Parental child abduction – help and info

by Kendra Inman

parental child abduction | help and info

When relationships break down, a minority of parents cannot face the prospect of living apart from their child or even of sharing the care of the children with their ex-partner. Occasionally, a parent will decide to take the law into their own hands and bring their children to live with them without the permission of the other parent or the courts – an act called parental child abduction.

It can occur whether or not the parents are separated or divorced and sometimes even regardless of the existence of court orders. Abducting a child – also called kidnapping – is a criminal as well as a civil offence, although the criminal law is hardly ever invoked and it is left to the parent who has lost the child to use the civil courts to get the child back. Even then this will be a steeply uphill task – though prevention is slightly easier than cure.

Anecdotal evidence suggests parental child abduction is increasingly common, says Denise Carter, director of Reunite, a campaigning charity set up to help parents whose children have been abducted or who are involved in international custody disputes.

home alone

Whatever the reason for the snatch, losing a child through abduction is a traumatic experience, says Ms Carter.

Parents react differently, she says. Some are incredibly strong and focused on getting their child back. Others can become severely depressed from their loss and turn their anger and upset inward against themselves.

Reunite can help parents refocus their energies into more positive action.

‘We encourage them to do one proactive thing a day such as dig out photographs or make a call.’

children’s rights

How much a child is affected by abduction varies with each case, the place and country that they’re taken to and how they are now being brought up by the parent who snatched them.

Where and how they’ve been living is often more important than how long they’ve been away from the parent with custody they’ve been snatched from, she explains.

A British child taken to an English-speaking country may be less disturbed by the experience than a child taken to a country where there are significant language and cultural differences. In other words, if the environment feels more familiar to them they will be better able to adjust.

On the downside, factors such as high conflict between the parents and the breaking of other important ties and connections will have a detrimental impact on the child.

against the clock

A parent whose child has been snatched has to face the fact that time is running against them. If their child has recently been abducted the courts are likely to work to restore the ‘status quo’ and send the child back home as quickly as possible.

But the longer the child is away there is a danger that the ‘status quo’ from the child’s point of view will switch to the abducting parent’s home.

‘If a child has been away for a long time, such as two years, the court might need to question whether it is in the best interests of that child to bring them back,’ says Ms Carter. The paramount consideration for the courts here will be the welfare of the child and it will focus on the child’s best interests rather than the war between the parents.

out of reach

‘International child abduction is a growing problem globally, but particularly from the UK,’ she says.

Reasons behind this increase include greater numbers of relationships between partners of different nationalities and easier and cheaper travel facilities.

Statistics taken from the Reunite advice line suggest that child abduction across an international barrier has increased by 87% since 1995. The Child Abduction Unit, part of the Lord Chancellor’s Department which deals with abductions to countries signed up to one of two international agreements, says it deals with over 500 children annually. Recently Reunite has noticed an increase in abductions by British women who marry a foreign national and bring their children home to the UK when the marriage goes wrong.

international agreements – help under the civil law

To date, 69 states, including the UK have either or both the Hague and/or European Conventions including: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Belgium, Belize, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Canada (most states), Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus (southern), Czech Republic, Denmark Ecuador, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Republic of Iceland, Israel, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao, Macedonia, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, St.Kitts and Nevis, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Turkmenistan, USA, Venezuela, Zimbabwe.

Two international conventions, The Hague Convention and the European Convention, became law here from 1985. The two-fold purposes of each Convention are to secure the immediate return of a child to his or her own country of habitual residence and to ensure that international disputes over access are dealt with by the country of origin.

Both Conventions actively discourage the courts from looking at the merits of the case except in certain very restricted circumstances – they are there to ensure the children are returned home.

Countries that are signatories agree to follow a set protocol. Under the Hague Convention children must be returned to the country of ‘habitual residence’ if they have been wrongfully removed or access and custody rights breached. The European Convention covers most European states, whilst the net of the Hague Convention spreads more widely across the world. To make an application under the Conventions both countries must be signatories. Parents whose children have been abducted from England and Wales to a country that has signed the Hague Convention can apply for help through the Lord Chancellors Department Child Abduction Unit who will help them complete a questionnaire and process the application to the signatory country where the child is now living. The court authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland provide similar help.

legal hurdles

How long it will take to deal with the application for return will depend on the country concerned, the circumstances of the case and indeed whether the child can be traced. The average length of time is five to six months, but children abducted to New Zealand or Scandinavia for example can be returned within a month.

Tracing a child overseas is fraught with difficulties, says Ms Carter.

‘If a child is abducted and brought to the UK, the parent who seeks to get the child returned home may be able to get legal aid. If a child is abducted and taken to a country where there is no legal aid the parent in pursuit will need to find a ‘pro bono’ lawyer (one that works in a scheme that offers free legal advice) if they can’t afford the legal fees themselves.

‘You may get a fantastic lawyer or you may not. How much help you get varies with the country,’ she says.

The Child Abduction Unit can provide parents with information about legal costs in specific countries.

outside the Conventions

The Conventions are only valid in countries that have signed up to them. If a child is moved to a country which isn’t a signatory, wronged parents have no legal remedy in this country to secure the child’s return. Their only option is to travel to the foreign country to start off proceedings for the child’s return in that jurisdiction. Inevitably this will be very time consuming and expensive and sadly success is far from guaranteed.

Depending on the laws of the country concerned, the courts might well make decisions in favour of abducting parents. Where there are no international agreements, parents need to contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for advice on how to proceed. This office can provide a list of local lawyers who correspond in English, approach local authorities for help in tracing the child’s whereabouts and provide informal help locally.

The office is also involved in discussions with non-convention countries to give practical support such as visiting rights to UK parents.

the power of the press

Sometimes using the media to publicise a case can yield results. In one case a child was abducted from the US and brought to the UK. The child was poorly and it was important that he attended hospital.

‘We knew they were in the UK but we had no other leads on the case at all,’ says Ms Carter. The organisation turned to the TV for help and after a couple of broadcasts the child was found.

But each case is unique and in some abduction cases seeking publicity is the worst thing you can do.

‘Sometimes you have to be quiet and lull the errant parent into a false sense of security.’



worried about abduction?

Reunite runs an advice line and publishes information packs about preventing abduction and how to proceed if the worst has happened.

The charity has this advice for parents who suspect their former partner will attempt to abduct their child.

  • Seek immediate advice from a family lawyer. You may need to get a court order – like a residence order under the Children Act 1989, which determines which parent will primarily look after a child and should also to stop your child being taken out of the country without your prior permission.
  • Write to the UK Passport Service and ask them not to grant your child a passport without your permission (this is only possible where you have got an order from the court in certain circumstances). But the Passport Office has no power to ask for a passport to be surrendered if it has already been issued.
  • Contact the police. If they are convinced there is a real threat they can issue a ‘port alert’ to alert possible points of departure in the UK. How effective a port alert will be depends a lot on how much information you can supply them with – make sure that you have available a recent photo of your child and the other parent which can be circulated and if you have details of which port – airport or sea port for example – your child is likely to travel through, that will help the police focus their efforts.
  • Get a child abduction prevention pack from Reunite

Published by: ABP World Group International Child Recovery Service

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