February 18, 2013 – "This story will never have a fairy tale ending. Parental abductions are synonymously sad from beginning to end even if your child is returned home safely," says Pina Arcamone, Directrice générale of Enfant-Retour Québec – The Missing Children's Network.
Your life as you know it will never be the same again – it has been irrevocably altered to another unimaginable and unpredictable state of being where you intimately know the meaning of the word 'betrayal', and 'trust' has been exceedingly compromised if not marred beyond belief. You are given the inconceivable task to not only make sense of the pieces of your life that no longer seem to fit but have the courage to look in the mirror and accept the fact that these pieces, no matter how foreign or unavoidably dysfunctional – represent you. You are the parent left behind. You are the sibling left behind. You are the abducted child.
According to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Department of Public Affairs of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, more than 200,000 children are abducted by family members every year which estimates to about 548 abducted children every day. According to the U.S. Department of State in 2012, there were 799 new outgoing 'international' cases of family abduction involving 1,144 children and 344 new incoming 'international' cases of family abduction involving 473 children. The U.S. Department of State receives approximately 1,200 new Hague and non-Hague cases annually.
The FBI confidently assesses that the majority of child abductions are committed by persons with a relationship to the child they abduct. The FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team was established in 2009 to provide FBI field offices with a resource team of additional investigators with specialized experience in child abduction matters. These regional teams provide rapid, on-site response to provide investigative, technical, and resource assistance during the most critical time period following a child abduction. In 2009, the team had the most deployments since its inception.
"Despite close to 20 years of organized concern about missing children, and despite the creation of missing child prevention and intervention programs, the family abduction problem remains one area where efforts may be the least developed. Knowledge about the number of children who experience family abductions should spur efforts to prevent the occurrence of family abductions and help children and their aggrieved caretakers recover from the effects of these abductions when they occur."
The excerpt above was resourced from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, to Temple University. (The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice and the Office for Victims of Crime.)
The United States finds international parental child abduction to be a Federal crime. In the 'International Child Abduction Remedies Act', the United States Congress states that “the international abduction or wrongful retention of children is harmful to their well-being,” and that “persons should not be permitted to obtain custody of children by virtue of their wrongful removal or retention.”
Canadian Parental Abduction Statistics
According to the 2009 (most current) statistics the RCMP states there were 237 reports of parental abduction but this number contain caveats along with numerous, disconnected communication issues, and taking into consideration that Canada does not have the means to obtain national, networked statistics this number is to say the least - inaccurate. I was not able to find one organization or association that could tell me how many children, on a national basis, were abducted by a family member and how many were returned home safely.
Recently I spoke with Sgt. Jane Boissonneault who is in charge of the National Missing Children Operations (NMCO) with the RCMP wherein she stated that many parental abductions may not be reported to the police. Parents handle the situation on their own by hiring lawyers and organizations to find their child. The investigations are the responsibility of the local police who don't always contact NMCO for assistance and the only numbers they do get are from children that are entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) as missing. The RCMP does not close the file of abducted children until they are returned to their custodial parent or the family has come to an agreement regarding custody of the child. In some cases, when children that have been reported as missing reach adulthood, they may contact police and request that INTERPOL notices be cancelled so they may travel freely.
I asked Corporal David Falls, Media Relations Officer for the National Communications Services in Ottawa how many children were returned to Canada and he stated, "No statistics regarding numbers of parentally abducted children returned are available for a number of reasons:
- National Missing Children Operations (NMCO) is not always advised of parental child abductions. The investigations are the responsibility of the local police and there is no requirement for them to advise NMCO, therefore NMCO has no way of knowing how many cases there may be. NMCO usually only becomes aware of a case when the lead investigative agency requests assistance.
- In some international parental child abduction cases the children and abductors may be located; however, it is not possible to return them to Canada due to local laws, extradition treaties, etc.
- In some cases which are dealt with through the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, the courts in the other country may decide not to return the children to Canada.
- It is possible that while the children and abductor may be located, it is not in the best interests of the abductor or children to be returned.
For these reasons NCMO is not able to state how many parental child abductions there are. Also, it is possible to resolve an abduction case without returning the children."
