What is child abduction?

The term child abduction conjures up frightening images of sinister strangers pouncing on innocent children as they play in the park. Of course, such crimes do occur and they grab headlines and break hearts when they do.

But abduction by strangers is rare. The majority of the child abduction that does take place is considerably more mundane and much closer to home: most children who are abducted are taken by their own parents.

This type of abduction occurs most commonly following an acrimonious divorce or separation, between couples at loggerheads over arrangements for the children. Sometimes the parent with whom the children live may decide to hinder visits to and by the other parent – cancelling arrangements at the last minute in defiance of court orders or moving to distant locations. They may be motivated by bitterness about the breakup and want to punish the other parent by withholding their children. Sometimes they have convinced themselves that the other parent is a threat to the child in some way.

Refusing to allow the other parent to see their child is likely to result in legal proceedings and a court order – and failing to obey the latter will usually amount to contempt of court.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the courts may order that the child or children be sent to live with the other parent. This is known as a ‘transfer of residence’ and such drastic measures sometimes trigger abductions. Realising that they are running out of options, the determined parent with care may decide to flee with the children, going into hiding or travelling abroad hoping to escape the jurisdiction of the English courts.

The latter option is especially likely if the fleeing spouse has friends or family abroad. Spouses from other countries who live in the UK after marrying a British citizen often long to return to their home countries if the marriage breaks down, but understandably don’t want to be separated from their children. This is another, very common cause of parental child abduction. Rather than waiting for a family court ruling that may not go in their favour, they simply take the children and flee to the airport.

The other parent is left behind in painful limbo. Fortunately, there are options open to them. So common is international child abduction that a multi-country legal treaty was created 40 years ago to provide abandoned parents with a relatively quick remedy: the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. No less than 101 countries have signed the Convention to date, agreeing to enforce requests in their courts for the return of children to their country of origin, so that future arrangements for the child in question can be properly determined there.

The abducting parents have access to certain legal defences. They can, for example, argue that: “there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.”

But if they fail to persuade the courts in the country they have fled to, they will be obliged to return the child. In almost all cases this will be mean the parent returning as well.

Of course, not every country is a signatory to the Convention and it is, sadly for certain families, much harder to recover children who have been abducted to countries which are not participants – or even to locate them at all in some cases.

If your child has been abducted – or is at significant risk of abduction – seek legal advice as soon as possible. It is a serious situation and this is a complex area of law. If the other parent is still present, the family courts may be able to issue a ‘prohibited steps order’. As the name suggests, this is a legal order prohibiting the recipient from taking certain actions, such as leaving the jurisdiction of England and Wales. A ‘passport order’ is another option: this allows a court official called a ‘tipstaff’ to confiscate the passports of the parent under suspicion, along with those of the children., making abduction much harder to achieve. Despite the legal remedies in Hague Convention countries, it is obviously far better to prevent an abduction than struggle through the expense and uncertainties of trying to recover your child once they’ve been taken.

If you are concerned about any of these issues, please speak to Jeremy, Tricia, Simon, Adam, Gail or Sue as soon as possible on 01223 443333.