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  • Where are we going, Mum?
  • By Carol Nader
  • The Age
  • 20/12/2008 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: The Rooster ( 264 articles in 2008 )
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JUST days before his two young sons were due to board a flight home from Sweden, George Pesor sensed in their faltering voices that something wasn't right. "They weren't engaged in the normal way that they are when they talk to me," Pesor says of their phonecall. "They weren't upbeat."

Just before they hung up, he reminded the boys that they would get on the plane bound for Melbourne on Thursday. He would pick them up from the airport on Saturday.

But Pesor never made it to the airport. His unease lingered after the telephone conversation, and he rang the airline to check that his sons had got on the plane as a court had ordered. They hadn't.

Frank Oliver Valette, 11, and Andre Nicholas Valette, 9, have now been missing for two months, effectively abducted by their Swedish mother, Ann-Louise Valette. Pesor's ex-wife has so far managed to elude Swedish police, who aren't even certain she is still in the country.

While custody battles for children are often protracted and messy, most of them do not end with a parent taking the extraordinary step of defying the law and abducting their child. But the surprising thing is just how many of these cases there are. Between January and October this year, 121 children were abducted out of Australia, according to the Attorney-General's Department. Only 62 have been returned — 49 by court order and 13 voluntarily. The cases of the remaining 59 children are either ongoing, have been rejected by the jurisdictional court in the country the children were taken to, or have been withdrawn.

The mother is suspected of taking the child in 74 per cent of Australia's international child abduction cases this year.

Ken Thompson hasn't seen his son in eight months. The NSW Fire Brigade deputy commissioner's wife, Melinda Thompson, flew to Germany in April, taking their four-year-old son, Andrew, with her before the court had determined custody arrangements. It is not known if they are still in Germany.

"All I wanted to do was to try to re-establish contact with my son," he says. "I had no idea it would end up in the situation I'm in now. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced in my life."

Such stories seldom get publicity because of strict restrictions imposed by the Family Court.

But Pesor and Thompson have both gone back to the Family Court and requested publication orders to reveal the identities of their sons in the hope that someone has sighted them.

Both men are also going through the tricky legal process facilitated by the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The convention aims to protect children from being abducted and also recognises access and custody rights of parents in other signatory countries.

In theory, the system should work very well. If a parent unlawfully takes or keeps a child under these bilateral arrangements, a court orders them back to the country of habitual residence, where existing court orders are enforced or a court determines where the child will live if there are no parenting orders in place. But what if the abducting parent can't be found?

In the case of Thompson, whose wife is also Australian, parenting orders had not yet been determined, so if and when Andrew is returned to Australia, further court proceedings will take place.

Pesor, however, had already been given custody by a court in Sweden, with Valette granted access rights twice a year.

After he and his children moved to Australia, he paid for them to go to Sweden three times but then ran out of money, prompting Valette to apply under the Hague Convention for access.

The matter went to the Family Court in Australia, which echoed the Swedish court ruling and permitted Valette to take the boys to Sweden in September for a one-month visit.

This is where Pesor gets very angry. He says he warned Australian authorities that last year his ex-wife began telling the boys that should they go to Sweden, they would stay there.

A transcript of Family Court proceedings shows that a family consultant who interviewed the boys told the court Frank was worried. The boy had said his mother told him she was "lying to the Government and the court" and that she intended to keep them in Sweden.

The family consultant told the court that Andre said he would prefer to see his mother in Australia. "When I asked him about (why he felt that way), he said, 'Well, because she can't take me away."'

Pesor believes that on the basis of that evidence, the court should have granted Valette access in Australia instead of letting her leave the country with the children.

But these cases are rarely black and white.

Alastair Nicholson, former chief justice of the Family Court, says that claims a parent won't return the children are not necessarily enough to sway a court.

"It's a matter of judgement. People often say those sorts of things and don't mean them," he says.

One way of predicting a parent's actions, he says, is by looking at their past behaviour. Valette returned the children after previous visits to Sweden, so a judge may have been prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt.

At least Sweden is part of the Hague Convention and authorities there are co-operating. It is even harder for parents whose children have been taken to countries that are not part of the convention.

When Jacqueline Gillespie's former husband, Malaysian prince Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah, abducted their two children during an access visit in Melbourne in 1992, the Malaysian authorities refused to help.

"It's an example of the problems which arise when the other country is not a Hague country," says retired Family Court judge John Fogarty.

"In those countries, short of going over there and trying to kidnap the child, there's really nothing else you can do."

And some parents do just that. In 2006, Canadian mother Melissa Hawach hired two former soldiers to remove her two children from their Australian father in Lebanon.

