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, leaving a heartbroken Ken with the task of negotiating the maze of both the English and Zambian court systems.
Despite obtaining a court order making the boys Wards of the English Court, he has had to battle through the Zambian courts to try and gain custody of his children.
He has since had to spend more than £200,000 on legal fees, defeat false accusations that he tried to re-abduct the boys and gone long periods without seeing his children.
Milton Keynes Citizen launched its ‘Justice for Ken’ campaign last year asking the Government to intervene.
But the British Government say they can’t help as it would be wrong to interfere in the affairs of a sovereign state.
And despite the Zambian Supreme Court awarding Mr Spooner custody of Devlan and Caelan last month, the doting dad is still unable to bring his boys home after a clause was added putting a stay on the decision until an appeal has been heard – effectively allowing Miss Nyendwa to maintain ‘possession’ of the children.
Mr Spooner remains determined to fight on, despite the hurt the case continues to cause him.
But his pain and determination are not unusual. Hundreds of other left behind parents continue to fight 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, included 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’.
It concluded: ‘Before all else what is now required is a change in attitude on the part of government, police, and society as a whole, so that much higher priority is given to children who go missing.’
International child abduction is a growing problem. More marriages are breaking down leading to more disputes over custody.
The breakdown of international borders is equally important. Marriages between people of different nationality are increasing – leading to potential problems should the relationship fail.
Whereas a disgruntled parent may previously have taken a child 100 miles up the road to get away from their former partner, they are now returning home to far flung corners of the globe.
Disputes over custody and access can be further exacerbated by differences in culture and in the legal system of the two countries involved.
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 or not.
The 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is an agreement between certain countries which aims to ensure the return of an abducted child to the country they normally live in.
Issues of custody and access can then be decided in that country.
If a country is signed up to Hague, so the theory goes, it should be a simple process to get a child back home again.
If a child is taken to a non-Hague country the left-behind parent has to apply for custody and permission to bring their child home through the courts of that country.
In these cases the Child Abduction Service can provide lists of English-speaking lawyers and interpreters, share general information on dealing with abduction cases to a particular country and on custody issues and travel.
But the website is also open as to what the Foreign Office says it can’t do: 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.
Such rules mean parents like Ken can be left to fight their own battles.
Speaking in October, he slammed the Government for allowing ‘abductors to laugh in the face of the law’.
“I would like to see Government bring through some sort of legislation on international child abduction,” he said.
“It would be good if something could be put in place so that left behind parents get some financial help. I have colossal legal fees that need to be addressed and no choice but to meet them myself.
“The Government need to start getting involved in the whole issue of child abduction. There needs to be reciprocal agreements.
“I’m not saying my situation is more important than other things the Government have to tackle, but it is important to me and my children and as long as it continues other would be abductors continue to laugh in the face of the law.”
Lady Meyer’s sons Alexander and Constantin, then aged nine and seven, were abducted by their German father, although she had been awarded custody. Over the next nine years, she saw them for only a few hours, faced endless court applications and spent thousands of pounds.
Only now they have grown up has she managed to re-ignite a relationship with the boys.
She insists the problem is much more widespread than the Government realises. 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. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should put pressure on governments abroad.
“We should follow the example of the French and the Americans, who seem to be more active in defending their victim parents.
“Children are often kidnapped after a holiday abroad or taken during contact visits.
“Sadly, even the Hague Convention does not work as well as it should.
“In the UK, we seem to be playing by the rules and our judges have one of the highest rates of returning children who have been abducted and brought to the UK from abroad. But other countries do not necessarily abide by the rules as we do.”
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: “I think I have a slightly different version of the Government’s policy in the affairs of a sovereign nation.
“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.
“It is important for left-behind parents to make sure the Government is doing something.
“They wouldn’t do anything unless there is pressure on them.”
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.
“As well as raising individual cases at a diplomatic level, government departments also promote the use of mediation, which can be a successful tool for securing a child’s return or for ensuring the child is able to maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents.
“Much of the work undertaken by the Government departments is unnoticed as it goes on behind the scenes. They are always striving to build relationships with other countries and encourage countries to become members of the Hague Convention.”
But Mr Ganther said more needs to be done to prevent abductions taking place in the first place.
“It is a huge problem. We are extremely bad at preventing abductions,” he said.
“One of the reasons is that the border agency has a greater interest in people entering than leaving the country.
“They are not bothered about who leaves. If you want to get out of the UK there are not that many checks.
“If you want to abduct a child go on Eurostar, hop on a ferry. You are more likely to be caught on a plane, but lots of people still get through airports.
“Recently I heard that some police officers even believe a mother can abduct her child. There have been cases where police have escorted a parent and child to the airport to put them on a plane.
“And some of these officers refuse to consult senior officers who might tell them what they should be doing because they think they know better.”
Mr Ganther believes that different countries present a variety of issues that need to be handled in different ways – and said that Hague is far from the final solution.
“The Arabic countries and Muslim states, because of their legislation, beliefs, cultures and traditions, are never going to sign up to Hague because of the conflicts with their own laws,” he said.
“You need to look at the laws in different countries, what conventions they have and what ways you can get round these.
“One example is that all but two countries in the world are signed up to the UN convention on the rights of a child, which says that a child is entitled to have contact with both parents unless there are very good reasons why they shouldn’t be.
“There are other ways this problem can be addressed.
“If it is a Hague country we address parents on the processes and suggest the avenues that they can go down. Some countries operate it much more speedily than others. There are some which would appear to favour their own citizens rather than following the legislation.
“With countries that are not signed up to Hague we can try to mediate with our colleagues in those countries speaking to the parent there. For that to work both parents need to be agreeable to engage in discussions.
“There is very little information for people, One of the problems is when a trans-cultural or racial marriage breaks down that is usually where these difficulties come.
“Currently with the Libya situation we have had groups of 20 or more come over. If I had told them don’t enter this marriage because the dangers are A, B and C most say they would not have listed anyway as they were in love.
“Half of these women alienated their families by wanting to marry a foreigner so they wouldn’t have wanted advice on what to do if the relationship was to fail.”
Via its advice line Reunite provides information for parents and assists in international contact issues.
But the charity also concentrates on prevention.
Ms Cooke said: “Parental child abduction causes real harm to children who can suffer great emotional trauma, a trauma which can remain with them throughout their lives.”
Reunite produce Child Abduction Prevention Guides which advise how to proceed if a parent believes their child is at risk of abduction.
The group also runs an outreach programme to raise public awareness of the issue.
So is there a solution to the problem?
“As long as relationships break down you are going to have an issue,” said Mr Ganther.
“Hague assumes neither parent is going to let the other one win. The children end up being an afterthought.
“Basically if there is a relationship breakdown the trick is to keep the lines of communication open because once they are shut it is difficult to open them again.
“As part of a long term solution if you can keep talking and bite your tongue that helps. Often one person will hope enough provocation will make things so difficult that the other half gives up.
“Many won’t give 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.
Foreign Office Child Abduction Section: 0207 008 0878.
22 The Vineyard
Tel: +44 (0)7506 448116
Child Abduction Centre
PO Box 7124
Registered Charity No. 1075729
Advice Line: +44 (0) 116 2556 234
Telephone: +44 (0) 116 2555 345
Fax: +44 (0) 116 2556 370