When I asked Pina Arcamone of Enfant-Retour Québec how many children were recovered and returned home safely in a given year she stated the network of partners is very frustrated because their in-house statistics for the last couple of years does not represent concrete, reliable numbers. "Quebec has a provincial coordination team that collects all the statistical information on missing children. Statistics plays an integral role of this very serious issue. It is ridiculous to think that we have to work without having numbers," says Pina Arcamone.
Sgt. Jean-Yves McCann, the Provincial Coordinator for AMBER Alert at the Service Conseil aux Enquêtes, Sûreté du Québec stated, "We have had around 60 to 80 open file parental abduction cases in Quebec each year for the past few years. In 2011, 66 cases were registered in the provincial system involving 84 children and of those 66 cases, 44 occurred “under” a custody order and the remainder did not have one. Of the 84 children, 4 children were not recovered."
"Canada does not have a 'watch list' of people who have abducted their children. Having exit controls in place would make it more difficult for a parent abducting their child to leave the country."
Sgt. Jane Boissonneault
National Missing Children's Operation – RCMP
When abductors are convicted of abduction charges, they rarely go to jail but they may retain a criminal record that could impact them in some way. Crown Prosecutors do not always follow through on the charges because as soon as the child is recovered, the left behind parent often just wants to move on and put it all behind them.
"There's a heavy impact on the left behind parent and the child so there is a reluctance to carry on with the prosecution even if charges have been laid and the suspect is arrested. It is sometimes considered not in the best interest of the child to prosecute," says Sgt. Jane Boissonneault.
"Even if a person has a criminal record for child abduction it may not prevent them from leaving the country with a child. Canada does not have a “watch list” of people who have abducted their children. Having exit controls in place would make it more difficult for a parent abducting their child to leave the country," Sgt. Boissonneault added.
Government officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that they had over 900 children's issues cases involving the welfare of Canadian children abroad, custody, prevention and abduction in 2012.
Biometrics, also called biometric authentication, is used in computer science as a form of identification of humans by their characteristics or traits. Biometric identifiers are the distinctive, measurable characteristics used to label and depict individuals, and are often categorized as physiological (face, fingerprint, hand, iris, and DNA) versus behavioural (keystroke, signature, and voice) characteristics.
Airlines and government officials advise travellers to have a consent letter from the other parent if they want to fly with a child alone, but this is a voluntary gesture and the reality is that a signature on a letter can be easily forged. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) confirmed that airlines can do nothing to stop a parent with a child from leaving even when they don't have a letter. "Since there's no governmental requirement, the airlines have no legal mandate to be checking these," said spokesperson Perry Flint, who added airlines could open themselves up to lawsuits if they refuse to let a paying passenger board.
Border Entry Tightened with Biometrics
To tighten border entry into Canada as of 2013, when visitors, students or temporary foreign workers from 29 specific countries apply for visas in Canada they will have to pay $85.00 to have their fingerprints and photos taken at a biometric collection service point according to the 'Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act', passed last June in Ottawa. These 29 countries were chosen for their volume of visa refusals, removal orders, refugee claims and nationals arriving without proper documentation or attempting to travel under false identities, as well as their relevance to Canada's foreign and trade policy objectives. Fingerprints will be checked against the RCMP records of refugee claimants, previous deportees, people with Canadian criminal records, and previous temporary resident applications, before a decision is made. Border guards would check the biometric information again at the border.
Experts advocate 'exit controls' as the only solution and common denominator in preventing parental abductions.
"Biometrics will strengthen and modernize Canada's immigration system. Our doors are open to legitimate travellers and, through the use of biometrics, we will also be able to protect the safety and security of Canadians," said Jason Kenney, Canada's Immigration Minister as reported by the Toronto Star Newspaper.
If the added biometric measure to obtain visas in Canada will, according to the cost-benefit analysis, save the Canadian government an estimated $106 million over ten years from the reduced negative refugee claims, fewer removals and detentions, it causes me to question how much money our government would save in parental abduction cases. I can only deduce that the costs incurred by parents procuring legal services in two countries, court costs, hiring private organizations to find their child and travel expenses – combined with the costs incurred by the local and provincial police, the judicial system, NGO's, RCMP, Consular Services (Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada) and Interpol would be much higher than anyone anticipated.
