Child Abduction

What is child abduction?

The expression child abduction conjures up images of a child being snatched off the street – in other words, kidnapping.

It has a different meaning in disputes between parents. Child abduction in this setting means one parent taking or keeping a child abroad without the consent of the other parent or the permission of a court. So, for example, if a separated family ordinarily live in England, and the mother takes the children to Canada (even temporarily) without the father’s permission, she might have abducted the children. Abduction works in both directions, so a child who usually lives in Canada who is brought here without permission might have been abducted.

In abduction situations, the parent who takes the child is referred to as the abductor or the abducting parent. The other parent is identified as the left-behind parent.

Who is affected by child abduction?

There is no typical family model more likely to experience child abduction than another. It affects heterosexual and same sex parents. It affects parents across the range of socio-economic backgrounds.

It usually involves a relationship between parents from different cultures or nationalities, but this is not always so. Child abduction can occur even if both parents are British citizens and have always lived here.

Child abduction is becoming increasingly more common, year on year. Historically, most child abduction cases involving the UK occurred between the Republic of Ireland, the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In the past decade, however, there has been a huge increase in the number of abductions that involve another EU Member State (especially the newer accession Members, like Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia). Cases involving India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are frequently encountered nowadays, as are abductions concerning North Africa and the Far East.

The number of child abductions spikes towards the end of long holiday periods, with more cases than usual being reported in late August / early September.

Warning signs

The most common warning sign that ought to make parents vigilant about the spectre of child abduction is the end of a relationship. A relationship breakdown can be as profound a trigger as other dramatic life events, and drive parents to behave uncharacteristically. Different people respond in different ways to the end of their relationship and sometimes the response is to abduct the child or children.

Other warning signs might include:

  • A parent showing a sudden interest in knowing where a child’s passport is, and getting hold of it (and likewise in relation to birth certificates);
  • A parent expressing a wish to take children on holidays without the other parent;
  • A sudden change in circumstances, such as a parent leaving their job or accommodation, and / or
  • A parent putting belongings into storage.

A reduction in the time a child is permitted to see the parent they do not usually live with might also be a cause for concern.

None of the above is a sure-fire indicator of an imminent child abduction, but they ought to make parents more alert to the risk. Also, in some cases the abduction will take the left-behind parent completely by surprise and will not be preceded by any of these signs.

Addressing child abduction cases

Because it is an international issue, child abduction is addressed at that level also. There are a number of international treaties, agreements and understandings that apply to child abduction situations. Whether they apply to a particular situation usually depends on where the children affected have been taken from and to.

One of the better known international arrangements is the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Abduction Convention). This Convention, which operates between some eighty plus countries, defines what constitutes abduction. It identifies that the default outcome to child abduction situations is usually the return of the children to the country where they were previously living (the country of the child’s habitual residence). It also specifies the limited arguments a parent can use to try to achieve an outcome other than the default one. For example, if the child objects to being sent back and is old and mature enough for a court to take that view into account.

Within the EU, there are particular rules regarding child abduction situations and how courts must respond to those.

There are also less formal arrangements – protocols, declarations, understandings, etc. – designed to address child abduction situations. The UK has entered into a Protocol on child abduction issues with Pakistan, and a Declaration with Egypt.

Child abduction cases should be resolved swiftly. They usually are in this country, within about six weeks of the case first coming before a Judge. Other countries, and particularly those who do not apply the Abduction Convention, often respond much more slowly.

Child abduction may sometimes be a criminal offence. Whether it is depends on the circumstances of the abduction.

Practical advice for parents

The law and procedure relating to abduction situations is complex, and cases develop extremely quickly. Time can often be of the essence in abduction cases, either in terms of preventing it occurring in the first place, or else achieving the proper resolution quickly and effectively if the abduction has already happened.

The immediate response of a left-behind parent who knows or suspects his or her child has been abducted should be:

A parent concerned that an abduction is about to take place should think about:

  • securing the children’s passports and making sure they are somewhere safe (such as with a solicitor, a trusted friend or family member);
  • contacting the Identity and Passport Service at the Home Office, to ask them not to issue a replacement passport;
  • if the other parent and / or the child has a nationality other than British, contacting that country’s Embassy or High Commission here, to request that a passport not be issued.

An abducting parent should also consider contacting a specialist solicitor as soon as possible. Expert advice is crucial early, as it might prove possible to bring a case within one of the exceptions to the general rule that abducted children should be returned home. It may also be possible to resolve an abduction case through the use of specialist mediation and counselling services.

How can we help?

  • Help identify situations and factors that may be indicative that a parent or carer is considering abducting their child;
  • Represent parents in pre-emptive court proceedings designed to protect against an anticipated child abduction;
  • Represent parents (or their children) in situations where a child has been brought from another country to the UK in circumstances that amount to a child abduction;
  • Liaise on behalf of left-behind parents with officials and engage in court proceedings here to assist with securing the return of a child taken abroad;
  • Identify and work with officials and legal advisers abroad to help facilitate the return of a child abducted there;
  • Identify and direct those involved in child abduction to suitable specialist mediators.

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