When a parent steals your childhood: The abduction of children can have lasting legal and personal consequences. Su Newland talks to former abductees

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Susan Harrison's 18-year-old daughter, Rosalind, is academically bright and, like many people her age, keen to go on to higher education. She has received an unconditional offer of a place at Bath University. Rosalind, however, cannot get a grant, not because her parents earn too much (her mother is a teacher) but because in 1988 her father abducted her, and her sister and brother, to Australia. This means that although Rosalind is no longer a minor and can return to Britain without her father's consent, she does not qualify for financial assistance because she has not been resident in Britain for the statutory three years.

''This is the first case of its kind to be brought to our attention,' says Denise Carter, executive officer of Reunite, the organisation that helps parents whose children have been abducted. 'But many more will probably surface over the coming years. Now we are aware of it we shall be conducting research among our members to see if any of them are having, or expect to have, similar problems.'

She thinks it likely that there have been people in similar predicaments, but since Reunite has been in existence for only eight years and nobody has carried out a detailed study of the long-term effects of abduction, it is difficult to quantify.

But what is becoming clear is that the trauma can last for years and have far-reaching, often undreamt-of, repercussions. Susan Harrison, for instance, feels her daughter is being penalised for something that was beyond her control, and although her local authority is now reviewing the case Rosalind is suffering from the results of the abduction in a way that could affect her entire future. Susan's marriage broke down after 10 years and although the relationship between her and her husband was strained she was anxious that the children kept in contact with their father. So when she agreed to his request that they visit him in Thailand, where he was working at the time, she was devastated when he took them from there to Australia, saying they were to stay with him. But it was not long before he was off again, to Fiji, Thailand and Papua New Guinea, sometimes taking them with him, sometimes moving them to another Australian state and often leaving Rosalind, the eldest child, to live on her own or to take charge of her younger brother.

The three children, Rosalind, Jane and Laurence, are now 18, 17 and 11. Despite Susan's efforts to get them back for good, two of them are still in Australia and all of them are, in the words of Jane, 'totally fucked up'. Rosalind is battling to come to England to study; Jane, who has been cautioned for shoplifting, has been back living with her mother for the past few months; and Laurence, still in Australia, can barely read or write.

'There's so much anger and bitterness,' says Susan. 'Rosalind blames me for what she sees as my 'abandonment' of them, Jane is only now beginning to realise how desperately unhappy I was, and Laurence is more or less a lost cause. He was so confused by all the moves that he found it hard to concentrate at school, so now he's labelled as slow when I know that he's really a bright child with a lot of potential. But it's Rosalind's situation that seems so unfair: she didn't ask to be uprooted and now she wants to settle down she's being thwarted by a situation that nobody has bothered to think about.'

Some after-effects of abduction can never be rectified by changes in the law. Up to four years ago, Zarina Seaton, who has a Pakistani father and a British mother, was content to be 'a good little Muslim girl'. She wore traditional clothes, followed the religious teachings and mixed only with other Muslim children. Her parents were separated - she spent the weekends with her father and weekdays with her mother - but she had come to terms with the situation.

Then, aged 14, her father abducted her and her younger sister to Pakistan. Zarina found herself living in a remote village, looked upon as a second-class citizen because she was female and ill-treated by her father, whom until then she had adored. Worse was to come when she discovered that her father had arranged for her to be married to a man 10 years her senior. 'To me it was legalised rape and all I could see of my future was a life of near servitude.' Eventually, after 14 months of desperate searching by her mother's family, she was rescued by her English grandfather and, despite violent scenes at Karachi airport, managed to return to England. The whole episode has coloured her entire outlook on life. Now 18, she is full of anger and bitterness, has totally rejected her ethnic background, and on her own admission: 'I hate Pakistanis and all Asians. What is worse is that when someone shouts 'anti-Paki' comments at me I don't react to their racism. I feel they are wrong - but because I no longer see myself as Pakistani.'

The irony is that had her father left her in England she would have been content to remain within her faith and culture.

Although there is no doubt that abduction can have far-reaching consequences, not every situation is irretrievable. Jennifer (not her real name) was taken to Zambia by her father at the age of 13, against her will. Her mother managed to get her back to England three-and-a-half years later and three years after that Jennifer resumed contact with her father. However, when I put it to her that her father's action could be seen as the 'ultimate expression of his love for them', Jennifer denied it: 'That's just brainwashing, something he kept telling us, but I don't believe it.'

In her mind abduction is the most selfish of acts. She admits that occasionally there could be cause for removing children from their mother's custody, for instance if there is real neglect or abuse. But generally speaking she feels the father is thinking only of his needs. 'He didn't think of how it would affect my future at all. He knew I wanted to study medicine, I was doing well at school, but the whole episode disrupted my studies dramatically. Because of the changes in schools I wasn't able to study properly for A-levels. I had no real friends, I never felt part of a group and people's attitude towards me, once they learnt what had happened, made it very difficult for me to settle down.'

She says she has now accepted the situation, but still feels that, whatever the reason, abduction can never be justified.

In October 1990, in response to the rising numbers of children being abducted by a parent and taken overseas without their consent or that of the other parent, 120 MPs set up an all-party parliamentary working party. In their report, Home and Away: Child Abduction in the Nineties, they make five main recommendations. None of them, however, addresses the long-term implications now coming to light.

Derek Fatchett, MP for Leeds Central, says: 'It wasn't something we had thought about, but we need to take this into our future considerations. These children should not continue to be penalised because of the actions of their parents and we will study ways in which we can introduce laws to prevent it happening to others.'

On 3 March Mr Fatchett put down a parliamentary question to find out if the Department of Education would consider changing the regulations for mandatory awards. The reply was that there are no plans to do so at present but he points out that local education authorities have the power to make discretionary awards.

Reunite's questionnaire will be analysed and the results, along with the organisation's recommendations, will be sent to the parliamentary group.

Reunite advice line: 071-404 8356.

(Photographs omitted)

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