St. Charles mother fights for daughter amidst international child abduction case

Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 10:27 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - Sarah Tsuruta describes her 7-year-old daughter Lilly as a funny, sassy little girl who is the light of her mother’s world.

“She’s the reason I get up every day,” said Tsuruta.

Now the St. Charles mother is fighting to keep her daughter home here in Missouri.

“I just want to do what I can to protect my daughter, what kind of mother would I be if didn’t protect her?” she said.

Lilly was born in Miami, Florida the daughter of Sarah and Naoteru Tsuruta. The couple met in the states in 2010 and eventually fell in love. After the birth of their daughter, the couple lived in the United Kingdom. Sarah describes their life as back and forth between the UK, the U.S. and Naoteru’s home country of Japan. In 2018 they went to Japan and the couple married. But she says she never intended to call it home.

“This is not where I want to raise our daughter,” she said. “This is not where I’m going to live. My home is in St. Louis.”

That’s why she said she escaped Japan with her daughter last year. The decision made on October 15, 2021, would eventually land her in federal court facing accusations of international child abduction.

“I didn’t abduct my daughter, I ran for my life,” said Sarah.

She claims her husband hid their daughter’s passport, making it so she couldn’t return to her parents and family in St. Louis.

But on October 15, 2021, she found the passport inside a storage unit. She immediately called her parents.

“My dad called [Congresswoman] Ann Wagner. Ann Wagner told my parents who to call at the US embassy and they facilitated that and called my cell phone. [The Embassy] said you have to be here at 2:30,” Sarah said.

Sarah describes the mad dash to the U.S. Embassy where she says she explained to the diplomat she feared for her life and for her child’s safety. They helped her obtain the needed documents to travel and the mother and daughter rushed to Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

“It was $13,000 to get us home, I had to fly from Japan to Honolulu to Texas to here, since then I have been fighting for my daughter’s and my life,” she explained.

She filed for divorce, but then five months later, Sarah Tsuruta was served with a petition to return the child under the Hague Convention.

“The Hague Abduction Convention is a treaty that was concluded in 1980,” explained Aaron Lukken, an attorney in Kansas City who specializes in international law dealing with child abduction.

After a trial, a federal judge in St. Louis ruled last week in favor of Naoteru Tsuruta. In the opinion the judge states “by a preponderance of the evidence, Japan was the habitual residence of L.T. immediately prior to her removal from Japan on October 15, 2021.”

It continues, “although the evidence regarding the intentions of L.T’s parents is conflicting, it generally supports a finding that the parents had the settled purpose of creating a home in Japan, perhaps not forever, but for a significant period of time.”

“She’s never been away from me for one day and now this ruling says whether I go with her or not they’re going to send a 7-year-old on an airplane to Japan by herself and I’m never going to see her again,” said Sarah.

Lukken says these cases are never black and white.

“Where does the child live? That’s a very tough determination to make when you’ve got the father’s view of the matter and the mother’s view of the matter and somewhere in between lies an accurate or objective viewpoint regarding that child’s residence,” said Lukken, who is not personally involved in this case.

News 4 reached out to the attorney for Naoteru Tsuruta and is waiting to hear back.

In the meantime, attorneys for Sarah Tsuruta have filed an appeal. They have also filed a stay of implementation, arguing that “Irreversible and undue psychological harm will result to the child if she is forced to return to Japan without her mother.”

A ruling has not been made on the stay of implementation and a date has not yet been set for the appeal.