And no one lived happily ever after

Of the many children abducted every year, more than 40 per cent are taken by a parent. As Clare Dwyer Hogg reports, it's a situation that Catherine Meyer experienced first-hand
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When Sarra Fotheringham last week made a desperate attempt to snatch her 10-year-old son from Dubai, where he was living with his father, Lady Meyer was one woman who could imagine what had driven her to it. Fotheringham, who now has three more children and lives with her husband in Britain, had seen her son only three times in the past two years, after his father refused to allow him to return to Britain after a visit in 1999. She now faces up to three years in jail for kidnapping.

In 1994, Catherine Meyer sent her two boys, aged seven and nine, off to her ex-husband's home in Germany for the summer holidays. They were due to return in time for the new school term in England. That was eight years ago, and in that time Lady Meyer has seen her boys – Alexander and Constantin – for a total of 24 hours. It began with a letter from the children's father, Hans-Peter Volkmann, that arrived three days before they were due to return. He wasn't sending them home. "In an instant your whole world collapses," she remembers. "You don't know what to do, where to go. It's just horrific." For three weeks, the children and their father were missing. But it was when they were found in the south of Germany that the waiting game really began.

Instantly, the English courts ordered their immediate return. But it turned out that it wasn't as simple as that. The boys were made wards of court, a date was set for a German court hearing in a month's time, and suddenly Catherine Meyer was back in England without her children and nothing to do but wait. Even now, Lady Meyer sounds dazed when she talks about it. "At that stage, all I had was loss, panic, and constant worry about the poor children. All I could do was worry: about what was happening to them, what they were thinking, what they'd been told, and all the time not being able to reach them."

It was her confidence in the law that made the situation seem redeemable. "I don't know what I expected apart from the whole system to work," she says. "I always believed the law was going to protect me – I had custody, what he did was illegal."

For a short time, it seemed as if this trust in the system was justified. The German court ruled that, in accordance with the Hague Convention, the two children should be returned immediately. Catherine Meyer had won. And that was when matters got worse. "My ex-husband's lawyer said that they would bring the children to us in half an hour. My lawyer was naive enough to say that that was fine, and so my ex-husband absconded with them again." Volkmann's lawyer was his sister's husband.

It seems like the stuff of film scripts, but while Catherine Meyer was searching for her children, her former spouse was standing before a higher court in a small town near his home, trying to overturn the ruling that had just been made. He succeeded, and there was nothing Catherine could do about it. "It was done on an ex parte basis, without me or my lawyer being informed. They decided not to institute the first ruling, but to have a hearing in a month and that, in the meantime, the children should stay in Germany. All I could do was go home."

By the time the second trial came around, Catherine Meyer had not seen Alexander or Constantin for four and a half months. It was not a happy reunion. "Alexander, my eldest, greeted me by kicking me. I was numb. I was thinking, what have they done to those poor children? Why is my son so angry and antagonistic? Now I know that it was because he was told that I'd abandoned him and I didn't want to see him any more." The second trial lasted for half an hour, and the court decided not to return the children to England. They explained that the children had suffered in a foreign environment, and that it was better for them to be brought up in Germany.

The Hague Convention hadn't worked in Catherine Meyer's case, and the legal ratification that the English courts had afforded her was rendered useless. Since then, her constant appeals for access rights have come to nothing. In fact, the last court ruling, in November 2001, determined that she should not have any access rights until 2003. By then, Constantin will be 16, the age at which German law no longer allows application for access.

This legal loophole is symptomatic of the machinations that abound in this case. On top of this, Volkmann is presently trying to sue Lady Meyer for maintenance. Speaking with the wisdom of a painfully acquired hindsight, she sees now that what she is suffering are the consequences of an amicable divorce. "We never fought about anything else. I should have. It's much better to fight – fight about money, please, because then you can get your anger out on something. How can you hurt a woman most? By taking her children away. It is a form of revenge – the children are used as pawns in the fight against the other parent."

If this is a case of revenge, then Lady Meyer has certainly suffered. What she is keen to focus on, however, are the long-term effects on her abducted children. They may be with a father who loves them, but there is something destructive about the type of love that seeks to separate them from their mother. And, over time, the focus of the situation changes.

"This is no longer an issue about me," she recognises. "My children will never grow up healthy and balanced, because they've been told throughout their life that their mother is horrible and has abandoned them. They must be terribly angry and confused, and will have long-term scars."

In fact, right from the moment the children are taken, the problems begin. Ripped away from one parent and their familiar environment, the fear of loss means they become dependent on the other parent. If a legal battle ensues, the pressure on the child to perform is tremendous. In Lady Meyer's case, and in many like it, this became a core issue. "In Germany," she says, "they used the will of the children. I was consistently told that I couldn't see them because they didn't want to see me."

While the opinions of a child must be taken seriously, it seems that the ramifications of their age should, too. When the children are as young as seven and nine, as Lady Meyer's were, they are more likely to believe what they are told – and if they believe their mother abandoned them, their reactions towards her are bound to be negative. They may of course decide, as adults, to resume contact with the parent they lost, but even this is not a remedy. About this, Lady Meyer is adamant. "There is never, ever, a happy solution. There can't be one. If my children come back to me, they will feel that they're betraying their father, who spent all his life trying to make them not see me."

Lady Meyer lives in the States now with her second husband, the British Ambassador to Washington. As she became involved with charities that deal with abduction, she realised that her own situation is not as bizarre as she thought. The "children's will" loophole in German law, for instance, is a common one. She cites the experience of one father whose two children were abducted to Germany by the mother. When she fell ill, the authorities put the children in a foster home without informing him. Now, the German courts say they can't return the children to America because, having adapted to their new environment, it would be too traumatic for them to move again. In any case, they say, the children no longer want to see their father. The children were two and four years old when they were taken.

At EU level, legislation has been put forward that would ensure an order made in one country would be enforceable in another. To avoid situations like Lady Meyer's, the general consensus is that initial rulings should come from the children's habitual residence. It makes sense: if custody is decided there, teachers and friends can testify to the relative happiness of the child. But this type of change takes years, and so, in a preventative move, Lady Meyer has set up the charity Pact (Parents and Abducted Children Together) in the UK, which will supplement the existing work in the field by Reunite (the International Child Abduction Centre), and the National Missing Persons' Helpline. To speed up recovery operations, Pact is promoting the police website of missing children (http://uk.missingkids.com), currently holding pictures of 46 children, which the police can download and display nationwide. Tesco is taking part in a poster campaign to display the pictures to its 12 million customers a week.

Overseas, as a result of the pressure, Germany's courts have started to improve the situation: the number of courts dealing with child-abduction cases has been reduced, and more children have been returned. The system is working better for the new cases, but the old remain unresolved. Meanwhile, Lady Meyer's children are growing out of childhood, and no matter how many posters she sees in Britain, she knows she cannot help herself. When you ask her about her own family, she pauses, as if that is too far removed to be helped by anything she is doing now.

"My own situation? It's completely helpless. Of course, you should always have hope, because otherwise you can't live, but my only hope and my prayer is that my children are not going to be too affected."

And in between hoping and praying, the only action she can take is to fight a system that ignored her for too long.