Discovering the Hague Convention the Hard Way

If anyone had warned me six years ago not to marry my husband- to- be simply because he was a foreigner, I would have laughed, called them an unworldly, old fashioned curmudgeon and gone ahead and married him anyway.

Today, I would be far more cautious. Marrying someone from abroad and being whisked away to another world may seem a romantic adventure at first but when it comes to the law there is nothing whimsical or romantic about it.

The real problem begins when you have a child in another country. The very law first put in place to call a halt to fathers capriciously kidnapping their children to relocate them in faraway lands, never to be seen or heard from again, is now being used in reverse to persecute and harm the very victims it was designed to protect. Nothing’s changed. Mothers and children are still being victimised yet in today’s world, under the new laws, this is done legally, at the hands of the so-called justice system.

The real danger lurks no longer in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia as much as European, democratic countries, as well as Israel and America; any of the 60 countries signed up to the 1980 Hague Convention on International Parental Child Abduction. Increasing numbers of women are finding themselves prisoners in foreign lands, figuratively, and in some cases, even literally.

According to The Hague Convention, removing a child from his/her country of residence is a crime, punishable in some cases with a prison sentence. In these cases, the mother’s only ‘crime’ is a desperate attempt to protect her children, most commonly from abusive, controlling husbands or partners. This may often even include sexual abuse.

Faced with such horrors, it is any mother’s instinct to grab her children and flee to her country of origin, naively hoping she will find refuge and start a new life in safety and security back home. Little does she realise that feelings and fear count for little in the eyes of the law. The Hague Convention obligates family court judges to immediately expatriate children in such cases back to the country in which they were resident, the mother is deemed ‘a kidnapper’ and may even be jailed.

A particularly horrific case of note was that of Melinda Stratton, an Australian mum convicted in 2010 to an indefinite prison sentence for fleeing with her son to the Netherlands. After her little boy allegedly confided in her that his dad was molesting him, she tried to escape with her child, only to be  arrested and brought back in chains. Her six-year old son was immediately removed from her custody and put into state care. For eight months, Stratton was denied all contact with him. The Australian father claimed his wife, an educated business woman, was ‘mentally ill.’

Mothers are increasingly demonized and distrusted while the courts and court apparatus (judges, psychologists, social workers) – so often women – collude in supporting fathers, regardless of the overwhelming evidence or the wishes of the children themselves. Perfectly good mothers are discredited by fabrications of mental illness or deemed to be ‘unfit,’ claims which more often than not, are totally unsubstantiated.

As is so often the pattern of abuse, male perpetrators usually seek to isolate their victims; enticing them to a foreign country where their new spouse is totally dependent on them. Without a job, friends or family in the host country, the newcomer often wholly relies on her husband or partner; emotionally, psychologically and financially, for support.

I was that person. Alone, isolated and totally dependent on my husband, I had nowhere else to turn. After 2.5 unhappy years together, I conceived, desperately hoping he would change, wanting so badly to give him the chance to be a father and prove himself. I also felt reassured that should the marriage prove completely intolerable, I could leave at any time, made possible, I thought, by the freedom of movement within the EU and fluid boundaries. I was wrong. If only I had known the law before, my decisions would most likely have been radically different.

In February 2010 the police evicted my ex from the family home after he  grossly misused his position as a doctor to have me committed to a mental institution. Fortunately for me and my children, his evil intentions were thwarted and I believed we were finally safe. Within days, however, he had applied for a court order, which was immediately slapped on me, banning me from leaving Austria with my children.

I have been here fighting for custody ever since. I was assured at the outset by every one of the numerous women’s organisations in place to protect victims of violence and abuse, that my children and I would automatically be protected by the courts and that the children would undoubtedly stay with me.

Again, this proved wrong. In July 2011, my twin boys, aged just 2 years 2 months were brutally snatched from my care. Their Austrian father was awarded full and immediate custody. I was the outsider, trying to navigate a complex, emotionally and financially crippling legal battle in a foreign language; mystified by its foreign laws and foreign mentality.

The agony and suffering that followed the break-up of my marriage was perhaps even more painful, more distressing and more terrifying than any of the horrible events during the marriage itself. Knowing that this abuse was all sanctioned and legalised by the courts was the worst part of all.

The reams of documented evidence in my favour have so far all seen to be disregarded and ignored. In the meantime, I am battling on, hoping and praying for justice for my sons. I only hope that if anything positive may come out of our nightmare, it is that our story will serve as a chilling lesson and warning to others.

Before relocating and having children abroad, at least be clued up on the harsh legal realities you may be up against should your relationship dissolve. The exoticism and excitement of cross-border partnerships may feel like love at first sight but can exact a heavy price. I paid the heaviest price of all. My ignorance and naivety cost me my children. Don’t let this be you. If only someone had warned me.