Whilst most people understand child abduction to be carried out by a stranger, there is an alarming increase in cases of international child abduction by an ex-partner or relative. In 2013, there was an increase in child abduction cases following the summer holidays, and child abduction offences recorded by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland increased by 34% from 2013/14 to 2014/15. Perhaps surprisingly, statistics also show that it is more likely to be the mother who abducts than the father, as approximately 70% of abducting parents are mothers.
For divorced or separated parents, the summer holidays can therefore be a long and stressful period to organise child arrangements with a former partner, and parents’ concerns may be heightened if the other parent lives abroad or has family or links to another country.
It is therefore important to understand what rights you hold as a parent, what rights, if any, the abducting parent holds, and what you can do if this happens.
If you want to take your child abroad, you will need the agreement of all people with parental responsibility and you should provide them with plenty of notice and details of the intended trip. If one parent has a Child Arrangements Order, they are able to take the child who are subject to that order abroad for up to 28 days without the consent of the other parent, but for periods greater than 28 days the written consent of every person with parental responsibility is required.
What can I do if I think there is a risk my ex-partner will take the children away?
If you have concerns that your former partner will try to remove the children from your care without your agreement, you can apply to the family court for a Prohibited Steps Order to stop them from removing your child without your permission. If the circumstances are serious enough, you can make this application without telling the other party, for example if you believe that telling them will make it more likely that the children will be taken from you. This is called making an ex parté (without notice) application. The Court will only look at this application if there are serious and legitimate reasons for doing so, for example if the other parent has made threats to take the children from your care, or taken the children’s passports without your permission.
If you think there is a real and legitimate risk of abduction, you can also safeguard the children’s passports and prevent further passports being issued.
What can I do if my children have not been returned?
If you believe that your children may have been taken away, it is important that you seek legal advice as soon as possible.
If the other parent has parental responsibility, then it is unlikely that the police will return the children to you unless you already have a Child Arrangements Order saying that the children live with you, or if there is a serious risk of harm if the children stay with the other parent.
In these circumstances, you can apply to the family court for an emergency order for the children to be returned to your care. The court will make this order if it is in your children’s best interests to do so. The court may also make a number of other orders to protect you and the children at the same time, for example a Prohibited Steps Order, Non-Molestation Order or a Child Arrangements Order to specify with whom the children should live.
What can I do if I think my children will be taken abroad?
If you think that your children are at risk of, or have been taken abroad, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.
Where the danger of removal is real and imminent, it is possible for the court to order a ‘Port Alert’ to prevent the children from leaving the country. This means that the children’s names will be provided to all UK airports and points of departure. The alert will last for a period of 4 weeks. A real or imminent danger of removal is considered to be a removal within 24-48 hours, and therefore it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible.
If your children have been taken away, the procedure for bringing them back will depend upon which country they have been taken to. The UK is part of The Hague Convention on Child Abduction which is a set of agreements with member states setting out the procedure for the return of children to their country of habitual residence. Save in exceptional circumstances, it will be considered that it is in the child’s best interests to be returned as quickly as possible. Each country that is party to the Convention has a designated government office, known as the Central Authority, which should be contacted as soon as the risk is identified.
Should you have any concerns about the issues raised in this article or other child matters, please do not hesitate to contact us.