If biometrics, a highly sophisticated authentication tool that encompasses many capacities, is used as a preventative measure for children travelling to other countries how better to avert the tragedy and loss of a child from being abducted, save the Canadian people millions of tax dollars in trying to retrieve the child and effectively discourage parents from abducting their own children.
Once a child has left the country, the odds are against the parent in being successful in locating and/or recovering their abducted child. The process in laying criminal charges against the abductor is not only complex, time consuming and difficult but may have repercussions that the parent did not expect let alone take into consideration. Experts advocate 'exit controls' as the only solution and common denominator in preventing parental abductions. Parents need a security 'exit control' infrastructure that will protect their children.
Enfant-Retour Québec – Missing Children's Network is a non-profit organization that provides front-line services to families who are searching for their missing child while ubiquitously working collaboratively with law enforcement agencies, other child search organizations and media. Enfant-Retour Québec offers comprehensive educational and prevention programs designed especially for children, parents and professionals. Publications that provide guidelines to keep children safe while travelling in public venues are requested daily by educators, families, law enforcement and community organizations. Since 1985, Enfant-Retour Québec has worked with thousands of parents of missing children and personally dealt with close to 400 child abduction cases in 28 years.
I had an opportunity to speak with Pina Arcamone, the Directrice générale of Enfant-Retour Québec and while our conversation was candid and factual, she made some profound statements that are very much worth noting.
"We fight tooth and nail everyday on their behalf. We do not take 'no' for an answer because it is not an option. You can say 'no' to us but we will find the tiniest window and open it. For all the parents that call our organization when they are in distress we offer them help and hope, and the security and validation in knowing that their child has not been forgotten and will not be another statistic. The public moves on but these parents cannot because they are in a state of limbo."
"Parental abduction is one of the biggest forms of child abuse that goes unreported, undetected, and is vastly unknown."
Pina Arcamone, Directrice générale Enfant-Retour Québec
The Missing Children's Network
"Parental abductions are very complex. Even within Canada, it has taken us 3 to 4 months to have an abducted child returned from Vancouver to Québec. According to the Québec in-house statistics the average time it takes to recover an abducted child on an international level is 243 days, which equals to about 8 months. That is an extremely long time for an infant or child to be deprived of contact with their parent."
"We work closely with our partners in Québec. If we believe that there is an abduction in progress, we will notify customs, Border Services, Immigration Canada, and local police positioned at the airports and they will intervene at that time."
"Parental abduction is one of the biggest forms of child abuse that goes unreported, undetected, and is vastly unknown. Out of fear of reprisal, many parents will not notify police that their child has been abducted by the other parent. We think that these children are safe but they are not safe. We have to fear for the child's life. As a society we do not believe that parental abductions are serious and around the world it continues to be a myth that parental abductions are not as serious as criminal abductions."
"A number of years ago we had a two-day 'round table' discussion on parental abductions in Ottawa where the Foreign Affairs Dept. invited all the local NGO's, central authorities and various justice departments across Canada to participate and make recommendations to find a way to eliminate parental abductions. One recommendation was the possibility of applying trade sanctions against a country that will not adopt the Hague Child Abduction Convention. At one point, you have to take a stand to protect your own. I've heard Prime Minister Harper say that he will not have trade deals with China because of human rights issues. Well, this is a question of human rights as well."
When I asked Pina Arcamone what preventative measures the Canadian government should enable to protect our children against parental abductions she said, "The first thing they should do is find a way to control the exits and borders. We keep hearing people say that children are our future, well; we have to continually send out the message that our children are as secure as we protect them. Children will always be vulnerable but in parental abductions, they are the silent victims. They look to us for protection and security – that's our job."
Victoria Starr's Story
The excerpt below is from a story called "Preventing Parental Child Abduction Part I," written by Victoria Starr, a family lawyer with Starr Family Law, a Centre for Family Mediation and Arbitration in April 2012.
"At age 11, nine years following my own parents’ high-conflict and violent separation, my Iranian father (my mother is Scottish-Canadian), who had returned to live in Iran when I was three, came to Canada to visit with me for the first time. It was during one of these visits that he convinced me to get on a plane with him so that we could (I believed) go and buy a horse.
Our true destination was Iran, and it was five long years before he, faced with the choice of either punishing me for an infraction in accordance with Islamic law or returning me to Canada, relented and sent me home. Having experienced an international parental abduction first hand and having represented clients looking for a way to either prevent their children from being abducted or have their abducted children returned to Canada, it has become clear to me that the first line of defense is prevention."
