Parental abductions are cases where a child is taken to or kept in a country or place other than that of his/her normal residence by one or more parents or persons with parental authority, against another parent’s will or against the will of the person with parental authority.
The main cause of an abduction is a conflict over the custody and residence of the children. Other causes are homesickness to the country of origin by the abducting parent, escape from problems or the abducting parent having a new partner form another country. Less common causes are a new job abroad, family events abroad (e.g. serious illness of grand-parent), and revenge.
The most commonly mentioned emotional effects of a parental abduction is parental alienation. Although parental alienation is not officially recognized as a syndrome most parents report (often long-term) psychological problems due to the period of alienation of the left-behind parent during the abduction. Child Focus analyzed his case load in 2014 and found out that 64% of abducted children had no contact at all with the left behind parent during the entire period of the abduction.
A cross border parental abduction
“You’ll never see your daughters again!”, said the note left by Lucas for his ex-wife Maryanne. Lucas and Maryanne, who lived in the same neighborhood in Antwerp, had been divorced for three years. Every fortnight, their three daughters, Charlotte, 13, Elise, 8, and Lore, 6, stayed the weekend with their father. Despite a rocky divorce, this arrangement had worked well for three years, until the day the parents had a fight over a 50 euro school bill. Suddenly, tempers flared and Lucas and Maryanne ended up yelling at each other in front of their three daughters.
An embittered Lucas decides to kidnap his children. He leaves Maryanne the stark note and disappears. There are few leads but Maryanne thinks that Lucas probably left in a camping car. The police immediately start an investigation: they trace telephone calls; conduct a surveillance of Lucas’ bank account; interrogate neighbours, friends and family members; and search Lucas’ house. However, no leads turn up.
In desperation, the children’s grandmother contacts Child Focus. Julie, the case manager not only coordinates the search for the missing children, she also comforts Maryanne and her mother, by phone and through home visits. Child Focus launches a campaign, posting flyers at dozens of camping areas open in Belgium during the winter season. The campaign initially targets specific regions, but is soon broadened to cover the entire country.
Two and a half months pass and there is still no trace of the girls or Lucas. The investigating judge decides to ratchet up efforts by conducting a televised press conference. Child Focus helps Maryanne to prepare for numerous contacts with the press. Maryanne is stoic during the press conference, biting her lip to hold back tears. Child Focus also posts pictures of the children on several websites. In the weeks that follow, however, not a single useful lead is received. Lucas and the three girls seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth, or at least from Belgium.
Crossing the border
By now, everyone is convinced that Lucas has left Belgium. But where could he be? Child Focus turns to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, which has a partnership with YouTube. A video is produced. This medium enables Child Focus to quickly expand its coverage and generate new leads.
Clues soon emerge from the police investigations, and Lucas’ likely location is narrowed down to the south of France, Spain or Portugal. Child Focus quickly translates the YouTube film into Spanish and Portuguese, and contacts the organisations who deal with disappearances in these countries: NGO La Mouette in Narbonne, a police unit that traces fugitives in Madrid, and the children’s organisation Apoio à Criança in Lisbon. The European 116 000 network of hotline operators proves to be of enormous value.
The sixth day after airing the Portuguese film on YouTube, Apoio à Criança in Portugal receives a call from an alert policeman. He describes an incident at the beginning of March in which a man with three little girls was arrested for begging with a barrel organ in the parking lot of a supermarket in his village. The man’s identity was checked at the police station, but due to the omission of his middle name, his name wasn’t found in the police registers and they had let him go.
The net tightens
Feeling as if they are on the right trail, Child Focus intensifies its efforts in Portugal, though in the media there is officially only a mention of “the south of Europe”. Child Focus doesn’t want to alert Lucas to the fact that they’re getting closer to finding him, in case he watches one of the news reports. Meanwhile, Apoio à Criança ensures that the case stays in the spotlight of the local Portuguese media.
A tip from the south of France raises fears that Lucas may have already left Portugal with the three girls. To ensure the net is cast wide enough, all relevant information is translated into 14 different languages and sent to all Missing Children Europe member organisations throughout Europe. Where possible, the local press is alerted, too. The media attention allows Child Focus to re-launch the story in Portugal, which remains the main focus of efforts.
A break in the case
By now more than nine months have passed. On the last Monday of September, the 8 o’clock news in Portugal airs the YouTube story once again, and calls for witnesses to come forward. About ten minutes after the broadcast, a sixty-three year-old man calls his local police in a village in the north of the country. He claims to have seen a man and his children begging near a local hospital, and he even suspects where the man might be staying. At 10 pm that evening, the camping car is located. Police rush to the scene where they find the father and the three girls.
Upon hearing this news, Maryanne and her parents are overjoyed. They immediately jump in their car and drive down to Portugal. They check in with Child Focus along the way, to keep them up-to-date on the latest developments.
That same evening, Charlotte, Elise, and Lore are reunited with their mother and grandparents. The children later testify that they lived in constant fear. Their father made them beg, which they didn’t like at all. Plus they missed their family and school friends and didn’t like living in the cramped and dirty camping car. The girls were shocked when their father had told them that they would never see their mother again.
Charlotte, the eldest daughter, doesn’t want to see her father again, at least not for a while. She felt the weight of responsibility, taking care of her younger sisters during those nine turbulent months. Being constantly on the move like fugitives was a harrowing experience for the girls. Every time their father Lucas felt that bystanders started to show some interest in his family, he would drive hundreds of kilometres away to escape attention.
In the end though, the girls were safely found and returned to their mother and efforts were made to ensure they were able to re-integrate normally into their usual routine.