Child Recovery Specialists

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Do two wrongs ever make a right? The use of ‘child recovery specialists’ in international parental child abduction cases

Sarah Cecilie Finkelstein Waters

Desperate parents of parentally abducted children are increasingly turning to hired help to retrieve their children from their abducting parents. For a (often considerable) fee ‘child recovery specialists’ promise to covertly recover children from domestic and international child abductors. Recent cases have shown how high the stakes can be. The consequences on children and their families can be life-altering, and some failed attempts at child recovery have been devastating.

Last year’s highly publicised case of Australian mother Sally Faulkner has highlighted the desperate measures that parents of abducted children will take to get their children back. In early 2016 Ms. Faulkner and a 60 Minutes film crew travelled to Beirut in an attempt to snatch back her two children who were abducted to Lebanon in May 2015 by their father. 60 Minutes reportedly paid a child recovery specialist over $100,000 to lead the effort. The children were briefly reunited with their mother before Ms. Faulkner and the entire crew were arrested and put into a Lebanese jail. It took many months to secure their release, and in an international public relations fiasco that placed Australian-Lebanese relations in such jeopardy that the heads of both lands commented on the case, the children now remain with their father and Ms. Faulkner returned home without her children.

Yet not all child recovery operations end in failure. Whilst it’s practically impossible to define any objective measure of ‘success’ in cases where one parent is going to be left without their children, some recovery operations clearly do achieve their aims. Scottish-Australian Stuart Dempster’s little daughter Natasha, now eight, was abducted from Australia to Thailand by her mother in 2013. “I was the primary caretaker for Natasha, and we had a wonderful bond,” Stuart reported in a telephone conversation we had in August of 2016. “It was a terrible shock to come home one day and find that Natasha and her mother were gone without a trace,” he said.

Sarah Cecilie Finkelstein Water was abducted by her father aged four, and lived on the run for nearly 10 years. Her story is the subject of Action Against Abduction’s documentary Sarah-Cecilie. The views expressed in this article are those of Sarah-Cecilie. 

His first step was to contact the Australian Central Authority that deals with cases of international parental child abduction. He spent months filling out the appropriate forms and writing letters. Nothing happened. “The governmental office responsible for handling parental child abduction only has one part-time lawyer and a few staff members handling all of Australia’s parental abduction cases,” he says. “It was absurd. Australia probably has more cases of abduction than any other nation and nothing gets done.”

Stuart was awarded full custody of Natasha and all his papers were in order. He learnt that Natasha had been left with her maternal grandmother in Thailand while her mother went off to work in another city. “There she was in a small Thai village without her mother and with poor options for schooling and her future,” Stuart said. Stuart wanted to share custody and allow Natasha to have access to her mother whenever they both wanted, but this situation was impossible. “I would never be able to see her or be with her,” he explained. He saw no other option but to bring her back to Australia.

Stuart’s first attempt at hiring a recovery specialist was an expensive failure. After paying a $10,000 deposit Stuart was told his child could not be located despite having a street address for her. “He scammed me, as he has scammed so many others,” Stuart reported, with other parents coming forward to report similar experiences with the same individual.

Stuart subsequently found a second child recovery specialist who was able to locate and return Natasha to Stuart with the cooperation of the Thai authorities. “I had all my papers in order and Natasha was willing to come home with me,” Stuart said. “Parental child abduction is not taken seriously, and it’s so hard to get anything to happen without hiring someone yourself,” Stuart concluded. In his view, the use of child recovery specialists should be publicly funded, as he sees no other alternatives for the quick and efficient return of parentally abducted children with the current systems in place to deal with these cases.

As an adult who was parentally abducted as a child in the 1970s I have given a lot of thought to these issues. My mother did not have the Hague Convention’s strength behind her search for me as the convention would not be in force until the early 1980’s. Child recovery specialists simply didn’t exist, and would have been well out of the reach of my mother, a struggling pre-school teacher living in what was then a poor country.

