Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In the UK ~ He stole my son, now I'm alone in hell

Hundreds of children in the UK are abducted and taken abroad each year, often by an ex-partner. Why can’t the law get them back?

Young boy at the airport

I used to be a mother. And now I’m not. I am nothing.

My son Joe, aged 12, went overseas to visit his father in the US for the summer of 2007 and never came back. The day he left we had breakfast, went for a swim, played cards, ordered a pizza. He is a talented child and had won a scholarship to a new school. “September can’t come fast enough,” he said. Halfway into the holiday, e-mail, phone and Skype contact stopped.

Weeks later, I had a call from his father to say that he wasn’t coming back.

This afternoon, in the grimly festive setting of Town Hall Square in Leicester, 1,000 balloons will be released to remember my son and 999 other children who won’t be home this Christmas. It is an annual event organised by the strong but optimistically named Reunite, the UK charity that specialises in international parental child abduction.

The day starts with discussions with case officers and experts from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Justice, and ends with mince pies and a lonely journey home. There are success stories, thank god — the return from Morocco of Carene and Shelby Crofts to their grandmother in Blackpool this week after three and a half months shows how effective the legal mechanism can be. However, there are also a lot of familiar faces: people I now know, with children somewhere in — they think — Germany, China, Saudi Arabia, Argentina and the US. For most of us, this bleak state of life suspended, this turbulent, frustrating, nightmare existence, came out of the blue.

My case was registered as an international child abduction by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I filed for my son’s return and waited. After ten weeks without contact, I flew over. During those weeks, it transpired, Joe had been suffering from nightmares and stomach pains, so his father had engaged and briefed a child psychologist to help him to settle into his “new life”, a new school and new routine. His father had “explained” to the psychologist that I was the cause of Joe’s pain and, without meeting me or contacting me, the psychologist began what became an irreversible, irreparable process by advising the lawyers acting for both sides that, as my son had this apparent fear of me, access — if any — should be short and supervised. Accordingly, I saw Joe for an hour and a quarter in a café. His father sat by the exit, within earshot, on guard. Afterwards I sat, crying, on the edge of the bed in my hotel room, where I paced around alone for a week, waiting for the chance to see him again.

Each night I was told that he had homework, a martial arts class, a film to see, band practice — something that took precedence. I felt desperate and humiliated. On the last day I was allowed to take him to a baseball game; his father waited by the turnstiles and reassured him, theatrically, that he’d be safe. I would give my life to protect my son, yet here he was being “protected” from the fabricated danger that I presented. I longed to hug him. He was anxious, distrustful, wouldn’t meet my eye.

Alienation had begun.

The alienation of child from parent, a tool in many bitter custody battles, is often part and parcel of abduction, the severing of the emotional bond compounding and reinforcing the physical loss, the silence, the emptiness, to a point where it is too, too hard to bear.

Once you lose your child, things work against you — specifically, time. The longer an abductor manages to keep a child, the less likely a judge is to uproot that child, even to right a wrong.

So began an experience that was both typical and Kafkaesque: A passport “lost” before the court-ordered visit, agreements for access ignored, tickets for a visit to England unused, the submission of false affidavits, allegations of abuse (these, at least, quickly withdrawn), hearings adjourned because of this and that. Each time I felt that I had reached the bottom, there was a further drop — and through it all I never saw my son or spoke to him, never had e-mails answered or my calls picked up. Time allows an abducting parent the space to alienate a child, and after six months Joe didn’t want to see me anyway because things were too difficult, too fraught. Job done. “And I’m not going to force him to,” said his father.

Working with the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, Reunite International Child Abduction Centre is the leading UK charity for international parental child abduction. Between January and October this year, its advice line handled 269 abduction cases involving 386 children.

In the balloon launch at Reunite’s December event, each balloon disappears into the ether with a heartbreaking message (“To my beautiful girls, it has been two years, I love you so much, Mummy”; “I think of you every minute of every day”; and mine: “Merry Christmas, my darling boy”) attached. Some people go every year.

Unless your child has been taken to a country that has not ratified the Hague Convention — Bangladesh, say, or Iraq — the Ministry of Justice has a system in place that in theory should ensure his or her swift return. In practice it is riddled with loopholes and easily sabotaged.

