The last time game programmer Kris Morness says he saw his five-year-old son, Maximus, was on July 25 this year. It was a Thursday, and they talked on Skype. Everything seemed normal, but normal can be deceiving. That was the last time Morness has seen — or heard from — his son. Now, he's doing everything to get him back.
The boy's mother, Chie Kawabata, has left the US, according to a description in this Kirkland, Washington police report, taking Maximus with her to Japan in what her ex-husband is calling a case of child abduction. Kawabata was born in Osaka, but is now apparently a US citizen.
"I decided to go public because there is lots of evidence she is not returning," Morness told Kotaku. And by going public, Morness means it: He created a website called ChieKawabata.com. While there's no mincing words, this isn't some simple takedown site designed to destroy her credibility and make it impossible for future employers to hire her. Morness hopes it can help him find his son. It just might.
Every story has two sides, and Kotaku reached out to Chie Kawabata for comment via the email listed on the website Morness created as well as through a Facebook account and the cell phone number listed on ChieKawabata.com. At the time of publication, Kawabata had yet to reply. There was an automated message saying the phone was not accepting calls at this time.
ChieKawabata.com is a gutsy move that helps Morness get his story out there so he can hopefully be reunited with his son. When asked if he was worried if Kawabata would sue him for defamation, Morness replied, "I kind of wish she would try, because she would have to return to the jurisdiction. In any case, I had already looked into the legal risks of putting up such a website and I am in the green there."
"On the site are all the relevant court orders and the police report," said Morness, adding, "I took an approach of full transparency. The trial transcripts are there — and they paint an incredibly detailed picture of what kind of stuff has been going on for the past two years."
This isn't the kind of thing you'd expect from a 16-year game industry veteran like Morness, with games such as Command & Conquer titles, Jagged Alliance 2, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth under his belt. Currently, he is the lead programmer on Age of Empires II HD. Then again, this probably isn't what Morness expected.
Creating a website like this comes with huge risks for Morness, both professionally and personally. It shines a light on a messy divorce with both sides making ugly allegations (more here in the 2012 Parenting Plan document). But shining a light on this case is exactly what Morness wants to do after what he says happened. According to the same 2012 document, Kawabata was named Maximus' primary parent, with Morness receiving weekends, holiday time and scheduled Skype talks. As noted in the Final Parenting Plan document, international travel requires "advance written approval by the other parent".
Maximus spent two and a half weeks in early July with his father, but later that month, Morness could no longer get in touch with his son. Morness emailed his ex-wife, asking her where his son was. Then, as documented on ChieKawabata.com, he supposedly received this reply from his ex-wife on August 2:
After much thought, I have taken a leave of absence from work until the end of August and have traveled with Maximus to Japan to visit my cancer-stricken mother. The torment I have endured in recent years have left me (and therefore Max) emotionally ruined and have forced my hands to take this step that I wish I did not have to take. We are in Osaka with our family where you have visited before, and I just need [a] little time to have my and Max's wound to be healed through the love of my family.
Morness believes this move is permanent since, as documented on ChieKawabata.com, he says she's tried to relocate outside the U.S. twice before: Once to Beijing, China, and the other time to Tokyo, Japan.
Still unable to get in touch with his son, Morness contacted the police in Kirkland, Washington, where his ex-wife lived. The Kirkland police report on ChieKawabata.com states that Morness's ex-wife and Maximus flew out of San Francisco to Japan on July 26 without providing the proper parental notification. A spokesperson for the Kirkland Police Department confirmed to Kotaku the authenticity of the police report posted by Morness.
Because of this, according to this Superior Court of Washington King County document also on ChieKawabata.com, Morness was granted custody of Maximus due to "custodial interference of the first degree for mother which includes abduction of child to Japan against court orders and withholding access of child to father for protracted periods of time."
In Japan, joint custody for divorced parents doesn't exist. Complicating things for international marriage is that, for many years, Japan hasn't participated in the Hague Convention, which states children must be returned to their country of residence. Since Japan hasn't been a part of the Hague Convention, this has meant that many Japanese parents can flee back to their home country with their children, whether the reasons are truly warranted or unwarranted. It's meant there is little non-Japanese parents can do legally to get their kids back.
This case is unusual: Kawabata was born in Japan, but she's a US citizen. Morness, however, says he "can't be sure" his ex-wife gave up her Japanese citizenship when she naturalised.
Earlier this spring, Japanese parliament voted to approve the Hague treaty and, as Japan Daily Press reports, is setting a deadline of March 2014 for final ratification. According to The Daily Beast, there is scepticism even among Japanese pundits about the country's implementing of the Hague Convention as doing so could take years and might need more international pressure.
Today is August 30. It is still unknown if Kawabata does plan on returning to the US at the end of the month. Morness still doesn't know his son's whereabouts, telling Kotaku, "I was supposed to have him here for another two weeks right now but obviously that didn't happen."
ChieKawabata.com [Official Site]
Owen Good contributed to this article.