The Plight of Two Canadian Fathers
CBC News published a story in January 2012 about two Canadian fathers whose children were abducted by their mothers and taken to European countries.
Calum Hughes whose daughter Livia, was abducted by her mother, Sibylla Verdi Hughes, in British Columbia and taken to Italy in 2009, stated that authorities did little to enforce court orders and bring his daughter back. While the RCMP insists that Mr. Hughes investigation is still active he has heard nothing from them since the initial charge was laid against his wife two years ago. Mr. Hughes has spent over $100,000.00 and many days in court and ended up with nothing in terms of a relationship with his daughter. He has not seen his daughter in three years. There is a Canada-wide warrant for the arrest of Sibylla Verdi for child abduction.
Gary Mezo's son Gary Jr. was abducted at the age of two by his wife, Boglarka Balog from Thunder Bay, Ontario and taken to Hungary where it was confirmed they have been living for over a year.
Gary Mezo approached the police several times with an affidavit and emails from a boyfriend of his child's mother showing that she planned to leave the country with her son and then claim abuse. Unfortunately, the investigating officer could not get approval for abduction charges because they did not have reasonable grounds. Chris Adams, an Investigating Officer for the Thunder Bay Police stated that these cases are very problematic because they do not have the authority to enforce custody in another country.
Mr. Mezo's application is stalled in the Hungarian court system, which sympathized with the Hungarian-born mother. Ted Davis, a private investigator, stated that, "Countries protect their own. The stumbling block in Hague cases is when the court is convinced there's risk to the child [if returned]." The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is the main international treaty that can help parents of children abducted to certain countries get their children returned.
Mr. Hughes and Mr. Mezo emphatically agreed 'exit controls' need to be in place to stop parents with children from leaving the country without the other parent's consent. "If they had been stopped, this would have all been prevented," said Mr. Mezo.
It is important to note that both fathers were granted sole custody of their children by the Canadian courts and they both agreed those orders have proven meaningless. "A Canadian Supreme Court full custody ruling has no teeth…there's not a lot of consequence that I see for a parent to just pick up and leave," said Hughes.
Mr. Hughes and Mr. Mezo emphatically agreed that exit controls need to be in place to stop parents with children from leaving the country without the other parent's consent. "If they had been stopped, this would have all been prevented. This is happening everywhere in the world but nobody is doing anything about it. Somebody has to step up and put their foot down and say enough is enough," said Mr. Mezo. Both fathers stated their children have been let down by a system that is ineffective and hasn't made children's' rights a priority.
Since 2003, the global number of Hague Child Abduction Convention applications to retrieve abducted children has risen 45% as stated by Nigel Lowe and Victoria Stephens who completed a recent study at the Cardiff Law School in the United Kingdom.
'Missing Children Society of Canada' stated that they have seen a steady increase in calls about international abductions and there is nothing in place that could have prevented the abductions.
Children Caught in Extradition Loop Holes
An 'Extradition Treaty' is the process where an accused person is removed from one country to face criminal charges in another country. If Canada has an 'Extradition Treaty' with another country, Canada may ask the country to force the abductor to return home, but this rarely occurs in international child abduction cases because many countries do not consider parental abduction a criminal offence, and they will not extradite their own citizens.
If the other country does extradite the abductor, chances are, the child will not return home with the abductor because children cannot be extradited. If the child is returned, local child protection services takes temporary custody of your child until a court decides on permanent custody. Parents searching for their children need to be prepared financially and emotionally to travel to foreign countries to participate in legal proceedings. Aside from the emotional turmoil a parent experiences in trying to locate their child, the expenses they will incur include - hiring a lawyer in Canada and the other country, paying court and legal fees, travel costs, and hiring a private organization to find their child.
Under the current system, parents can make applications for their child's return under the Hague Child Abduction Convention, but it can take two to three years and several thousand dollars to get their child back, and it can only be accomplished with signatory countries. At present there are no penalties or repercussions for non-compliance with the Hague Child Abduction Convention.