You will be wondering what I had done. The answer, honestly, is nothing. My partner and I split up when Joe was 3. He went abroad to live with the person with whom he was having an affair. It wasn’t easy between us and he didn’t support us, although in other ways he was a good and loving father.

We had quickly established and stuck to a routine. I had sole custody; Joe lived with me but spent holidays with his father and was free to call him whenever he wanted. He was an enormously affectionate child. He would look forward to seeing his father and then, after his visit, say how happy he was to be home. I thought that this was how it should be: no conflict, no tug of war. An achievement.

My relationship with Joe broke down in my absence, thousands of miles away in a place where I couldn’t reach him.

The late Dr Richard Gardner, who coined the phrase “parental alienation” in 1985, described it as the programming of a child by one parent to denigrate the other. In other words, your child is turned into a weapon against you, corrupted into sharing the abducting parent’s psychosis and suppressing their feelings in favour of that parent’s perspective, so as to please them and — having lost the other parent — keep them.

“Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) children often add their own scenarios to the campaign of denigration, from a recognition that their contributions are desired by the programmer,” said Dr Gardner. “The result is a spiralling campaign. The child is taught to disrespect, disagree with and even act antagonistically to the targeted parent. In extreme cases, they appear to forget all positive, loving experiences that they have had with the targeted parent.”

It is a series of devious and destructive manoeuvres. One parent has to be idealised, the other has to be hateful. No ambivalence is possible. For Joe to accept his new life without question or stress, it was easiest for him to cut me — and his grandparents, cousins and friends — out of it.

I understand how it works but it is difficult to endure. I sit in his room, I look at his books and posters, touch his clothes — now all too small. I look at the pictures of him, me, his father, on the wall, and I listen to the absence of my son.

Says one parent: “The effects of PA have been likened to bereavement without end. Every day is a new loss. The parent is barred from every milestone, every experience, every special occasion. It is a life sentence of overwhelming sadness.”

I began to read case briefs and reports and realised that, regardless of the age of the child and the sex and nationality of the alienating parent, every case sounded like mine, from the tactics and excuses used to things that Joe had said to me.

Like a disease, alienation has an incubation period and symptoms. Dr Gardner listed these, from the campaign of denigration to absurd rationalisations for refusing contact, lack of ambivalence, absence of guilt, borrowed scenarios and so forth. Not only was parental alienation a syndrome, he said, but one with “a consistency [that] results in PAS children resembling one another”. His view, now commonly held, is that PAS can be diagnosed quite easily. You’d think it would be possible to find a cure.

Without intervention, the impact on a child can be dire. “Hatred does not come naturally to a child. It has to be taught,” says the Canadian judge Justice John Gomery. “A parent who would teach a child to hate the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child.”

Dr Ludwig Lowenstein, a UK-based forensic psychologist and expert on PAS, says: “Children are encouraged to treat the alienated parent with a lack of respect. Commonly, they will pretend to hate that parent when in fact they do not — so they have practised deception to placate the alienator. This can create such an unhappy situation for the child that he or she panics when asked to visit the alienated parent.”

The child feels guilty because, deep down, he or she knows that the parent who has been ostracised has done nothing to deserve unkind treatment.

Despite such testimony from experts, PAS has not yet been accepted as a “condition” by the American Psychological Association or the British Psychological Society. Until it is, few family courts will issue orders for mediation, therapy or the removal of a child. The problem is exacerbated because British courts attach great importance to the views of children deemed mature enough to hold them — or, as Tony Coe, of the Equal Parenting Council, says, “they abdicate responsibility to children”.

“British courts are way behind American courts in this respect,” says Dr Lowenstein. “They take the child’s statement as final and there’s no going back to find out why the child feels that way.

“Most judges have no understanding of parental alienation. They act on decisions that the child has made based on the indoctrination that he or she has received, when that child should actually be treated for abuse.”

To know that your child is suffering, yet have no legal recourse to remove that suffering, is torturous. Frustrated parents are powerless to do right. One psychologist talks of a woman who presents herself to the court in a way that suggests she is mentally disturbed — but that disturbance, he says, is largely because she has had no contact with her children. A rational, calm parent is often seen as calculating or manipulative. Attempt to contact your child and you risk an accusation of causing guilt; stop trying to make contact and you will be cited in court for abandonment.