In 2010 I was asked by a reporter from Aftenposten, a leading Norwegian newspaper, if I wished I had been returned to my mother by force as a child. My response was an immediate and instinctive “no” as I thought of Elian Gonzales and other high-profile cases of children returned to a parent with the use of force, and the tears and pain that accompanied those recoveries. The thought of going through that sort of trauma and experiencing the sense of helplessness those children must have felt, filled me with a sense of indignation on behalf of those children.

However, in the years since that interview, I have agonized over my answer. I felt awful about how my words, splashed on the front page of Aftenposten’s Sunday edition, must have felt to my mother. The fact is that I dearly wish that I had grown up with my mother in my life, but I did not want to have gone through a dangerous, potentially unsuccessful experience on the chance that I would have been reunited with her. The risk involved is a big part of my aversion to it. The fact is that if a recovery effort was successful, my life would undoubtedly have been easier and better. But if the attempt was foiled, or if the measures used were deeply traumatizing, I could have been in a worse situation than I was already in. There are cases of children who were abducted and re-abducted then abducted again, in an endless game of back-and-forth that leaves all parties exhausted, impoverished and traumatized.

Both Stuart Dempster’s and Sally Faulkner’s cases expose the significant limitations of the conventional routes to resolving international parental child abductions. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction has made it mandatory to honor the custody orders of other lands, and this is meant to reduce the use of desperate measures. However, sluggish court systems, litigious parents, and alienated and upset children unwilling to return to the parent they were taken from have made the system unpredictable and slow. Additionally, not all lands are signatory to the Hague Convention, as is the case with Lebanon, leaving parents desperate for other options to recover their children.

I am deeply torn about the rise of child recovery specialists in cases of parental abduction and alienation. I have come to understand why parents hire them, and yet I am loathe to accept them as the new norm in dealing with parental child abduction. I urge the international community to work to find other solutions to the problem of the recovery of abducted children.

5 concerns about the use of child recovery specialists in cases of parental child abduction:

1. Only the wealthy or the soon-to-be-bankrupt can afford it

The costs of hiring and running a child recovery team can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. This level of debt simply increases the suffering for the family involved. Even successful attempts can impose a huge emotional burden on the children involved (“we paid $100,000 to get you back and you’d better appreciate it!”). Child recovery is entirely unregulated. There is little to protect parents from unscrupulous child recovery specialists, and many parents have been taken advantage of.

2. Private-sector ‘solutions’ detract from the urgent need for intra-governmental ones

Despite increasing demand many government agencies tasked with resolving international parental child abductions are short-staffed and poorly resources. Stuart Dempster reports waiting months to fill out forms and get help, only to find that the help they could offer was ineffective in dealing with the Thai authorities. Poor outcomes in child recovery operations can just exacerbate situations both within and between countries, as the case of Sally Faulkner demonstrates all too well.

3. Child recovery work can place private citizens in dangerous situations

Child recovery operations pose a substantial risk of physical and emotional harm to the children, family members, bystanders and recovery team members. There are examples of violence and psychological trauma in these cases. Failed attempts can result in the complete breakdown of contact between a child and the parent who has attempted to procure their physical custody.

4. The use of child recovery specialists can create a cycle of abduction and re-abduction

There is a danger that children can be abducted, re-abducted, then abducted again. The consequences of this can be devastating. Children in this situation typically react by shutting down to both parents. “I was a ping pong ball,” one girl abducted several times by both of her parents privately told me. “I mistrust them both now,” she added.

5. What really is in the best interests of the child?

Many parents feel legally and morally entitled to the physical and emotional custody of their children, and this is the mindset that often leads parents to abduct in the first place. Unscrupulous actors can prey upon the emotional states of vulnerable parents and provide them with a sense of moral correctness in abducting and recovering children that can end up becoming an endless tug-of-war. Children are not objects and should not be treated as such. The murky concept of “best interests of the child” comes into play here. Is it truly best for a child to go through the potential trauma of a recovery? This is something that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis by loving and caring parents.