WHAT causes a father to abduct his child? Is he simply obsessive and emotionally unstable - as Peter Malkin, the man who abducted his

12-year-old son, has been described? Or is the truth more complex?

More than 900 fathers abducted their children from Britain last year. Legally, an abduction occurs when one parent takes his or her child and leaves the country without the other parent's consent and fails to return within 28 days. Often, it is the final act in a long, bitter legal battle for the right of the non-custodial parent to maintain contact with their child.

When a case comes to court, the first principle is that children have a right to both parents. The pattern is for the judge to award custody to the mother and access to the father. But, as Peter Marsh, a barrister, says: 'If the mother refuses to honour the contact arrangements, there is little the father can do. In theory, he can plump for a penal order, the flouting of which carries the threat of jail for the mother. But in practice, the courts are understandably reluctant to imprison her because the welfare of the child is compromised.'

Sometimes, the mother protests that the child does not wish to see the father. 'When children under 12 are forced to choose, they tend to align with the parent they are living with,' says Margaret Robinson of the Institute for Family Therapy. 'With the one parent gone, their overriding fear is that they will be abandoned by the other, so they say whatever the present parent wishes to hear.'

For the father this could mean the end of contact with his child. Such stories are common among the members of Families Need Fathers. After years of frustration, the options many face are dire. They can either abduct their child - not a sane option - or walk away to join the ranks of the 'feckless and irresponsible absent fathers'.

Recent research into non-custodial fathers in Scotland is salutary. 'Almost half the fathers completely lost touch with their children within a short period after divorce, but the interesting thing is that the majority had been very involved fathers. They said that they had severed ties out of the pain of being denied access and years later were still terribly depressed about it,' says Charlie Lewis, a developmental psychologist.

But it is the children who really suffer. They are emotionally scarred by the abduction, or grow up with the pain of feeling that their father has abandoned them. Surely it is time to address the grievance that the system is stacked against non-custodial parents, who, almost inevitably, are fathers.

I HAVE PAID HEAVILY FOR WHAT I DID

Stewart Rein, 53, a freelance film producer, spent eight months in jail after being accused of kidnapping his only child, a three-year-old daughter (now seven), from his third wife, Jill, 35. Currently out on bail awaiting trial at the Old Bailey, he gives his version of the events which led him to take such drastic action.

Two months before our daughter was born, Jill's mother committed suicide and Jill became severely depressed. After the birth her depression only deepened and we relocated from England to France hoping that the new environment would help. Her condition was affecting her ability to mother, so I suggested she seek psychiatric help and I became the main carer of our daughter. The professionals thought Jill needed hospitalisation, but she was afraid and I didn't want to force her. In any case, our relationship had already begun to disintegrate.

I had to go to Los Angeles on business and I was in a meeting when my secretary called to say that my wife had abducted my child to England. I was in complete shock - I flew back to France to see if she had left a note, but there was nothing. I spent a week telephoning everyone I knew to try and find out where she was and whether my daughter was OK.

After I found her, my first thought was to reason with her, to get her to come home. She said she needed time to think things over. After two months, I prevailed upon her to let our daughter come back to France. Jill thought it was just for a holiday, but as the primary carer I knew that our daughter, who was extremely attached to me, would not want to leave. At 48 I knew my chances of having more children were minimal, so she was extra special to me. After a few weeks I had my solicitors inform Jill that our daughter wouldn't be returning to England and that we should work out access arrangements. Jill seemed agreeable and flew to France, but a week later she abducted our daughter again. She had secretly obtained an order in wardship demanding our daughter's return to Britain.

At the subsequent court hearing in England, the judge acknowledged that my child had been removed from her home without the knowledge or consent of her father. According to the Hague Convention (to which Britain purportedly subscribes), that is the definition of abduction. But the judge nevertheless granted care of our daughter to my wife. I was devastated. A mother abducts a child and the court rewards her for it] I was given meagre access of three seven-day periods a year in France and one day a fortnight in London. I appealed, but before I could complete the appeal my wife cleverly applied for maintenance. She abandons her home, abducts her child, then has the chutzpah to sue me for maintenance. My response was to tell her to get stuffed, but it meant my appeal was dismissed and all my contact was cancelled. And a penal notice was attached threatening me with prison if I returned to the UK and failed to satisfy the order.

I didn't know what to do. My only contact with my daughter was by telephone, but my wife had the answer-machine on 24-hours a day, so communication was intermittent and difficult. My daughter learnt to interrupt the machine and talk to me, but when her mother found out she attached a car siren alarm to the phone.

I was pushed into a corner. I spent a lot of nights crying. I couldn't write, I couldn't work, I could hardly function. To have to listen to your daughter over a year pleading, 'Daddy, get me out of here. Don't tell anyone, just come and save me' is the most disturbing thing a person can possibly experience. It just destroys you. It was because of that that I decided to go back; I had to really search my soul because I am a law-abiding person. I was so close to getting on a plane and going to America and just forgetting my child. And I would never criticise a man who did because the pain is so great. You are left with this awful choice - turn your back on your child, or take the law into your own hands.

