FOR more than three years Great Linford resident Ken Spooner has been desperately trying to bring his children home to Britain.
Devlan and Caelan were taken on holiday to their mother’s homeland, Zambia, in October 2008. But Zanetta Neyendwa refused to bring the boys home. Ken has had to battle through the Zambian courts to try and gain custody of them.
This newspaper launched its Justice for Ken campaign to ask the British Government to intervene.
Ken is one of hundreds of other left behind parents fighting a system seemingly incapable of coping with the problem of international child abduction.
CRAIG LEWIS examines the wider picture.
LEADING charity Reunite says internationally it dealt with 398 abduction cases involving 596 children in 2011.
Of those kids 380 were from the UK. Children and Families Across Borders assistant manager Marek Ganther estimates the figure in Britain last year would have been around 400 children.
But the true scale of the plague of international child abduction can only be guessed at.
PACT (Parents & Children Together) was founded in 1999 by Lady Catherine Meyer, whose own children were abducted in Germany by her former husband in 1994.
Their ‘Every Five Minutes’ report published in 2005 was scathing of the British system for tracking and recording missing children.
Estimates for all missing children, including those taken abroad, ranged between 100,000 and 180,000.
The report said an analysis of the UK’s ‘multiplicity of available sources of information’ showed that ‘the raw materials for effective responses to the problem of missing and abducted children in the UK is at best incomplete, at worst virtually non-existent’.
So what can our Government do to help? And is it enough?
The Foreign Office’s own website suggests that support and advice is the best it can do if a child has been taken abroad.
It breaks down child abduction into three categories: abduction, wrongful retention – such as in Ken’s case where a child has been retained in a foreign country following an overseas trip – and threat of abduction.
What happens next depends on whether the country a child has been abducted to has signed up to the Hague Convention – an agreement between certain countries which aims to ensure the return of an abducted child to the country they normally live in.
If a child is taken to a non-Hague country the left-behind parent has to apply for custody through the courts of that country. The Government can’t be involved in any attempts to ‘rescue’ children; offer legal advice or interfere in the legal system of another country; or pay any legal, travel or accommodation costs.
Lady Meyer’s sons Alexander and Constantin, then aged nine and seven, were abducted by their German father, although she had been awarded custody.
In an interview with The Times, she said: “The Government does not collect exact figures, so we don’t know the true scale of the problem.
“Our Government and our courts should be much tougher and protect British citizens much better. We should expose these injustices.”
And Children and Families Across Borders’ Marek Ganther, who has operated his own child abduction project in Libya for nine years, believes the Government could do more.
He said: “On occasions they do interfere... in Ken’s case I believe that what the British Government can do is keep the pressure on the Zambian Government to say ‘we are not losing sight of this case’.
“I would suspect and hope that something is going on behind the scenes. This is not the sort of thing the Government is likely to admit to doing, but it does go on.”
Reunite, which works closely with the Government on the issue of child abduction, presents a somewhat different picture.
Advice line manager Sharon Cooke said: “Government departments are doing all they can for parents.
“In most cases the child involved is a dual national, and therefore a national of the country to which they have been removed, and when dealing with the overseas country we are governed by the laws of the country and cannot be seen to be breaking that law. Much of the work undertaken by the Government departments is unnoticed as it goes on behind the scenes.”
So is there a solution to the problem?
Mr Ganther said: “Often one person will hope enough provocation will make things so difficult that the other half gives up. It can still be festering years afterwards and you can’t relive that lost time, not mothers or fathers or children. They are all victims.”
Lady Meyer is more forthright: “The solution is for governments and parents to realise the irreversible harm done to children who are forcibly separated from one of their parents.”
Perhaps only then can the 400-odd people embroiled in international child abduction every year find a solution.
To read a full version of our in-depth feature on international child abduction visit www.miltonkeynes.co.uk or download a QR reader for your Smartphone and scan the code below