Fogarty says a Family Court judge in Australia is less likely to grant permission for
access to a parent from a non-Hague Convention country because of the difficulties in getting the children back — at least through legal means. But he says the growth in inter-country marriages — and subsequent marriage breakdowns — has increased the need for a formal international treaty to protect children caught between their feuding parents.

"We live in a more international age," Fogarty says. "People more frequently marry somebody from another country than used to be the case.

"Consequently, if the marriage breaks down, each partner would normally like to go back to their original country. If there are children involved, they would like to take them with them."

Most people will try to do this legally — even if they don't agree with a court order. When they refuse to accept a court's ruling, the consequences can vary.

SOMETIMES the case ends in tragedy. Around the world, stories have emerged of parents in the throes of ugly custody battles murdering their children. Then there was the Australian case a few years ago of a lesbian mother killing herself and her child, leaving the judge to wonder whether the tragedy was linked to his decision to allow the sperm-donor father to continue visiting rights.

And then there's abduction. A pattern emerges among parents who take this drastic step, says Lee Formica, who is on the executive of the family law section of the Law Institute of Victoria.

The parent is aggrieved by a court order; they are convinced that the court is wrong, that they are the better parent, that the other parent is somehow deficient. They might be bitter about the relationship ending.

"(Abduction is) a pretty selfish act on the part of that parent," Formica says.

"It's really that sense of seeing the children as an extension of themselves, rather than seeing them as having their own rights and the right to see each parent."

Or, says child and family psychologist Lilia Szarski, parents might be motivated by a misguided belief that they are rescuing the child from a dangerous or incompetent parent.

"In some cases, a parent who abducts may feel that the other parent is hazardous to the children, because of allegations of abuse or behaviour usually stemming from a highly acrimonious conflicted spousal relationship where there's hate and bitterness," she says.

"Either they believe they own the children, or there's a sense of control. Sometimes there's a sense of needing to punish the other parent, and they do so by using the children. Sometimes there is an underlying personality or mental health disorder which perhaps hasn't been identified earlier on in the relationship, or was perhaps the trigger for the relationship breakdown."

The parent may not realise the impact abduction will have on the child. Szarski says that when a child is abducted by a parent they lose the world they knew and the relationship they had with the other parent.

"They may not be able to make sense of what has happened," she says. "They will be given a new script of reality by the abducting parent — that the other parent is so bad for them — and yet this will contradict their own personal experience of that other parent."

For a little while they may not understand that they are not going home. But once it sinks in, they will feel grief, perhaps cry themselves to sleep. And then, Szarski says, their survival instinct kicks in, and they go into adaptation mode because they have no choice.

"In order to survive, they have to align and attach to that parent."

The child might even blame themselves for inadvertently leading their mother to believe that they want to live with her, even if they don't.

The irony is that if the children stay with the abducting parent for long enough, this may in itself be grounds for a court to decide that it is best for the children to stay there — even though the parent acted unlawfully.

Robin Bowles is the grandmother of a boy who was unlawfully taken by his mother from Australia to her home country of France. The boy, now 11, was just 18 months old at the time. Her son travelled to France to find his boy. After a five-year court battle in that country, his ex-wife was awarded custody.

By then, the boy was seven, was settled in France, spoke the language, and, says Bowles, the court decided that uprooting him and sending him back to Australia would not have been in his best interests.

The boy's Australian father ended up moving to France so he could regularly see his son. Bowles says her grandson has been so scarred by the experience that he is still seeing a psychologist.

"There is a lot of unresolved anger between the parents and that gets aired every time he gets dropped off and picked up," she says. "And I think he (her grandson) gets distressed because he doesn't have a sense of permanence; he has this fear that he could get whipped away again."

Bowles has written a book, Taken in Contempt, containing interviews with abducting parents, parents left behind and their children. She cites the case of one 10-year-old girl who was "abducted and

re-abducted" by each parent, and who went on to develop an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the cases of Andrew Thompson and Frank and Andre Valette, they will most likely need counselling if or when they are found.

"Depending on the resilience of the children, some children will get through it OK, others will suffer a fair bit," Szarski says

George Pesor is preparing for this, and has been touched by donations he has received from the public and his sons' school, which he intends to use to pay for counselling for the boys.

Pesor and Thompson just want their sons to be found safe.

"You don't know whether your kids are still alive," says Thompson. "You don't know whether you're ever going to see your kids again. It's horrible."

Carol Nader is social policy editor.

Any information about the whereabouts of Ann-Louise, Andre and Frank Valette and Melinda and Andrew Thompson should be given to the Australian Federal Police on (02) 6126 7777. This number applies in all states and territories. Any person who recognises Melinda Thompson and the child should not approach the mother but should report the sighting to the police.


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