I went back, hired a private detective and snatched her. I can't go into detail because it's sub judice, but what I can say is that, contrary to certain press reports, three gangsters did not abduct her and no one sprayed my wife with ammonia. I reached into my wife's car, snatched my child and ran. I took her to Israel with the intention of putting my case to an impartial tribunal. But the Israeli police arrested me. I was put in jail pending extradition and my daughter was given to her mother and taken to England. For eight months, I was surrounded by druggies, murderers and child rapists. It wasn't pleasant. Last year, I lost my extradition appeal and was returned to England. After two weeks in Wandsworth prison, I was granted bail pending my trial in April.

I have paid heavily for what I did. I have endured prison and public vilification and I haven't seen my daughter for three years. Recently, I had a lucky break. My daughter (she's seven now) told the welfare officer that she wished to see me and so the officer is recommending that she does. Isn't that a miracle? Not one word in three years and she still feels that way. I don't advocate that people take the law into their own hands, but it is a nave fool who believes that there is justice for fathers in this country. Fathers have no rights - only responsibilities. I just want to be part of the sorrows and joys of my daughter's life. Is that too much to ask?

IT HURTS NOT TO KNOW THEIR FAVOURITE THINGS

Michael, 43, a secondary school teacher, has been denied contact with his daughters, now aged 13 and 9, for the last two years. He was divorced in 1990 from Kim after a 13-year marriage.

I got a call from my mother one morning to say that my father had died after a heart attack. I was crying and Kim scolded me for making a noise that could wake the children. There was no goodwill left in our marriage - that night she went to a party. After the funeral, she told my mother she was divorcing me. She just took the girls and left.

Some of our problems had been financial - Kim had quit her job after the children were born, so I had to moonlight to make ends meet. I worked from 8am to 10pm and then, as things weren't too good between us, slept in the lounge. In the morning, the kids would wake me by jumping on top of me. We'd cuddle and play before I went to work, but Kim would shout: 'What the hell are you doing rolling on the floor? It's not proper]'

On weekends, if I wanted to take the girls on an outing, Kim would stand in the doorway and ridicule me to prevent us from leaving.

When she left with the children, I didn't know where they were staying. I could have asked at my daughters' school but my solicitor advised against it, saying it could force a confrontation.

After six months, I was given contact dates by the court. During the first, in a welfare officer's room, my youngest stared blankly at me and my eldest started shouting that I was horrible and that she didn't like me. When I asked her why, she just shouted more. I felt totally impotent.

The next contact was more successful - they came to my house and played. They even telephoned their mother to ask if they could stay an extra two hours. Kim didn't like that. She became wilfully obstructive and the other arranged contacts never took place. A judge then awarded me three more periods of contact and attached a penal order to the effect that if they weren't obeyed, my wife would be in contempt of court.

On the first visit, the children turned up screaming that they didn't want to come in and ran back to Kim who was waiting with a witness in the car. The second time, they ran straight upstairs to their bedroom. I asked them to meet Sally, whom I had recently married, but they refused. Ten minutes later, they ran out of the house.

We jumped in the car and went looking for them. When we got back to the house, there were five police officers waiting outside. They said that my daughters had claimed that I had assaulted them. My ex-wife turned up 10 minutes later with the children. I suspected that the whole thing had been planned.

I got a letter from the police saying I had been accused of kicking my eldest daughter in the stomach, of locking her in the room and pulling her hair. The police investigated but found the door had no lock and that my daughter was not bruised. Sally confirmed that she had been with me the whole time. The police said they did not have a case against me but the social workers took the view that if an allegation had been made, something must have happened. For a while the children were on the 'at risk' register.

We went back to court to get more contact but the judge said that because the children appeared not to want it, he was reluctant to grant an order. He said that it was very hard to distinguish the children's wishes from the mother's. At one point, he said to me: 'What do you want me to do? I'm not prepared to put the mother in prison for obstructing access to your daughters. I don't think that is in the interests of the children.' It's a disgrace. My children have endured child abuse allegations, social services, welfare officers, child psychologists and court hearings - because my ex-wife doesn't want them to see me. She is prepared to mentally abuse them for her own ends.

I haven't had contact with my daughters now for more than two years. It hurts like mad that I don't know their favourite food or colour or pop star. At times I have considered giving up the fight on the grounds that it is damaging the children but the look in their eyes keeps me going. The last time I saw them, they were saying, 'If only we could see you, Daddy, but we're too scared to try'.

When they're older, they are going to realise how their mother has used them. At that point, they will need all the help they can get. I want them to know that I will always be here and that I haven't abandoned them. I hope that they will still be able to love their mother - for their sake. Children need mothers and fathers. I have no wish to do to her what she has done to me.

The names in this interview have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)

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