May 3, 2013

Bring Elsa Home – the heartache caused by child abduction

By Kate Banerjee, head of our Children’s Department and a Member of the International Child Abduction and Custody Unit.

You may have seen our client Naomi Button propelled back into the media spotlight this week on her tenacious campaign to find her daughter Elsa Salama, abducted in Egypt in December 2011.

Naomi and I were invited to participate in media interviews to coincide with a report highlighting a 40 per cent increase over the last year in global family disputes, including kidnapping of children by a parent. The report was published by the Office of the Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales which is brought in to help deal with international family disputes, including some abduction and child custody cases. The office handled three new cases in its first year in 2005, increasing to 65 in 2008, 180 in 2011 and 253 in 2012.

The renewed media interest in Naomi’s case followed the initial publicity in January this year – which revealed how six year old Elsa was abducted by her father Tamer Salama during a family trip to Egypt.

The plight of cases such as Elsa’s highlighted the human heartbreak behind the annual report. We are hugely grateful to Clive Coleman, the BBC’s Legal Correspondent, BBC News, BBC News online, Sky News, ITV’s Daybreak, BBC Radio 4 Today, BBC Radio 5 Live Victoria Derbyshire Show, Frances Gibb, legal correspondent at The Times, BBC Radio Leeds and Radio Aire for helping to further boost awareness of the challenges facing Naomi in her campaign to bring Elsa home to Leeds.

As specialists in all areas of family law, at Jones Myers we are well aware of this significant rise in parental child abductions. The increase in International marriages and relationships – coupled with the high rate of family separation – means that we often see cases of parental child abduction when there is a family breakdown and one parent or the other may return to their home country.

It was heartening to hear Lord Justice Thorpe, co-author of the report, calling for wider judicial communication and I support his call to encourage more countries to sign up to the Hague Convention which brings reciprocal judiciary arrangements whereby judges in each country will communicate to help return children. Recent good news has seen Pakistan’s interim law minister indicate that the government plans to ratify the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction. This is a positive step forward for the return of children from a country that has one of world’s highest rates of child abduction.

While The Office of the Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales has been able to help some parents, the annual report highlights the challenges that others like Naomi face when a child is abducted to a country outside of the Hague Convention.

Egypt – like half of the world’s countries – is not a signatory to the Hague Convention.  Despite having a custody order in Egypt and an order in England and Wales for the return of Elsa to her mother, Elsa’s whereabouts remain unknown.  We do not have the benefit of this judicial collaboration and assistance where a judge in England could call a judge in Egypt to help find Elsa and return her to Naomi.

Naomi’s plight has brought messages and social media posts from parents concerned about their own children. Here are some of my preventative tips:

  • Apply to the Court for a Prohibited Steps Order (PSO); this prevents either parent from taking their children to any specific events or any trips without the express permission of the other parent.
  • Ensure that contact is supervised and in extreme cases, you may wish to stop contact altogether.
  • Keep passports safe and consider depositing them with a solicitor.
  • Contact the Passport Agency and ask them to block the other parent from applying for a new passport.
  • Notify the school about who is allowed to collect your child from school.
  • If you receive a threat of child abduction or if your child has been abducted: Contact the police immediately who can issue a port alert to airports and ferry terminals – A recent photo of your child and the other parent and details of the airport or destination you think they may be heading to will help the police to focus their search.
  • Contact Reunite, the UK’s International Child Abduction Charity which operates a 24 hour emergency helpline 0116 2556234.
  • Seek legal advice immediately.