Q&A on child abduction with Rosie Dyas

FCO logoNew figures released by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) show that the number of child abduction and custody cases have more than doubled in the past decade with almost two children being abducted abroad by a parent every day. The FCO has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue of international parental child abduction to help prevent further cases.

Rosie Dyas, former head of the Child Abduction Section at the FCO, joined us in July 2011 to answer questions on this topic. Many of the questions asked by Mumsnetters were typical of those asked on the FCO's public advice line and are still very relevant today. As part of a new campaign to raise awareness of the issue, Daisy Organ, Consular Children's Policy Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has updated the advice and we've republished it here.

If you'd like to discuss your individual case, please ring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Consular Directorate on 0207 008 1500.

Relocating with children | Travelling with children | Problematic partners | Abduction

Relocating with children

Q. Lisah73: I am thinking of moving abroad with my children within the next few months. My ex-husband, the father of my children, has not seen them for months and has informed me by text that he does not want to see the children anymore. Where do I stand with regards to moving the children abroad? I do not have any contact with their father, so I do not see why I should have to ask his permission to take the children abroad. However, I know he will say no - not because he wants to see the children, as he doesn't - but just to get one over on me. Would I get into trouble if I took them and he found out after we'd left?

A. Daisy: Many people find it difficult to discuss with their ex-partners who their children should live and where they should live. You should be aware that in England and Wales it may be a criminal offence to take a child overseas without the permission of the other parent or the courts. Even if your ex-husband has previously indicated he doesn't want to see the children, you should still consult a specialist family lawyer to ensure you have the right permissions to move overseas with your children. Checking your legal position now will ensure you avoid problems further down the line (such as your ex-husband accusing you of abducting the children). Here is a list of lawyers who specialise in child custody. You can also contact the FCO and Reunite, a specialist charity who we work closely with, for further advice and support.

Q. Mumfortoddler: I have a two-year-old son whose father is French. We are no longer together but his father has access two days a week. I work in international development and I'd like to do some work abroad. I'm not planning to go away for years at a time but I would like to do the occasional three month project overseas. What kind of permission do I need to obtain and are the courts likely to grant it?

A. Daisy: Although you don't say, I'm assuming you live in the UK. As a first step you should seek legal advice to ensure that you do not commit a criminal offence by taking your son overseas without permission from either the father or UK courts. A suitably qualified lawyer (see my reply above for details of lawyers) will be able to give you proper advice on whether the courts will grant such permission. You can also contact the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit and Reunite for more information. If you and your son's father can reach a mutual agreement on who your child should live with and where, it could be relatively simple to have this agreement recognised legally.

Q: Please can you give me a clear definition of 'normally resident'. This seems to be important in child abduction cases but it is unclear. For example if a person goes to work in another country for a temporary contract of six months to two years but works for a UK company, has UK address and pays UK tax. The child has UK passport but the mother is native to the country that they are in temporarily. At what point does the child become resident in the second country? Is it abduction for the child to be kept there after just fiv months and not returned to the UK and should the father have returned with the child, would that be abduction?

A. Daisy: In parental child abduction and international custody cases the terms habitually resident or habitual residence refers to the country where the child normally lives. It is not determined by child's nationality, the parent's nationality or where the parent pays tax. Depending on the child's age and how long they have lived in one country, relocating them overseas, even for a temporary period, may result in a chance of their habitual residence.

If you and your partner cannot agree on where the child should live, you should consult a local lawyer for advice on where your child is now considered habitually resident and what steps you may need to take to secure the return of your child to the UK. You can also seek further advice from Reunite.


Travelling with children

Q. Southoftheriver: My husband will not be able to travel with me when I take the children abroad this year due to work commitments. What sort of extra documentation do we need to carry so that we aren't detained at the airport?

A. Daisy: In the first instance, you should check with the individual airline or foreign immigration authority concerned as their requirements do vary. Some countries have mandatory requirements for certain documentation when travelling with children. As a general rule it's a good idea to carry some paperwork, such as the children's birth certificates or a consent letter from the other parent, which shows you are their parent and have consent to travel with them. This can be particularly useful if you have a different surname from your children. On returning to the UK, a letter explaining your situation will also be helpful in answering any questions UK Border Force Officers might have. You can find out more information about this in the UK Border Force leaflet.

Q. Fraktious: What exactly is considered consent? If I travel on my British passport with my son on a French passport or ID card, what documents do I need to carry with me?

"You need to make sure you have permission from your son's father or the courts if you take your son overseas."

A. Daisy: In the UK there is no legal requirement to carry any documentation with you when travelling overseas with children. However, you need to make sure you have permission from your son's father or the courts if you take your son overseas. You might want to consider carrying your son's birth certificate with you to show he is your son, as well as some sort of letter of consent from his father.

Q. Mousymouse: My children have my husband's surname, and we travel a lot within Europe, mainly Austria and Germany. In the past year, I've noticed that immigration are increasingly asking my children, "Is that your mummy?" and "Where is your daddy?". I already have a copy of their birth certificate stapled to their passports (on the advice from German authorities) and carry a copy of the marriage certificate with me, just in case. Is this just a coincidence or are controls getting tougher?

