Family Man

Family Man

An expat father faces a heartbreaking dilemma


Originally published on on March 2010

All images © Nameless Films

Asking a parent to sacrifice the well-being of one child for another is asking them to make an impossible choice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the dilemma that Craig Morrey is facing.

Morrey, 40, an American who has lived in Aichi Prefecture for the last 13 years, originally came to Japan on a one-year post-doctoral fellowship. He had just earned his PhD in reproductive biology, and was invited by a professor on his dissertation committee to continue their research. “I really only became involved with Japan due to my interest in the strange sex lives of fish,” he tells Metropolis.

Soon after arriving, an acquaintance introduced him to a Nikkei Brazilian woman who was studying at Nagoya University. One thing led to another, as they say, and the two wound up marrying and settling in Japan.

In September 2006, the couple’s first child was born. Yet what should have been a joyous occasion was instead filled with heartbreak. Due to complications during the delivery, Spencer Morrey was born with catastrophic brain damage and diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy.

“Most of the doctors did not expect him to live past the first couple of days,” Morrey says. Thanks to a series of surgeries, though, Spencer managed to pull through. He was left needing round-the-clock care, mostly to keep his airways clear because he can’t swallow.

After determining that Spencer would be OK to fly, the Morreys began making preparations to move to the States, where they would have access to better healthcare.

“Medicare supposedly covers up to 12 hours of care-support a day, in-home or at a facility for medically fragile children,” Morrey says. “His care would be coordinated by a physician, and he would be accompanied by a nurse at all times.” In Aichi, the Morreys were only able to get a nurse three times a week for 90 minutes—assuming nurses were available—and the only facility anywhere near them had only two beds for day care.

While in the midst of their preparations, the Morreys discovered that they had another child on the way, this time a girl. And again, what should have been a cause for celebration became a cause of grief, when, in the fifth month of her pregnancy, Morrey’s wife suddenly abandoned her husband and son, moving in with her parents and refusing to even visit her child. As Spencer’s sole caretaker, Morrey was forced to quit work and has become dependent on donations to cover medical expenses and necessities.

According to Morrey, his wife promised to give up custody of both children if he would agree to a divorce. After Amelia’s birth, however, she and her family denied him any access to the baby, cut off all contact, and moved to Yamaguchi Prefecture, kicking off a custody battle that is still dragging on. Morrey has seen his daughter only six times since she was born, often during brief courtroom appearances.

It might be easy to paint Morrey’s wife as a villain, but Morrey himself is surprisingly sympathetic toward her. He suspects that her decisions were influenced by an undiagnosed perinatal mental health issue, even though she has vehemently refused counseling of any kind and has never considered that hormonal influences or other obvious stresses might be the cause of her behavior.

The real bad guy in this story seems to be the Japanese government. The law states that, in cases where both parents are foreign, custody should be resolved according to the laws of the child’s nationality. In both the US and Brazil, this would mean joint custody, and since Morrey’s wife is facing charges in Brazil for abandonment and falsifying documents (Amelia’s birth certificate), it seems likely that Morrey would be granted full custody of both children under Brazilian law.

But that hasn’t happened. Nor has the judge granted requests to compel a psychological evaluation of Amelia’s mother, even though he admitted to finding her behavior “not normal.” Instead, the jurisdiction of the case was moved to Yamaguchi, despite the hardship this presents for Morrey and Spencer, and the final ruling was repeatedly delayed.

At the beginning of this month, the judge finally made his decision, granting custody of Amelia to Morrey’s wife. He did, however, grant Morrey one visit a month, providing that the father stays in Japan. Once again, this is a restriction that requires Morrey to sacrifice his son’s well-being in order to see his daughter. He is appealing the decision.

Japan’s track record on children’s issues is, by all accounts, shoddy. It is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, and although many countries have recently been pressuring the government to change its policy on custody issues, international parents are left with few options. Under Japanese law, there is no such thing as dual custody, so one parent will be granted all legal rights to a child. This gives them the power to completely cut the other parent out of a child’s life. Add to that the tendency of Japanese courts to award custody to the Japanese parent in cases of international marriage, and the situation for non-Japanese parents can be dire.

Morrey cannot get adequate care for his son or even work to support himself. Yet he can’t leave the country without jeopardizing his custody battle for Amelia—and possibly facing international kidnapping charges for taking Spencer out of Japan without his mother’s written approval, which his wife refuses to grant. He has been left completely at the mercy of a court that claims to have the best interests of the children at heart, but continues to keep a loving father from his daughter.

Still, Morrey remains hopeful that he and his children will be together one day. “If you don’t have kids, it might be hard to understand, but Spencer is an incredible source of strength for me. If things get miraculously better or horribly worse—if that is even possible—it is not going to change my love for him or his sister.”

To find out more about Craig Morrey’s story or to make a donation, see

Life as Dad

Gilmore, right, with staff of Life as Dad

Gilmore, right, with staff of Life as Dad

Japan-based filmmaker Anthony Gilmore is best known for his award-winning 2006 documentary Behind Forgotten Eyes, a chronicle of former comfort women seeking an apology from the Japanese government. Gilmore next turns his lens on Craig Morrey’s unhappy tale, which he plans to release this spring as a documentary short called Life as Dad. The director took the time to speak with Metropolis about the project.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I studied directing in university [in the US] and had a short career in live theater, but then moved into documentary film. I found film more artistically rewarding than theater and have focused completely on documentary and narrative filmmaking.

What drew you to documentaries?
The honesty and truthfulness behind the storytelling. Documentaries give us a rare glimpse into the lives of real people and real experiences.

How did you find out about Craig’s story? Why did you choose it as the subject of a film?
I met Craig for the first time at a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and was encouraged by his story. As a father myself, I felt that it was important to help him tell his story. I always look for subjects that have extreme courage and find themselves in difficult situations.

Over the course of filming, was there anything in particular that surprised, impressed or upset you?
Being with Spencer and watching Craig care for him every day was the most impressive thing. It’s amazing to see his love for Spencer. Although Spencer was unable to speak or react with Craig, I could feel that they had a connection.

For more information, see and