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I think my child has been abducted — what should I do?

Kirtsy Leedham answers some frequently asked questions in relation to parental child abduction.

The unlawful retention or removal of a child to another country without the permission of the other parent is considered to be child abduction.

It is important to note that many parents who abduct their child have no idea that they have done anything wrong, whilst other parents do know what they are doing is wrong and do it anyway for varying reasons. In some circumstances, simply pointing this out to the parent who has abducted the child can resolve the issue.

This can be confusing for families that have lived an expatriate or transient lifestyle. In some circumstances the parent who has taken the children may feel the children are just returning ‘home’ and you may feel there is nothing you can do about it. In other circumstances, you may feel that the actions are wholly unjustified and shocking. Parents move their children from one country to another for varying reasons.

If your child has been abducted, whether unintentionally or not, it is important not to ignore the situation. The matter is time-sensitive and delay does not help your case. You should seek legal advice at the first instance to ensure you know your legal rights and options.

Below are some questions that we are frequently asked, together with some tips and guidance if this situation applies to you.

Frequently asked questions on child abduction

Has my child been wrongfully removed or a wrongfully retained and why does it matter?

Child abduction falls into two categories; wrongful retention and wrongful removal.

A wrongful retention is when it is agreed a child can leave the country they are living in for a short period of time, such as a holiday, but the child does not come back at the end of the trip.

A wrongful removal is when a child is taken out of the country they were living in without the consent of both parents or a court order.

Can I involve the police?

In England and Wales, the wrongful removal of a child is a criminal offence, but wrongful retention is not. This means that the UK police may provide assistance when a child has been wrongfully removed, but are unlikely to be able to do anything if the child has been wrongfully retained.

In Scotland, there needs to be an existing court order in place for a wrongful removal to be a criminal offence, but such orders are not needed in England and Wales.

The position in other countries varies. Even if criminal action is not taken, you may be able to seek assistance from a court to ensure the child is returned.

What is the Hague Convention and does it apply to me?

Which countries are involved determines the action that can be taken.

If the country the child has been taken from and the country they are now in are both signed up to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction, you may use the 1980 Hague Convention process to ask for the return of your child. The court of the country your child is currently living in will make the decision.

The UK has been a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention since 1984.

If the 1980 Hague Convention is not an option in your situation, you may still be able to approach the courts to ask for the return of your child. You should speak to an expert lawyer to see what the options are.

I don’t want to issue court proceedings. Can I resolve this without court?

Child abduction cases require analysis and careful consideration of all the issues. Plenty of cases can be resolved by mutual agreement without court proceedings. You should seek expert legal advice as soon as possible. Lawyers do more than just represent at court; they can negotiate, mediate and signpost you to suitable agencies and support networks.

Helpful tips and things to consider

  • Not all family lawyers have extensive experience with international cases. Seek legal advice from a specialist in international family law immediately for information, advice and support.
  • Have a copy of the birth certificate of the child available.
  • Have a full description of the child available. This should include details of height, weight, eye and hair colour and any distinguishing features on the child. In addition, recent photographs of the children are helpful.
  • Consider what travel documents the children have. Provide full details to your lawyer.
  • Consider where the children could be and with who. Make a note of possible people and addresses.
  • Consider mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
  • Keep communication open between yourself and the other parent. If you cannot do it yourself, consider asking your lawyer or a third party to make communication.
  • Communication should always be kept factual between the parties. It is easy to say things in the heat of the moment. This is not helpful for anyone and can make things worse.
  • Resist the temptation to post about your circumstances on social media. Even if you think someone cannot see your posts, it is entirely possible they can see them.
  • Seek emotional support. This is an extremely difficult time for you, your children and the other parent. We can help you seek support.
  • Consider whether you need a translator if the language the proceedings are being held in is not your first language. Legal language can be confusing for most people even if you can speak that language.
  • Ask about help with legal funding: some countries offer a form of legal aid to parents seeking the return of their children.

If you have any concerns relating to child abduction, please contact our child law solicitors.

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