A. Daisy: Different countries' immigration authorities have their own policies so I'm not aware of any decisions to make the controls stricter. It sounds like you're already taking sensible steps when travelling with your children - please see my replies above for more advice.


Problematic partners

Q. Mzdemeanour: My ex-husband is a Turkish citizen living in Turkey. At the time of our children's birth (seven-year-old twins) he was living in the UK on a settlement visa. We split up when the kids were six months old and have been divorced since October 2006.

In 2008, he was removed or deported from the UK, I am not clear which or why. I have been informed that he is unlikely to get a visit visa - and in any case he probably doesn't earn enough money to apply/support himself here.
I have booked a holiday to Rhodes this summer for myself, my boyfriend and the children, and I'm considering a day trip to Turkey so the twins can see their father. He has offered to send me a letter stating that he has no intention of seeking custody or abducting them as he agrees they are better off living with me.

"Many people don't realise that UK law doesn't apply in foreign countries so if your ex-husband refused to return the children you might need to initiate a case through the 1980 Hague Convention of Child Abduction to secure the return of your children."

I would like to know whether this sort of letter would be legally recognisable (he is planning to get it notarised), and what your views are on whether I should go ahead with taking the children to Turkey. Are there any other precautions I can take to ensure that I have no problems when trying to return to Rhodes or any paperwork that I need to get sorted in advance?

A. Daisy: You raise quite a few different points in your post and my overall advice is that you should consult a family lawyer with experience in child custody. Here is a list of lawyers who specialise in child custody. You can also contact specialist charity Reunite and the International Child Abduction and Contact Centre for advice and support.

Please bear in mind that a letter from your ex-husband may be of little significance if your ex-husband did take the children or seek custody in Turkey. Many people don't realise that UK law doesn't apply in foreign countries so if your ex-husband refused to return the children you might need to initiate a case through the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction (an international agreement which aims to return children to their resident country for custody to be decided there) to secure the return of your children. If you decide not to take your twins to Turkey, perhaps there are other options for you to give their father contact with the children, eg via Skype.

Q. JemimaBananaHammock: I have just moved to Italy with my Italian husband and son who has a British passport. My husband has informed me that legally our son requires an Italian passport if we live in Italy. Is this true? Does my son having an Italian passport put me at any disadvantage if I were to split from my husband in the future?

A. Daisy: Unfortunately, we're not experts on foreign immigration or legal requirements so I can't give you a detailed reply to your query. You should seek advice from a lawyer in Italy about whether your son needs an Italian passport and whether, under Italian law, this would have any effect on future custody decisions if you did split from your husband. You can find a list of English-speaking Italian lawyers on gov.uk.

Q. Bringmesunshine2009: My husband is Algerian (a non-Hague Convention country). What is the position if he were to take our two sons (not that I think he would, but because it plays on my mind)? Am I right in thinking I have no right to recover them?

A. Daisy: You are right in thinking it can be much harder to secure the return of children from countries that have not signed up to the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction. This is partly because there are no international agreements in place and - as in all foreign countries - UK law doesn't apply. ReuniteSo if you weren't able to come to a mutual agreement with your partner about where your sons should live, you might need to initiate court proceedings through the Algerian courts, which can be lengthy, expensive and with no guarantee of custody in your favour. This is why prevention of parental child abduction is crucial. If you are worried your partner might take your sons, you can speak to us here at the FCO on 0207 008 0878 or Reunite (a UK-based charity specialising in child abduction) on 0116 2556 234 for advice on prevention. If you are worried about an imminent abduction, you should always contact the police via your local police station.

Q. Tinypawz: My soon-to-be-ex is Zimbabwean. We were married in Zim in 2006. My daughter and I were born in Northern Ireland, so we have dual citizenship (Ireland and UK), and we both hold Irish passports. If my ex-partner were to take my daughter to Zim, would I be able to get her back? Also which country (Ireland or UK) would help?

A. Daisy: Zimbabwe is a member of the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction. This means that if your soon-to-be-ex refused to return your daughter from Zimbabwe you might need to initiate a case through the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction (an international agreement which aims to return children to their resident country for custody to be decided there). Although, not all countries which operate the Hague Convention are as effective at returning children as others. For more detailed advice you should speak to the Central Authority for your region (there are three in the UK for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland).

As a dual UK-Irish national, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would do whatever we could to help if your child was taken overseas without your permission. The Irish government and its embassies overseas may also be able to help; you would need to contact them direct to confirm what support they can offer. 

Q. NKffffffffde3bfbeaX12623f50fd7: My ex-husband lives in the USA. Our child is and always has been a UK resident with me - we separated before the baby was born - and I have a residence order. If it ever gets to the stage that my child goes to spend time with him in America (eg over the summer holidays), how do I ensure my child returns to the UK at the end of the visit, and my ex doesn't just say "the child is in America now and is going to stay with me".