Ted Davis, a private investigator, stated in the CBC News article on international parental abductions that, "It's a very expensive proposition to initiate extradition on an abduction charge. It's not a priority [to police]. They don't like getting involved in family cases when it's not a life-threatening situation. The child's rights are at risk here. A woman or man who wants to take their child [outside Canada or the U.S.] can simply jump on a plane and leave."
The Hague Child Abduction Convention states there is a steady increase in international parental abductions.
At present, Passport Offices are limited in their involvement and somewhat ineffectual when it comes to the security of children in Canada. Their policy is designed to protect the rights of 'all' parties while attempting to prevent child abduction. Take into consideration the following:
- Only parents with custodial rights may apply for passport services for a child and the signature of the other parent must 'normally' be provided on the application to indicate awareness of the passport application but a signature on a notarized document can be easily forged. The federal government believes it would be unreasonable to adopt a policy making it mandatory for both parents to file for a passport application in person.
- Should a Passport Office receive a verbal request from a parent fearing for the abduction of his/her child, the name of the other parent and name of the child is immediately added to the passport control list even if an application for a passport has not been processed.
- Parents who are deprived of their custodial or access rights by court orders that have not been finalized, will be informed by the Passport Office that an application for passport services is being made in respect of their children.
- Parents may choose to have a separate passport issued to a child or they can add the child's name to one of the parent's passports. While adding a child's name to a parent's passport may be economically feasible – a photograph of the child is not required and therefore creates a loophole for anyone contemplating child smuggling or abduction.
- A child can travel with either parent if the child has his/her own passport but this creates an opportunity for abduction should a non-custodial parent gain access to the child's passport.
- Passport Office employees are expected to contact the other parent each time the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing exists.
- The Passport Office does not plan, at this time, to make it mandatory for all applicants to obtain individual passports for their children. The Canadian Government will continue to examine ways to improve identification of minor children in travel documents.
The Passport Office heads the Canadian delegation, which has representatives from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, RCMP and Transport Canada and the International Civil Aviation Organization - Machine Readable Travel Documents (ICAO-MRTD) committee. This Committee is establishing standards for international travel documents. Within this forum, Canada has taken the position that individual passports issued mandatorily to all persons including children ("one person, one passport" policy) does not respond to security and safety concerns of minor children.
If we have biometric measures in place to prevent people from entering Canada, why can't we use the same biometric measures to prevent our children from being abducted and taken outside of Canada? It's a simple question that deserves a qualified answer. Asking a child to place their hand on a biometric screen at the airport or border is innocuous, non-confrontational and represents the last chance 'safety measure' before a child leaves our country.
The 'Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction Prevention and Return Act (HR1940)' will be introduced to the U.S. Congress this year which proposes establishing an Office on International Child Abductions to promote safeguards in preventing abductions and assist parents in resolving their cases.
Children are not commodities or possessions like household chattel but taking into account the Canadian statistics or lack thereof, I echo what every authority on abductions tells me - parental abductions are a common occurrence and they have been for some time. Abductors get away with what we allow them to get away with.
The repercussions and extenuating circumstances surrounding parental abduction cases has a 'domino effect' that never seems to stop. Unless you have direct experience with child abduction or know of someone who is living through such an experience – you will never understand the depth of despair, the financial strains and the emotional roller coaster ride that has become their daily life.
Government officials may say that installing biometrics in every airport and border entry across Canada would be a very costly venture but for just a moment imagine that it is your child that has been abducted and taken to another country. What wouldn't you do to have your child returned home - safe and sound? Put a price on that.
There is very little about parental abductions that is black and white – just a myriad of grey matter that I tenaciously want to transform into colours of hope.
A Guidebook for Left Behind Parents – Government of Canada
International Child Abduction - Department of Justice Canada
The Crime of Family Abduction – the U.S. Department of Justice
Crimes against Children – The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Family Child Abductions - The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Parental Abductions Go Unpunished – CBC News
Parental Abductions – Guidelines for Parents – Enfant-Retour Québec – includes valuable 'Information Record' forms that you can download.
The Left-Behind Parents' View of the Parental Abduction Experience: Its Characteristics and Effects on Canadian Victims - National Missing Children Services - RCMP
2009 Missing Children's Reference Report – National Missing Children Services – RCMP
It Shouldn't Hurt to be a Child – Victims of Violence – Parental Abductions
Preventing Parental Child Abduction - Starr Family Law, Barristers and Solicitors