July 9, 2015

How to deal with international child custody concerns

By Kate Banerjee, partner and head of the Children’s Department

The rise in parental child abductions – where a mum or dad snatches their own child – continues unabated.

Last year the Foreign Office dealt with nearly 500 cases – almost double the figure in 2005 –  and, according to a recent BBC programme, a British child is abducted and taken abroad by a parent, on average, every day.

Resolution, the organisation representing collaborative family lawyers, is addressing the growing need for the legal profession to be better informed and better able to help clients facing family law cases abroad. Its recent conference covered topics including how to spot and avoid abduction along with dealing with financial claims and maintenance after an overseas’ divorce.

International relationships and marriages are only part of the story behind the rise in abductions. Country specific family law legislation means that any issue relating to children can be challenging – with some parents prepared to take desperate measures. Even relocation abroad for work can push a parent into taking drastic actions to keep their child if their marriage breaks down.

The issue has been further catapulted into the media spotlight after two mothers calling themselves ‘Expat Stuck Mums’ launched a campaign aimed at mums and dads who find themselves trapped in a foreign country because the other parent forbids them to leave.

Like many people, these two women were unaware that children are automatically under a foreign jurisdiction when they move abroad because the new country becomes their ‘habitual residence’.

British courts have no say over what happens to the child and having British passports does not give either parent the right to take their children back to live in the UK without the consent of the other parent.

If there is a dispute about taking a child out of a country then requests must be settled by the family court in that jurisdiction. Whereas in the UK complex family cases are heard in a higher court, in many foreign countries a case may be heard by an inexperienced judge.

The Expat Stuck Mums are frustrated because they can ill afford to be stuck on foreign soil, often without any income and sometimes for years – yet risk prosecution if they abduct their children. They say that returning to the UK alone to fight for your child’s return isn’t an option as this could imply that you have abandoned your offspring.

As specialists in all matters relating to children, Jones Myers has first-hand experience of helping parents with returning their children to the UK. Here are some of our tips for dealing with international child custody issues:

  1. Be absolutely certain that a move overseas is right for you and your family. Even a trial or short term move means that your children’s future will be decided by the laws of that host country
  2. If you are unhappy abroad and want to return to the UK then try to negotiate with your child’s father or mother as a first step
  3. Never be tempted to take the law into your own hands. If you abduct your child then your credibility as a parent will be irretrievably damaged – particularly if you have ignored a court order. You could also face a jail sentence
  4. If you are concerned that the other parent could flee with your children then keep their passports safe – you could lodge them with a solicitor. You can also ask the Passport Agency in the UK to block the child’s mother or father from applying for a new passport
  5. Notify schools, child minders and even friends, about who is allowed to collect your child
  6. Contact Reunite, the UK’s International Child Abduction Charity, which operates a 24 hour emergency helpline -(0)116 255 6234
  7. If you receive a threat of child abduction, or if your child has been abducted, then contact the local police at once. They will alert airports and ferry terminals. Photos of your child, the other parents and details of any destination or person they could be heading to, will be helpful
  8. Seek legal advice immediately.

If you have any concerns about parental child abduction or any matter relating to children and divorce then please call us on 0113 246 0055, leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail. You can follow us on Twitter at @helpwithdivorce