Vancouver Sun

Saturday 18 August 2001

Abducted Children

Two current B.C. cases focus attention on the serious issue of parents who take their kids illegally

Jeff Lee and Yvonne Zacharias
Vancouver Sun

Chelsea Harker

(Parental Abductions by Province 2000)

(Parental Abduction cases opened in Canada 1990 to 2000)

Two Surrey girls have joined the growing list of children in B.C. who are victims of abductions by parents.

The case of Angela Harker, 11, and her sister Chelsea, 9, who are believed to have been taken from their foster home by their father, Melvin Eugene Harker, follows a case in which a Lower Mainland woman remains in jail because she won't tell a judge where she has hidden her eight-year-old son.

In both cases, police don't believe the children are in the kind of imminent danger that would be associated with being abducted by a stranger.

But the incidents raise the profile of a form of parental warfare in which police say the children are almost always both the tools for, and victims of, revenge.

Surrey police say the two Harker girls went missing Saturday, Aug. 5, near their foster home in the area of 96 Avenue and 152 Street in Surrey. They went outside to play, and when they did not return, their foster parents grew concerned and called police.

"We have nothing to indicate the kids are in any type of danger," Surrey RCMP Corporal Janice Armstrong said Friday. "But our concerns are they are not where they are supposed to be, with the foster parents."

Their father did not have legal access to them when they disappeared.

Gordon Hogg, minister for children and family development, said Friday he felt the foster parents looking after the Harker girls had lived up to their responsibilities in this case.

Although the children were playing outside when they disappeared, he said, he "would find it troubling if the foster parents kept them in the house all the time."

Another non-custodial parent, Vilma Jacome, remains in jail after more than a month because she won't tell a Burnaby provincial court judge the whereabouts of her five-year-old son Andrew. Jacome's mother, Vilma Alvizuris, is believed to have the boy and there is a warrant out for her arrest on charges of parental abduction. The father, Marlon Amaya, hasn't seen his son since he was abducted last Christmas.

Amaya has said he doesn't know why Jacome won't let him see his son other than to try and poison their relationship.

Robert Halvorson knows all too well what Amaya is going through.

If Halvorson is lucky, he sees his daughter Kara one weekend a year for several hours on each day, even though on paper he's the one with legal custody.

But in order to see his 11-year-old, he has to fly to Germany, where Kara lives with her mother in what Canada considers a lingering case of parental abduction.

The irony doesn't stop there. Halvorson, who tried unsuccessfully to find his daughter after her mother abducted her and fled back to Germany in 1997, learned of Kara's whereabouts only when the German government came after him for child support.

His custody order, granted in Canada, is virtually worthless. His rights in Germany are not as strong as the mother's, who is German. His efforts to have Canada help him regain custody have fallen on the deaf ears of bureaucrats who tell him he has little or no chance of success.

Halvorson pays the child support and says he fears Kara's mother Rosa Benzing will cut off the very slim access he has managed to wrest from her if she doesn't like what he says or does.

But in many ways, Halvorson is lucky. Unlike hundreds of other parents whose children have been abducted by their ex-spouses, he knows where his daughter is and has the opportunity to see her, even though it's under circumstances both he and police in B.C. say amounts to child abuse.

Many other parents on the receiving end of parental abduction never see their children again. Others don't get reunited until years later, when the chances of successful reunification are slim.

The cases serve to show how bitter and divisive parental custody disputes can be.

Although there are exceptions where a non-custodial parent honestly believes a child will be harmed by a custodial parent, police say most often it's simply revenge that is behind why mom or dad takes off with the kids.

"An abducting parent doesn't do it because they think they are a better parent. They are seeking revenge on the other parent," said Sergeant John Ward, coordinator of missing children's services for the RCMP in B.C. "Parental abduction is child abuse, plain and simple."

The life of any child involved in a parental abduction is fraught with problems and danger, Ward said. The absconding parent often creates new identities for him or her and the child. They move often, register under false names and credentials, and don't provide stable access to health care.

"The life of an abducted child is a life on the run, a life of deceit and lies, and a life that is extremely difficult," Ward said.

Often, the abducting parent justifies their actions by telling the child the other parent didn't want them, has died, or has moved away, he said.

"The psychological pain that a child like this goes through is enormous."

Parental abductions still don't get the kind of treatment by police and the public that they should, he said.

"Quite frankly, police officers are also guilty of not paying attention to these crimes," Ward said. "Like so many other people, they tend to think that if the child is with a parent, even if that person is the abductor, how bad can it be? The fact is, it is still an abduction and it is illegal."

It is hard to determine the actual number of parental abductions in Canada every year. The RCMP's Missing Children Registry in Ottawa keeps statistics on abductions that involve criminal charges. But that doesn't account for cases that are not reported to police or where the custody disputes were heard in civil court, according to Marlene Dalley, an official with the registry.

"We take all child abductions very seriously, and we use the services of Interpol and other agencies when necessary," she said. "It is still a case of the child is being deprived of parental love."

The number of parental abduction cases in Canada reported on CPIC, the Canadian Police Information Centre's database, tends to hover around 400 a year. Last year, CPIC recorded 416 cases, of which 72 were in B.C. By comparison, there were 42 abductions by strangers and more than 50,000 reports of runaways.

In Halvorson's case, Kara was taken by Benzing after the two adults split after 11 years. Halvorson said he knew Benzing had taken his daughter to Germany, but couldn't find where. He tried everything he could to find them and to get Ottawa to enforce his custody order, but was unsuccessful. Benzing hid their whereabouts, and later threatened to go underground if he tried to recover his daughter.

Although Canada considers he has custodial and guardianship rights, the German government took the position that he had no rights because at the time Benzing left Canada the couple had already separated.

Halvorson said the German government has been "very helpful" in ensuring Kara is treated well, despite the fact that his custody rights aren't being enforced. He said he readily agreed to pay support of $500 a month, and even made several large payments to Benzing in order to soften her refusal to let him see or talk to his daughter.

"I had to buy my way back into my daughter's life," he said.

Halvorson said he doesn't have any faith in Canada's parental abduction laws, and is more impressed with Germany's commitment to children. He said he spent thousands of dollars trying to get Canada to help him, and was told by bureaucrats that he should give up.

"I was basically left high and dry by my country."