One father's two-year hunt for the daughter abducted by her mother

As the number of children kidnapped by a parent soars by 40 per cent, the search for Pearl, now aged six, intensifies.
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The Independent Online

The last time Henry Da Massa saw his four-year- old daughter Pearl, he kissed her on the cheek and watched as she walked up the drive to her Manchester nursery school. That was nearly two years ago and he hasn't seen her since.

The memory of that crisp winter's day has carried him through a 10,000-mile hunt that has taken him around the world, and cost tens of thousands of pounds in private detectives' fees. The 34-year-old's ordeal began when his ex-partner, Helen Gavaghan, fled abroad with Pearl – in defiance of a court order granting them shared custody – taking her first to Mexico and then through the United States to Canada. Tormented by fears for his daughter, Mr Da Massa closed his IT business and followed them to Canada in the hope of tracking them down. "I miss her terribly," he said. "I've been looking at the same three photos of her for years, and when I found some others recently I spent hours looking at them in tears – it was like she was there with me."

Mr Da Massa is just one of hundreds of British parents separated from their children after they were snatched by ex-partners and former spouses; a number which the Foreign Office has warned is growing rapidly. The total number of new cases the FCO deals with every year rose by 35 per cent between 2005 and 2009, from 317 to 430. There has been an even more dramatic rise in the number of parental abductions to countries that have not ratified the 1980 Hague Convention on Child Abduction – a massive 39 per cent last year – meaning that it is all but impossible to get children back from countries such as Pakistan, India and Thailand. Because of strict reporting restrictions – which have recently been lifted in the case of Mr Da Massa – many of these parents are prevented from publicising their plights.

An FCO spokesperson said: "More people from different nationalities are forming relationships and families are relocating to new countries overseas. If a relationship breaks down a parent will often wish to return to their country of origin with their child and do not realise they could be committing an offence."

Other experts attribute the rise to the increase in easy, affordable air travel, and increasing globalisation.

"Over the years international travel has got easier and cheaper, it is more of a global world," said Alison Shelby, of Reunite, a charity which specialises in international parental child abduction. "If a child is abducted in a country which has ratified the Hague convention then the other parent can get a court order, which will mean that the police can use credit- card transactions and benefit records to locate them, and the child can be brought home. But if a parent really wants to disappear, they can do."

This is a truth Mr Da Massa knows only too well. He was recently given a ray of hope that he may be reunited with his daughter, when police identified a Toronto address where Pearl had been living. The six-year- old had been staying at a "cult-like" community known as Zacchaeus House downtown in the Canadian city. While Toronto police know that Pearl and her mother were living there for some months, they had moved on before the police were able to seize the little girl.

Mr Da Massa is particularly concerned for his daughter's health, after receiving information that someone in Zacchaeus House was providing her with medical care.

Even if Pearl is in good physical health, experts have warned of the damaging effects that being abducted by her mother could have had on her psychological health.

"It can have a massive impact," said Ms Shelby. "They can suffer from a lack of trust – as the person that they trust the most has taken them away they suffer from not seeing the other parent, and they often have problems with confidence."

As Pearl is the subject of a shared residence order, her mother faces arrest if she returns to Britain. Helen, 33 and also from Manchester, abducted her daughter after her relationship with Mr Da Massa broke down.

"I think it is because she couldn't get her own way," said Mr Da Massa. "She wanted Pearl home-schooled, to have no immunisations ... she wanted to be her sole carer."

Detective Rick Mooney of the Fugitive Squad, Toronto Police, explained the difficulties of finding Pearl: "The daytime population of Toronto is five million people. That is a lot of kids. Her mother has been using aliases, and people in the house [Zacchaeus] have been helping her, and giving us tips that don't go anywhere."

The large townhouse in downtown Toronto was established by the Catholic Worker Movement in 1991, but welcomes people of all religions, including many self-proclaimed anarchists and army deserters.

"It is not a question of manpower, we just need somewhere to go looking," said Detective Mooney. "There are photos of her in stores, on trucks, on mail envelopes, so we are hoping someone will come forward." Henry Da Massa hopes so, too.