THE BLOG

Parental Child Abduction: A Hope for the Holidays

16/12/2013 11:37 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 10:59 GMT

The forthcoming holiday season provides an opportunity for families to spend time together. Sadly, it can also exacerbate tensions which may result in them breaking apart.

Such division can have long-lasting consequences for the adults involved and for any children.

That impact is at the heart of a new awareness campaign which has just been launched by the Foreign Office in conjunction with publication of its new statistics on incidents on parental child abduction.

The figures show that parental child abduction and custody cases have doubled in the space of a decade - from 272 in 2003 to 580 in 2013.

In releasing the data, Consular Affairs' Minister Mark Simmonds spoke of his concern about the continuing increase in "distressing cases" which had "no easy fixes" and I share his discomfort.

However, I believe that the new numbers only represent the tip of the iceberg. What the Foreign Office has documented are those cases which we know about and which have gone through formal channels. Many abductions may go unreported as parents don't know where to turn to for help or what assistance is available.

I and my colleagues in Pannone's Family department also deal with many instances in which parents simply don't know where their children have been taken.

Even though court orders can be made to officially start the process of seeking a child's return, efforts to locate them may be painstaking and lengthy but ultimately get nowhere.

As the Foreign Office acknowledges, even in those circumstances which conclude with a child's return, that process can take a number of years.

Education is one necessary element in trying to prevent abductions happening in the first place. The video launched by the Foreign Office alongside the new figures is, therefore, a positive step.

It may come as a surprise to some that the vast majority of parental abductions are carried out by mothers. This has been my experience and is supported by the Foreign Office statistics. Many such instances are born out of naivety rather than a deliberate, calculated desire to cause distress to the other parent.

The international relationships which are so commonly a feature of modern life frequently feature people moving to another country where they may not be happy. Without any support network, when a relationship breaks down, they sometimes seek a return with their children to their home country, where families can provide in a more familiar environment the assistance which they feel is missing.

In some cases, they also believe that if they apply through the proper channels they might be refused permission to return home and choose not to take that risk.

They don't realise that by then abducting a child, they are only making things worse for themselves, the other parent and - crucially - the children involved.

Earlier this year, one of my colleagues, Phillip Rhodes, spoke to media about measures being considered by the European Commission in an attempt to tackle the number of children being abducted by their parents.

The EC move followed a similar initiative on the part of officials overseeing operation of the Hague Convention, the international agreement which has been signed by 74 different countries and aims to ensure a speedy return of children abducted by parents while the issues which led to their removal are resolved.

As the new Foreign Office material illustrates, though, many children are taken from the UK to countries which are not Hague signatories - including Pakistan, India and Japan - thereby making attempts to secure a return far more difficult.

Whichever territories are involved, the impact of child abduction does not end with their safe return, despite the relief which that might prompt.

There is arguably no real happy ending, only lasting emotional consequences for parents and children alike. Being removed to what might be a strange country and away from a parent and possible siblings can do terrible damage to a child, as was made clear at a conference on the topic in London which I attended very recently.

I hope that the renewed official efforts to raise awareness of the psychological toll on a child may cause some parents considering abduction to think twice.

I'm sure that my fellow family lawyers dealing with these sorts of cases would agree that this is one fervent hope for the coming Christmas holiday and beyond.