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Hundreds lost to foreign parents

THERE HAS been an explosion in the number of children removed from Britain by a parent and taken abroad. The number of children snatched and taken overseas from England and Wales following a failed relationship rose from 11 in 1986 to 204 in 1997.

Those figures only cover abductions to the 52 countries covered by the Hague Convention. Although many European nations are signatories to the convention along with the US, Australia and New Zealand, most Middle Eastern countries and those of the Indian sub-continent are not.

Just how big a problem abduction has become will be highlighted this week when Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton speak at an international conference in London on child welfare and the law.

Both the Prime Minister's wife and the First Lady are lawyers and both have expressed a com-mitment to children's rights. It was not surprising, then, that when asked by Childline founder Esther Rantzen, Mrs Blair agreed to host the charity's conference for law professionals.

There was a more personal reason for Mrs Blair and Mrs Clinton to become involved. They both know Lady Meyer, wife of the British ambassador to the US, who is due to tell the conference how she lost her two sons after a German court ruled they should stay with her former husband.

Other speakers will describe just how uneven provision is for parents whose estranged children have been snatched. In Australia they can get welfare, legal aid and sympathetic treatment from a court. Yet in some parts of the US it can cost up to $80,000 to fight a custody case.

Sandra Fenn of Reunite says: "We want to see the convention implemented in a standard way by all signatories, giving those left behind and abductors the same treatment, and equal access to an impartial judge."

Last year, 51 children were returned overseas from England and Wales under the Hague Convention. Before children are sent back, overseas parents have to provide undertakings for arrangements they will make for maintenance payments, housing, schooling, and medical care.

But even the Law Society, which supports the principles of the convention and praises the reputation of the courts in returning runaways, concedes that in many countries these promises are not legally enforceable.

Karen Gist, 40, has not seen her six-year-old daughter for two years, since both of them were sent back to the US to fight a custody battle with her ex-partner in May 1997. On arrival she was taken to a courthouse in San Francisco for a hearing before a judge who ordered that the child should stay with her father for the weekend.

When he failed to return their daughter, Karen went into shock, and was taken to a psychiatric unit until her father tracked her down and got her back to the UK. Her ex-partner applied for, and won, custody of their daughter.

"I wasn't even allowed to say goodbye," she said. "I thought my own country would stand by me, but instead the courts sent us back. They didn't look at the case as a human issue."