Tag Archives: family law

Children In A Legal Vacuum: International Child Abduction

Many of us take on work or studies in a foreign country, and some of us end up having a family with someone of a different nationality. All great for international understanding? Well usually. But if the relationship breaks down, this type of globally mobile lifestyle brings new challenges for the family courts. Where do you file for a divorce? What about custody and visitation? What if the custody battle turns acrimonious?

With the increase in transnational marriages, international parental child abduction has become a serious problem that affects both individual states and the international community.  Parents who feel unfairly treated by the family courts may  “forum shop” taking the kids into a new legal jurisdiction that will be more likely to rule in their favour, thus sparking a re-run of their custody case. The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction is designed specifically to prevent this border-hopping between nations; signatory countries agree to accept decisions already made in another jurisdiction and to promptly return abducted children to their place of habitual residence.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also obliges states to ensure that national borders are not used to prevent children from having contact with their family. Signatory states commit to ensuring the continuity of a child’s life when a substantial part of it resides in another country.

Yet it is one thing to accept that is in the child’s best interests to maintain contact with their family and promptly return home; it is another to actually carry this out.

While international legal conventions are designed to regulate cross-border disputes and harmonise legal proceedings, these are not always enforced with appropriate urgency and are frequently evaded or blatantly disregarded. Although parental abduction has been defined as amounting to child abuse, the rights of the child are sadly often ignored in international abduction cases, with nationalistic posturing taking precedence.

Families living abroad are away from the steadying influences of friends and extended family, and may also slip through society’s safety nets of schools, doctors, social workers and counsellors. Who is going to follow up on a family that has moved abroad? Who will bother to find out the background of a family newly arrived in a country? If you don’t speak the language, how can you seek advice and counselling? National laws governing family issues must be adapted to the changing international culture and to reflect the ease of international travel and the transnational nature of many modern families.

US-Italy-Russia

The recent case of the Grin/McIlwrath children highlights the numerous failings of the Russian authorities to work together with their Italian counterparts to protect the children involved. Grin, a Russian-born US citizen who was living in Italy, abducted her four children from their American custodial father in Florence. She travelled to Russia with the children despite Italian court rulings which removed her custody rights and indicated that the children were at risk if they remained with her. Her children have since been placed in Chabad-Lubavitch institutes/orphanages in St Petersburg at her request “for their own safety”.

The plight of the children, who are fluent in both English and Italian, has not even been acknowledged by the Russian authorities. It appears that the obligation of the state to ensure their safety and well being, and contact with their family and friends in Italy in the US, has been completely overlooked since they have been moved into a new jurisdiction, despite the fact that Italy, the US and Russia are all signatories to the Hague Convention.

Russian authorities have similarly done nothing to end the children’s isolation from family and friends, nor ensured they are safe from the risks identified in the Italian court proceedings.

Canada-Poland

In a parallel case two Canadian boys, Alexander and Christopher Watkins, were abducted by their Polish mother after her custody was revoked due to child-neglect. The boys were taken via the US and into Germany where the trail went cold. The Canadian authorities voiced serious concerns about the safety of the children and the ability of the mother to care for them, an Interpol red notice was issued and the mother was put on Canada’s most wanted list. When the children were finally located in Poland, the father immediately applied to have the boys returned home. At the December hearing in Poland the judge ruled that the children are now settled in Poland and should not be returned to Canada. This is despite the boys’ school in Poland independently suing the mother for child neglect. The appeal will be heard on May 16th 2012.

Leaving the children in the care of a demonstrably neglectful and potentially abusive parent is a clear breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Refusing to return the children to the custodial parent is a violation of the Hague Convention. That Poland as an EU member state is not being held accountable for the misapplication of these laws and agreements as well as blatantly ignoring Interpol red and yellow notices raises concerns for the quality of European law.

Although both cases have a non European element they both involve EU borders. The issues of cross-border problems arising from divorce or family problems should be tackled more effectively within the EU. While there is often talk of the unification of laws in the EU there is a clear lack of co-operation when it comes to family law. In a region in which members of EU states can move freely between and within numerous jurisdictions the legal tools must exist to deal with the resulting problems of this freedom of movement.