If the abuse was physical or sexual, courts would act quickly to award primary custody to the non-abusing parent. Emotional abuse is more difficult to assess, but there is consensus that PAS is easily identified and the damage it causes extreme, yet few judges will issue court orders with “teeth”.

The problem is that when a parent is recalcitrant, the legal solution seems draconian. Although courts, mainly in the US and Canada, are increasingly ordering the removal of children, such rulings are deemed extreme. When, as is more usual, mediation or therapy is ordered — as it was for my son — there is no means of enforcing it. Brief hope withers.

Writing in the journal Family Law in 1998, Dr Susan Maidment, a barrister, said: “If parental alienation syndrome continues to be unrecognised ... the worthy spirit of the law will fail those whom it is beholden to protect.”

There is increasing pressure on the judiciary to adopt a firmer approach — but, in the meantime, childhoods pass quickly and there is no second chance to make them happy. One father describes being “held hostage by our legal system, forced to sit back and watch the relationship with my daughter be destroyed”.

For the first eight months or so I was told to never give up, that Joe would come home. Now I am told there is a good chance that when he has grown up, he will understand what happened and seek me out. Stories of children finding drawers full of old plane tickets and unopened letters from parents who they thought no longer loved them are commonplace — but it’s not enough, is it?

In 19 months, the son I raised alone and I have spent a total of four days together. We have had two phone conversations in ten months. I encouraged him to have a relationship with his father because I believed — still believe — that a child has the right to love both parents wholeheartedly. I wanted him to be stable, confident, happy, carefree and morally grounded, to have no regrets and a clear run at whatever his ambition would turn out to be. I was doing a good job but I hadn’t finished. I had a responsibility to keep him safe and I have failed.

I hate myself for having subdued every natural instinct in me by following the legal process. The law has loopholes and we have fallen through them. I heard about parents who showed up with police at the doors of ex-partners and removed their children forcibly. I should have done that. I had a legal right to do that. But I was frightened of causing a scene, of the effect on my son, of being rejected.

From a purely selfish perspective, I have no one now who wants or needs me to advise, soothe or comfort them; to rein them in or big them up, to offer unconditional love, the benefit of experience, guidance, that sort of thing. And I don’t know what to do with all that superfluous care.

I realise that Joe and I would have pulled our separate ways soon enough and got on with our separate futures, but we could have met up on the common ground of a shared, untroubled past. The abduction and alienation destroyed our home, our relationship, our plans for the immediate future — and our past life, which has been wiped from memory.

We had laid a foundation together, the tamped-down sediment of small things: fears conquered, milestone achievements, silly jokes and inconsequential moments. That was our common ground, our safe place, a tie that binds, the place where we would meet whenever, forever, in life. And it’s gone.

Reunite International Child Abduction Centre: Reunite advice line: 01162 556234 Two UK support groups that help parents to cope with PAS are MATCH ( ) and FNF (

Who are the child stealers?

798 offences of child abduction were found between 2002 and 2003 by a study of every police force in England and Wales — although the true figure may be much higher. Of these, nearly a quarter were by a natural parent or guardian. Almost half the children taken were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

336 children were illegally abducted from the UK and taken abroad last year. Their most common destination was Pakistan (30 cases), then the US (23), Ireland (22) and Spain (21).

93 per cent has been the rise in the number of child abductions from Britain since 1995, reflecting a rise in transnational marriages, more people working abroad on short-term contracts and more changing their country of residence.

40 per cent of cases last year involved children being taken to countries that have not signed up to the 1980 Hague Convention, which requires abductors to return children to their country of residence.

Japan is the only G7 country not to have signed the 1980 Hague Convention. Its courts do not recognise parental child abduction as a crime and routinely rule in favour of the Japanese parent and against the “left-behind parent”. Since 2003 there have been 37 cases in Japan involving British nationals: none has been resolved.

Islamic countries with Sharia law, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, prioritise male parental rights, making it nearly impossible for mothers to get their abducted children back.

Russia is another abduction hotspot. It also has not signed the 1980 treaty.

Chloe Lambert

Sources: FCO, Reunite, PACT

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