London Free Press

October 27, 2001

More kids will go missing after acquittal, group fears

By Jane Sims -- Free Press Justice Reporter
London Free Press

The decision to acquit a mom who abducted her triplets on all charges can only lead to more missing children, says an official with Child Find Ontario.

"That is enormously disappointing and frustrating for parents all over Canada and the world who are going through the same situation," said Holly Benson, the agency's executive director.

She was reacting to the acquittal of Carline Vandenelsen, 39, who was found not guilty by reason of necessity on three abduction charges in Stratford yesterday.

"This is a terrifying thing and the more it happens and people are seen to have gotten away with it, the more it is presumed to encourage other people to do the same thing," she said.

ChildFind was involved in the search for Peter, Gray and Olivia Merkley last year after they disappeared with their mother Oct. 14, 2000 during a scheduled visit.

They were reunited with their father and custodial parent, Craig Merkley, 45, in January in Acapulco, Mexico, where Vandenelsen was arrested.

Benson said "there is no way in the world" Vandenelsen should have been found not guilty.

"A normal functioning parent, who cares about the welfare of their children, does not abduct them, hide them in trunks of cars and smuggle them across international borders, cutting off their hair and telling them they have to pretend to be something else," she said.

Benson described the emotional damage done to an abducted child as "absolutely catastrophic.

"Kids we have known are in counselling for years and years, because when a child is abducted, they are on the run and they're turned into a fugitives," she said.

Four times a week in Ontario, a non-custodial parent "grabs a child and runs," she said. Last year, 190 parental abductions were reported to police.

This year, the agency has had hundreds of calls from parents "who are in a state of panic because they believe their ex-partner is ready to abduct and run with their kids."

Child Find staff and case workers have testified in abduction cases before, Benson said.

Speaking directly about the Vandenelsen case, "if we were invited to do so, we would certainly happily do that again."

Benson pointed to anecdotal evidence judges tend to favour mothers as custodial parents. In the Vandenelsen case, there was evidence a judge was considering cutting off all of her access.

"What does that tell you about the condition that those kids must have been in when they were in her care, that they were considering something that drastic?" she asked.

"The courts are not normally that drastic at all and yet, if they were considering that, that speaks volumes about the direction that had to have been going."

Copyright (c) 2001 The London Free Press,