WASHINGTON -- At 48, Janet Atkinson of Rockville entered law school so she could help fight for child support from her former husband, a senior economist at the Inter-American Development Bank who left her and their five children in 1992 after 27 years of marriage.
After the bank refused to divert money from her ex-husband's wages, she sued both him and the bank. But the bank and similar multinational organizations have a ready defense: They do not have to garnish wages because they are not subject to U.S. law.
And they're right.
"This is nuts. It's sick," says Joseph Greenblatt, a lawyer who represents Atkinson.
The situation affects at least hundreds of women, some of them foreigners who live in America, whose former spouses work for these agencies. Most live in the areas surrounding Washington and New York City.
Though the development bank, the United Nations and similar organizations say they doubt that the problem is widespread, Atkinson's plight has captured the attention of major lawyers' groups and two Maryland lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella.
Atkinson is more than $200,000 in debt, largely from legal fees and tuition bills. One daughter had to drop out of college and move back home.
Court records show that Atkinson's former husband, Robert J. Kestell, who maintained his $188,000 annual income, repeatedly failed to pay the full support ordered by a Maryland judge.
Kestell, a U.S. citizen now posted in Jamaica, declared bankruptcy to avoid her claims, and for years, he refused to pay anything toward the $130,000 he owed.
"Every day I struggle," says Atkinson, now 53 and attempting to build a law practice. "If my children outgrow the tennis shoes, it's a big issue in my household.
"I sold my jewelry. I sold silver dollars I had from my parents. I sold my Persian rugs. Realistically, now, at some point, I have to file a bankruptcy, and draw a line, and start fresh."
Under an agreement urged by the bank's officials, Kestell now voluntarily pays a bit more than $6,000 a month.
The idea is to shield the agencies from petty tyrants in the countries whose citizens they are supposed to be aiding. But that means that even a judge's ruling cannot force the agencies to garnish the wages of their employees -- even if, like Kestell, they are Americans.
The institutional immunity also made it impossible to determine Kestell's full assets, Atkinson and Greenblatt say, undermining their ability to determine an appropriate payment.
Kestell's lawyer, Daniel H. Crowley, argues that his client has made reasonable efforts to settle his conflict with his ex-wife.
"At this point, the bank's immunity is a protection for him -- not so he can avoid these obligations, but so he can go on struggling to survive," Crowley says.
"She said, 'I'm going to get as much money as I can, and I don't care whom I ruin.' "
While officials at several of the international agencies call the issue an embarrassment, they say it affects few people. They also say they have taken steps to rectify it.
"We're interested in being good neighbors," says Norman Williams, a lawyer for the Inter-American Development Bank.
"The mission of this organization is not to irritate the people of the United States."
Yet the agency hired Arnold and Porter, a powerhouse Washington law firm, to bat down Atkinson's challenges to its immunity. On the whole, any payment to an ex-spouse is done at the discretion of the employee. Advocates acknowledge that the agencies have made some progress but argue that more binding measures are needed.
"Wherever there's an international agency, this is a problem," says Suzanne Colt, deputy chief of the family court division in New York City's Law Department.
Colt says she sees more than 100 women a year whose former husbands work for the United Nations.
These women cannot always determine how much their husbands earn, how much their pensions are worth or how much they have salted away, because the United Nations tends to shield the financial data of employees.
While most former spouses do pay alimony and child support, interviews with lawyers across the region suggest that there are a raft of such cases involving international civil servants.
Many women, these advocates say, end up forced to depend on elderly parents or friends for shelter, food and clothing for themselves and their children.
Meanwhile, their former spouses tend to earn ample salaries -- often in six figures and free from taxes -- with generous additional pension and tuition benefits.
Last summer, Caryn Lennon quit her job as a part-time lawyer for the World Bank in disgust. For 13 years, she had advised bank employees about their personal matters, and she spoke to 1,500 people each year about issues arising from divorce.
"One thing that was absolutely clear to me was how inadequate the law is," Lennon says. "It was awful."
Even Crowley, Kestell's attorney, acknowledges the problem, but says Kestell did not duck his responsibilities.
"There have been abuses, there's no question. Some folks have used it as a shield to protect them against their legitimate obligations," Crowley says.
"In this case, you're dealing with an honorable guy, whom I think has been taken advantage of by his ex-spouse, and the court has permitted her to take advantage of him."
But Atkinson has made some headway. She has repeatedly lobbied officials at the Inter-American Development Bank to pay attention.
The Maryland State Bar Association has endorsed her effort to persuade President Clinton to sign an executive order that would require the international organizations to compel all employees in the United States to pay child support. And the American Bar Association is expected to follow suit this weekend.
Atkinson even approached Hillary Rodham Clinton at a session on women's rights at the development bank last year and thrust in her hand a fact sheet on her situation.
That chance encounter later helped lead to meetings this spring with several aides from the White House and State Department.
An administration official familiar with the issue said the executive order is one of several possibilities the White House is considering.
"We do think there's a very serious problem there," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named.
In recent months, Morella and Mikulski have written to Clinton to urge him to sign the proposed executive order.
Atkinson says she's hopeful about its prospects.
"I personally made the decision that if I was going to be destroyed financially, I would do everything I can to make sure it wouldn't happen to anybody else," Atkinson says.
"If nobody drew a line, it was clear nothing was going to happen."
Pub Date: 5/01/98