International child abduction: When custody disputes go beyond Canadian borders

In this era of international travel, important questions arise for families with children. Namely, what do you do if your former spouse travels internationally with your children, and decides to throw away the return tickets?

Statistics show that the idea of “stranger danger” has been overstated in the media, and that children are far more likely to be abducted by one of their parents. According to the Canadian Police Information Centre, 30 children were abducted by strangers in 2016, while 140 were abducted by their own parents.

Global Affairs Canada warns that if a parent is a citizen of a country other than Canada or has close ties outside of Canada, there is a greater risk of international abduction. That risk is heightened if your child goes to visit that country with the parent.

Protecting yourself

What can you do if you suspect that your former spouse may be planning an international child abduction?

Speak to a lawyer about obtaining a custody order. A custody order is a legal document, handed down by a court, that sets out which parent has custody of a child and on what terms.

Custody orders can play an important role in international child abductions. A Canadian order may not be automatically recognized in the country your child has been taken to, but it may help eliminate uncertainty regarding your rights.

Your custody order will delineate who has custody, joint custody or right of access. Depending on the circumstances, your order may even go as far as prohibiting travel with the child without the permission of the other parent or the court and mandating that the child’s travel documents be kept with the custodial parent, the court or one parent’s lawyer.

If you already have a custody order and you are worried it does not adequately safeguard against a real possibility of abduction, speak to your lawyer about varying the order to include stricter terms.

If you hope to obtain a custody order prohibiting travel or mandating that your child’s passports be held by you, the court or your lawyer, be aware that you will face hurdles. You will need compelling evidence supporting your concern that the other parent is planning an abduction and the court might not agree that the warning signs you consider serious warrant a strict custody order. Be prepared to prove that your concerns are reasonable.

Good legal advice is imperative to protecting yourself and your children. A lawyer can help you approach evidence gathering, and legal representation will ensure you obtain a custody order that uses clear, specific language about custody and access. A lawyer can also help you mediate with your former spouse to reach an agreement on custody and access, and resolve conflict before it escalates into an abduction.

What can you do if an abduction has already taken place?

Firstly, tell the local police. While it might seem illogical to notify your city police about your child’s international whereabouts, the local police will be your main point of contact and are responsible for informing the RCMP and INTERPOL of the abduction.

Contact a lawyer for advice regarding your options. A lawyer can assist you in maintaining contact with the police, obtaining an order for custody, the child’s return or a warrant for the other parent’s arrest. They can also help you communicate with government bodies and organizations in Canada and abroad.

If you are dealing with a child abduction issue, or are looking to protect your children, a trusted legal advisor can assist you in understanding your options. The Family Law Group at Nelligan O’Brien Payne has the experience and compassion to find the best solution.

Natasha Chettiar is an associate lawyer with Nelligan O’Brien Payne and a member of the Family Law Group. Visit www.nelligan.ca for more information.

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