It’s not clear why the Hague Convention is largely ignored in many states, possibly it is percieved by the national judiciary as meddling from outside, maybe it’s just a sign of the general distrust of and reluctance to co-operate with another country’s legal systems, or it could just be plain nationalism: siding with the parent of the same nationality.

If the unification of laws in the corporate sector is moving ahead, why are the laws governing our private lives being left behind? The creation of networks such as Interpol, Europol and various UN initiatives have offered little assistance in addressing problems arising from transnational familial relationships, especially those involving children. While numerous national and international legal measures have been created to uphold the rights of the child, their application has been limited. The enforcement of existing laws and international agreements has not been enough to protect children from the dangers of international child abduction.

Immediate action is essential in cases of child abduction because of the age and vulnerability of the children compounded by the volatility of a parent who is putting their own child through the trauma of abduction. Yet both Poland and Russia have failed to act on these cases, posing a serious risk to the children involved. The person posing the greatest danger to an abducted child is the abductor.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post.

Parental Rights and the Role of the Courts

In an ideal world, decisions regarding child custody would not have to be made in court. Sadly the reality in 10% of divorce cases, is that courts are forced to take a central role in deciding the future of the affected children. The process of deciding and managing custody cases is often lengthy and drawn out. Time is even more precious when children are involved, and stalling in the decision making can add ammunition to the negative effects of the break up.

In the UK, there has been an ongoing campaign to give further legal rights to  fathers in the UK. Recent proposals to amend the Childrens Act of 1989 were revealed by Ken Clarke yesterday, which would give divorced fathers increased rights to see their children. There is some debate as to whether this would really improve the situation for the affected children.  In Australia the introduction of the right to shared access for both parents caused long delays in custody cases, which can worsen the situation for the children involved. The problems encountered in Australia illustrate that it may not be the law that needs changing but the way the cases are handled.

David Norgrove, who chaired the  Family Justice Review  which was commissioned by the government and published last year, criticised the proposals for reform. The report concluded that the law should not be changed, after thoroughly examining the issue of shared custody. The courts in England and Wales maintain that they assess each case individually and that the welfare of the child takes top priority. The minority of divorce cases that do get heard in the courts are a highly conflicted group, with numerous problems. In these complex cases usually both parents feel unheard. Coming to an agreement regarding custody and shared parenting will not be accelerated by giving parents more rights but by helping them fulfil their responsibilities. Finding a situation that is best for the children is the primary aim in such a situation and should be resolved by trying to give the children a voice. These cases are often very complex, courts already struggle to find the best speedy solution, more legislation could further impair the process.

In the majority of the cases that do go to court, family courts rule in favour of the mother. Because of the conflicted nature of these custody battle, this can result in a proportion of these children having little or no contact with their father. According to the Office for National Statistics, only 8% of single parents in Britain are men. The assumption of the courts is influenced by a traditional image of the nuclear family – where the mother cares for the children and the father works full time. These roles do not necessarily apply to the modern household and the courts bias towards the mother is somewhat out of date.

Growing up without the father can be difficult, but this is not always the fault of the courts or the limited custody rights. There are fathers who make the effort to see their children and there are those that don’t. However they should give the fathers that are good parents and want to have a key role in bringing up their children the opportunity to do so. Both parents have a right to raise their children and to be good parents, whether they are together or not. David Norgrove stated:

“This issue affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and it would be negligent not [to consider all options]. It is also right that we continue to encourage fathers to take responsibility as equal parents and to be fully involved with their children from the outset.”

The Children Act 1989 focuses on an individual child and their unique needs, preferences and circumstances. The rights of the child rather than the parents rights should be central in dealing with these cases. The primary issue is the culture of the courts that take an old fashioned stance in dealing with custody cases, rather than the lack of existing laws. The fair  implementation of these laws along with the role of the courts and social services should ensure the child has regular access to both parents.