"Unfortunately break-ups do happen, and are sometimes acrimonious, so it's good to think ahead about how you and your partner would arrange care of any children should the worst happen."

A. Daisy: The USA is a member of the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction (see my response above). This means that if the worst did happen, and your ex-husband did keep your child, there is a mechanism in place between the UK and the USA to seek the return of your child. However, this is not an infallible agreement so it might be worth discussing your concerns with your ex-husband, as well as Reunite to see if any other measures can be put in place to offer you some reassurance.

Q. Riverboat: I am British, and moved to France on a whim with no clear long-term plans two years ago, where I almost immediately met and got together with my current partner (who is French). We are just starting to tentatively discuss the issue of children: whether we want to have them, when etc. He already has a child from his previous relationship.

Do you have any general advice for two people from different countries who are considering having a child together? Our main concern is that should we split up, how would we deal with the fact that I may want/need to go back to the UK, whereas my partner, understandably, feels a strong commitment to his existing child, and to living within close proximity to him, ie in France. Are there any kinds of agreements or plans or contracts or something we should be looking at signing before we even have a child?

A. Daisy: Few people go into relationships thinking they'll split up and disagree about where their children should live. But, unfortunately, break-ups do happen, and are sometimes acrimonious, so it's good to think ahead about how you and your partner would arrange care of any children should the worst happen. Every couple's situation is different so it's not possible to give specific advice, but you might want to consider who the child would live with, in which country, and how the other parent would maintain contact with the child.

There are no easy answers to questions of child custody but at least you and your partner will understand each other's views on the matter. I'm not aware of any 'pre-nuptial' type agreements on child custody, but a suitably qualified family lawyer should be able to give your more advice on this point. You can find a list of English-speaking lawyers in France on gov.uk.

Q. Iampos: I am British but my ex-partner has dual nationality with the country of his birth, Iran. He has on several occasions threatened to take our son there. Our son has no Iranian passport and therefore no dual nationality himself. I understand that it is difficult for my son to travel to Iran without this and that as we were never married under British law it would be difficult for my ex to obtain a passport for him. We split up this year and as things escalated I was granted a Specific Issue Order, which means that he cannot take our son from my care or out of the country. Despite this, I am still concerned that he might try to do this and wondered if there is anything else I should be doing to safeguard against this risk.

A. Daisy: Your post raises several important questions. First, although your son does not have an Iraqi passport at the moment, it may be possible for your ex-partner to apply for one on his behalf. This could enable him to travel with your son to Iraq even if you keep your son's British passport. You might want to consider contacting the Iraqi Embassy in London, either directly or through your lawyer, to make them aware of the Specific Issue Order.

The Iraqi Embassy may take your concerns into consideration although they are not legally obliged to do so.
If you have not already done so, you should send a copy of the court order to Her Majesty’s Passport Office to ensure your ex-partner cannot acquire a replacement British passport for your son. You can contact the Passport Office on 0300 222 0000.

You should also keep in mind that some countries have different approaches to nationality from the UK, and the Iranian authorities may consider your son to have Iranian nationality through his father.
If you are worried about your ex-partner taking your son overseas imminently, you should contact your local police station to report the matter.

For further advice on prevention measures you can contact consular officers at the FCO on 0207 008 1500 or Reunite on 0116 2556 234. 



Q. Beryloflaughs: Is there a UK helpline for families abroad who discover their child is missing? Having read Kate McCann's book, Madeleine, I have been made aware that foreign police are not always on the ball about these things. Can we call Interpol? Is there a Europe-wide alert system?

A. Daisy: In general, parents need to immediately contact the foreign authorities (ie the police) if their child goes missing in a foreign country. The UK doesn't have any direct powers to locate missing children in other countries. Parents should also report the disappearance to their local police in the UK who may be able to request help or provide additional information via Interpol. However, please bear in mind that missing persons cases such as the one you mention are very different from parental child abduction which we deal with.

Q. Swallowedafly: What is being done to protect young girls who are taken to countries like Pakistan and forced to marry against their will? Is Britain taking the problem seriously? How do the British representatives in these countries support them?

A. Daisy: People affected by actual or potential forced marriage overseas are helped by another specialist team in the FCO called the Forced Marriage Unit. We work closely with the Forced Marriage Unit in cases where children are involved. You can find out more about the work of the Forced Marriage Unit here.

Q. Is there legal aid available for 1980 Hague Convention cases? I know that there are changes being introduced to Legal Aid in the UK. How will these changes affect abduction cases?

A. Daisy: If your child is abducted overseas to a country which operates the 1980 Hague Convention, that country may be able to offer support for legal fees related to the Hague application. Although, the amount of support varies from country to country. If your child is taken to a non-Hague Convention country, the UK is not able to provide any legal aid.

In the UK, Legal Aid is available for left behind parents who are seeking the return of their children who have been abducted into the UK.


Last updated: 9 months ago