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The High Court has, this week, taken the unusual step of identifying 4 children caught up in an international custody dispute between their parents, after they were abducted by their mother in the middle of the night to avoid orders providing for them to be removed from the mother’s care and returned to their father in Spain. The case has a long history, and this is reported to be the third time the mother has abducted the 4 children. An urgent search is now underway to locate the children, which it is hoped will be assisted by the decision to release the identities of the children. The children have been living with their Spanish father since the parents separated a number of years ago. It is reported that they were abducted and brought to England by the Mother in 2009, but later returned. They were then abducted again earlier this year, following which urgent court proceedings were issued by the father here in England for their immediate return, under the special international rules concerning child abduction. Orders were then made in favour of the Father, requiring the children to be returned to Spain by no later than midnight last Friday. The mother indicated she was unwilling to accept the decision and appealed, but was unsuccessful. Given the history, and the mother’s refusal to accept the decision of the court, it was felt there was the risk that she would again abscond with the children before the Return Order could be implemented and the court therefore took the decision to order that the children be immediately removed from the mother’s care and placed with the Local Authority until such time as they could be put on a flight home, an order made only in exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately, in the short time it took for that order to be implemented, the mother had vanished from her home in Wales with the children, for whom there are now safety concerns. The case highlights a number of issues which arise in cases of parental child abduction. The first is that there are often warning signs that an abduction is likely to take place which experienced practitioners can identify, along with the facts that once these warning signs are exhibited, time is very much of the essence in order to minimise the risk of the abduction taking place. The High Court has extensive powers which it can use in abduction cases, and will do so if required to protect the welfare of children who have been abducted or are at risk of abduction. Orders can include requiring mobile telephone and welfare agencies to disclose information about the parent’s accounts and requiring other members of their family to come to court and give evidence about what they know of the abductors plans or whereabouts. There are also serious penalties for parents who breach orders regarding the return of children, which can include prison sentences. Once the children are found, the courts both here and in Spain will be anxious to ensure that this does not happen again and again, the court has extensive powers to put measures in place to protect the children. This can include withholding their whereabouts from the abductor, confiscating the parent’s travel documents, electronic tagging and insisting that any future contact take place only in a secure, supervised setting. Anyone involved in the field of child abduction knows that it can cause lasting damage to a child, and whilst parents may think they are acting in the children’s best interests, there can be lasting negative consequences for the whole family.
Parental child abduction features in various headlines today, demonstrating the wide range of circumstances in which it can take place. Many people will have seen the reports of the urgent search for 7 year old Neon Roberts, after his mother abducted him from home to a town some 160 miles away, in order to avoid him being given urgent medical treatment, with which she does not agree. It is reported that Neon’s parents have been involved in a legal battle in recent days as to whether he should receive life-saving cancer treatment. Ms Roberts practices alternative therapies and did not agree to Neon receiving conventional treatment. The seriousness of Neon’s condition, prompted the High Court to take the unusual step of releasing Neon’s details, in the hope he could be found in time for treatment to begin. It is reported that a further hearing is scheduled to take place tomorrow at which the decision will be made as to whether or not Neon should receive radiotherapy. As against the unusual circumstances of Neon’s case, are reports of a more traditional example of parental abduction featuring 5 year old Erin Chafin. Erin father was in the US Army when he married her Scottish mother. When they divorced, there was an argument between them as to whether Erin was resident in Scotland, or in the US, with Erin’s mother alleging that her father had wrongly retained her in the US, rather than allowing her to return to Scotland, amounting to child abduction. The American court agreed, and made orders which permitted Erin to return to Scotland. Erin’s father then made further applications in the US courts seeking orders regarding custody and contact, but was told that such matters could only be dealt with by the courts in Scotland. He seeks to override that decision in order to allow the American courts to retain jurisdiction over Erin’s future. A decision of the US Supreme Court is expected early next year. The two cases highlight the ways in which parental abduction can occur, whether internally in the UK, or internationally and how whilst it is often international families who are involved, this is not always the case. The cases also highlight the wide ranging powers the courts have in such situations, and the importance of obtaining urgent legal advice.