Friday, January 30, 2009

Children: How to combat child abduction

The abduction of children by a parent can be deeply distressing for children and adults alike. It can be particularly complicated when the parents live in different countries with differing legal systems. German Socialist Evelyne Gebhardt is the European Parliament's Mediator for International Parental Child Abduction. We spoke to her about what the role entails.

Q. When and how did the European Parliament take the initiative to appoint an international child abduction mediator?

On 18 February 1987, Lord Plumb, the President of Parliament, received the so called "five Mothers of Algiers" and a British mother in Strasbourg. The "Mothers of Algiers" were women who had been granted custody of their children by French courts, but whose ex-husbands had used their access rights to abduct the children and had kept them on Algerian territory.

For several years the mothers had been campaigning for the right of their children to move freely between the two parents. Strasbourg was one of their stops on a march between Paris and Geneva which they had organised between 10 February and 4 March 1987. The intention was to present a draft recommendation on the free movement of children to the UN Committee on Human Rights in Geneva.

On 20 March 1987, the President of the EP appointed a "European mediator for cases involving the cross-frontier abduction of children of marriages between partners of different nationalities". This appointment also marked the desire of the EP to take practical steps to follow up the visit to Strasbourg by the Mothers of Algiers.

Q. What does your role involve?

The role of the Mediator is to try to find a voluntary agreement between the abducting parent and the other parent, with the best interests of the child or children always being paramount. As each child has a right to both parents, either parent can request a mediation procedure.

The main responsibility of the European Parliament Mediator for International Parental Child Abduction is to assist the parents in finding the best solution for the well-being of their child.

Therefore it must be stressed that the Mediator's fundamental duty is to ensure that the best interests of an abducted child are served. In order to save children and parents, as well as other closely involved parties such as grandparents, the emotional strain and disruption arising from legal proceedings, the EP Mediator provides information and advises on the alternative way to settle the dispute, namely mediation.

An agreement reached by the parties during a mediation procedure can avoid unnecessary relocation of the child and allows the parents actively and purposefully to address all issues affecting the family. The process is also speedier and less costly than court proceedings. Once understood, accepted and signed by the parties, the agreement can be brought before the courts, which can formalise its terms in a court order that will be recognised and enforceable in other countries.

To ensure the effectiveness and professionalism of a mediation session, the EP Child Abduction Mediator helps to put together an appropriate team of mediators for each particular case. The rule which the Mediator tries to follow is to ensure the following combination of mediators: one woman - one man, one lawyer - one non-lawyer (psychologist, sociologist, educationalist, social worker, etc.), both speaking both languages of the parties in the dispute.

Q. What help can you give to parents whose children have been abducted?

My main responsibility is not to help the parents but to help the children. Even if the mediation session is organised for the parents, it is the child who must benefit from it. We look for the best solutions for the entire family, but especially the child, when we mediate. I emphasise this aspect of the mediation process because often parents argue over their respective rights and neglect the right of the child to have contact with both parents.

Q. What problems do you run up against when trying to sort out these complex legal situations? Do you think there is a need for new legislation in this area?

The Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is the most crucial and most comprehensive document at international level. This Convention seeks to protect children internationally from the harmful effects of their wrongful removal or retention and to establish procedures to ensure their prompt return to the State of their habitual residence. If the States which are signatories to the Convention follow its provisions and its spirit by interpreting it correctly, there are no difficulties.

The legislation is good. But it must be applied correctly and other States must be invited to sign up to it. Here I am thinking of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, which have a culture, a tradition, a mentality and a concept of the position of women and children that are different from our own. Bilateral agreements between countries should be replaced by uniform and global rules to harmonise and improve cooperation in the best interests of children.

Source: European Parliament
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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