Taking kids to Canada? Bring your paperwork

Swimsuits, beach towels, toothbrushes, everything was packed.

I was revved up for vacation, beginning with a change of scenery. For the first time since before the Sept. 11 attacks, my younger son and I were headed to Canada. Renewing my passport is still on a to-do list, but I was ready with identification and birth certificates.

We’d driven over U.S. 2 and north from Wenatchee to the Okanogan Valley border crossing at Osoyoos, British Columbia. Inching ahead in a short line of cars, we were restless for a swim in a desert lake and a walk around the fun resort town. Handing over ID, I expected no complications.

I certainly didn’t expect the greeting I got from a uniformed Canadian Border Services Agency official — a brusque question: “Do you have permission to take this child into Canada?”

Having been solely responsible for “this child” his whole life, I was momentarily thrown. “I’m sorry, what?” I stammered. “Permission? From whom?”

His father, of course. The answer was obvious, and made good sense. A wall of missing-child photos at the border stop is haunting proof that ours is a time of custody battles and abductions.

I must have an honest face. The curt official was convinced by the truth I told him, that I’m a widow. He talked briefly to my 8-year-old, in my presence, then waved us through. Next time, I won’t rely on kindness.

Even with passports, I’ll take my late husband’s death certificate, too.

“It’s a matter of course; we pay real attention to children,” said Paula Shore, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Border Services Agency’s Pacific Region in Blaine. “Every year we find children who are runaways or being abducted,” Shore said.

Mike Milne, a press officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Seattle, said that in 2006, nine children were recovered by U.S. border officials at the Peace Arch, Lynden and Pacific Highway crossings. In 2005, those areas saw eight kids found, most of them runaways. So far in 2007, just one runaway has been stopped at Pacific Highway. “Intercepts are down this year,” Milne said.

Canadian border officials in the Pacific Region covering British Columbia recovered 21 children in 2006, Shore said. “We just want to satisfy ourselves that these children are where they should be,” she said.

Shore offered tips for crossing the border with kids, whether they’re your own, your grandchildren or other relatives or they belong to friends.

Children who aren’t with parents or guardians need written permission from their parents or guardians to travel out of the country, including the parents’ addresses and phone numbers. Parents who share custody should have copies of legal custody documents plus written permission and contact information from the other parent, Shore said.

“Sometimes an officer will want to talk to the children directly to ask ‘Where have you been?’ We want parents to understand the reason,” she said.

Asked if I should have carried a death certificate, Shore said, “as unusual as that might sound, the more documentation you can show us that a child belongs with you, the better.”

“We get people going on vacation taking their sons’ or daughters’ friends,” said Milne. With those arrangements, he suggests having a “we give permission” note that also contains travel dates.

It’s tricky to establish permission in single-parent families when the other parent has no legal involvement. With no marriage or custody documents, parents and kids may be required to get out of the car and answer more questions. “We may follow up with a phone call,” Milne said.

“Working closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children list, we maintain a real vigilance for children’s sake,” Milne said. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection “is actively involved in the North Puget Sound Amber Alert system,” he said.

“We’re not trying to hassle people or make it a problem,” Milne said. “Our motto is to know before you go.”

Now that I know, I’ll carry all my papers.

“We’re lucky to be neighbors,” Shore said. “It is an international boundary, and sometimes people forget that.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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