department.” This time, a parent had taken a child to Oregon from England. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about the Hague Child Abduction Convention or international child custody jurisdiction, but I know where the law library is. I guess by Monday I could figure it out.”
Soon, the parent agreed to return the child to England.
These days, about 20% of Root’s family law practice at Gevurtz Menashe deals with international custody disputes.
Finding the path to a successful cross-border custody claim, she says, often requires a crash course on foreign law. “You shouldn’t always presume or assume that the law in a foreign nation is the same or even strongly similar to the law that’s in the United States,” Root says.
That’s partly why she loves it: piecing together solutions when jurisdictions don’t agree. “I always found those types of issues to be intellectually fascinating and kind of a big puzzle to put together,” she says, before adding, “even though I hate jigsaw puzzles.”
One of the keys, she says, is finding “a capable, experienced lawyer in the other country who can help and drill down how this is really going to work. It’s not just, ‘Did they sign the [Hague Convention]?’ It’s ‘How long does it take, and are the judges willing to follow the law?’”
One case from 2009 haunts her to this day. Root represented the paternal American grandparents of a 5-year-old. Their son had married a German woman while stationed overseas, and the family came to Oregon when he left the military. “And then the mom got disenchanted with her husband and moved back to Germany but decided to leave the child with the grandparents. I think the dad was having some personal difficulties in his life also,” Root recalls.
When the mother filed an action under the Hague Convention to have the child returned to Germany, Root argued that the child was already well-settled in Oregon and should be allowed to stay. “And to my chagrin and shock, the judge said, ‘No, the habitual residence of the child is Germany, and the child is going to be returned to Mom,’” Root says.
Not only that, the judge ordered the child turned over to the mother within two hours of the decision and returned to Germany the very next day. “To which my client, the grandma, starts immediately sobbing hysterically in the courtroom,” Root says. “She basically got 15 minutes to say goodbye. I cried most of the way back from Medford to Portland.”
Root knows it’s best to put up fences around such emotions—but that’s easier said than done. “[You] realize that all you can do is advocate intelligently and persuasively and strongly for your client. And if the judge does something unexpected, you’re not responsible.”
The job can be frustrating, she adds, but it’s never boring. “And when I am able to successfully reunite a parent with a missing or abducted child or children, there’s no better feeling.”