Toronto Star

Oct. 2, 05:30 EDT

Abduction by a parent difficult to stop

Treaties are best hope of returning children from foreign lands

Joseph Hall

ANXIOUS MOTHER: waits in her Scarbrough apartment for information about her 5-year-old daughter , who was abducted by her dad Saturday and taken to Iran.

It's almost child's play.

For parents intent on abducting their children and spiriting them out of Canada, there are few if any solid barriers standing in the way, frustrated family law and child protection advocates say.

And when a Scarborough man used a purported outing to Canada's Wonderland this week to bolt with his daughter to his native Iran, he added another small face to a growing gallery of children who have been torn from this country. Many stand little chance of ever being returned.

"It's extremely frustrating," says Dina Bellinger, an analyst for the federally sponsored Our Missing Children program.

"There's very little that can be done. The only thing that we can do is to advise the country where (it's believed) the children are going and hope they respect our laws and return the children."

Some 387 children were abducted by a parent in Canada last year. And while many of those children are still missing and their whereabouts officially unknown, it's estimated that about half were taken out of the country, predominantly to the United States or Middle Eastern countries, Bellinger says.

The crux of this international abduction problem, experts say, is that Canada, like many nations, has no institutionalized system for screening people leaving the country.

In most cases, so long as a departing traveler can present proper travel documents to airline check-in staff, they are free to leave.

And obtaining proper travel papers, even for children who should not be leaving the country, is a deceptively simple proposition, says Queen's University family and children's law professor Nick Bala.

First, as was apparently the case in the recent Iranian flight of landed immigrant [a dork of a dad who cannot leave a proper phone message has had his name pulled] and his daughter, a parent can successfully forge papers giving permission from their former partner for the child to leave the country.

More likely, however, a valid passport is all that would be needed to get a child away.

And in many cases, fleeing parents will simply bypass more rigorous Canadian passport regulations and have the names of their children added to passports they hold from their native lands, Bala says.

Parents worried about their former partners using foreign passports can register custody orders with officials from the issuing country, says RCMP Corporal Art Maye, who is detached to the missing children program.

"They can contact embassy or consulate officials and ask them that they not issue a passport for the child," Maye says.

"Of course, we're always at the mercy of the other country in that case and a country can issue a passport when they want to."

Even Canadian court orders forbidding non-custodial parents from leaving the province with their children will provide scant deterrence if those fathers or mothers are set on taking their children out.

"The simple fact is that until he or she has not returned the child at the expected return date, then no breech has occurred," Bellinger says.

And Canadian officials cannot rely on foreign immigration services even in advanced western nations to run intensive inspections on single parents entering their countries with children in tow, says Maye.

"There's no co-ordinated effort that way," he says.

The most effective tactic to determine whether children are being transported illegally is to separate them from the accompanying adult and have immigration officials ask the youngsters simple questions, such as how they were brought to the border point, experts say.

But the sheer volume of children passing through immigration check points abroad would make such thorough inspections next to impossible, said Barbara Snider, of the charitable search agency Missing Children Society of Canada.

"You're going to stop every single parent with a child?"

Most efforts, therefore, are currently focused on getting the kids back, rather than preventing their forced flight in the first place.

And the talisman of searching parents is the international Hague Convention a multilateral agreement that sets out rules and procedures for returning abducted children to their legally designated homes.

With some 66 signatory nations, the 1983 convention allows countries to enforce foreign custodial decisions by seizing the abducted kids and sending them back home.

Under the agreement, Bellinger says, parents of missing children can file a complaint with the local convention authority, who will then attempt to determine which country the child has been taken to.

Convention officials would then contact their counterparts in the receiving country, who must take up the cause, she says.

Under the convention, those foreign Hague officials can involve local police authorities, which are able to act on Canadian custodial orders.

But there are serious limitations to the convention, says Toronto lawyer Joel Miller, an expert in family law.

First, he says, many signatory countries have rudimentary communications systems and questionable police and child protection services, making the actual tracking down of missing children a difficult chore.

Second, the convention can only kick in if a custodial order has already been obtained in the home country something that was not the case in this week's Toronto abduction.

And third, many counties, especially in the Middle East, have not signed on to the convention.

"Foreign Affairs is currently working on bilateral treaties with some of the non-Hague countries in hopes of getting some of our children back," Snider says.

Here at home, Bala says that family courts may want to look more closely at the risk of parental flight when determining custody provisions.

But he admits that many of the procedures would be onerously expensive and could intrude on the legitimate rights of parents to see or travel with their children.

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