‘I’m taking the kids’: There are 250 international parental abductions involving Canadians

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When Kristen Allen’s former partner and her six-year-old daughter failed to arrive at the airport in Toronto one fateful evening in August 2018, her heart sank.

Deep down, she knew her ex-boyfriend, John Varga Cuevas, had taken their daughter, Tatianna, and he wouldn’t be back.

“I knew that he would take her,” she told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview last week. “Against my better judgment, I allowed him to take her and he did not return.”

Even though she won custody of their daughter in August 2017, Allen said Varga Cuevas was legally allowed to travel with Tatianna, provided he gave her advanced notice and a detailed itinerary.

Before their departure, Varga Cuevas told Allen he planned to take their daughter on a two-week vacation to France and Germany. Allen reluctantly agreed and signed a letter of consent.

Two weeks later, when the pair didn’t fly home as expected, Allen called her local police force in Brampton, Ont.

“He had a history of taking my daughter on separate occasions and withholding her,” she explained. “He’s taken her and said ‘Unless you sign over custody I’m not returning her.’ I’ve had to have emergency orders to get her back.”

The case was deemed a parental abduction, because Allen had full custody of their child, and later that month a Canada-wide warrant was issued for Varga Cuevas’ arrest.

Now, after working with law enforcement, Global Affairs Canada, Interpol, and charitable organizations dedicated to finding missing children, Allen still doesn’t know where her daughter is.

Despite these efforts, Allen said she’s no closer to locating and reuniting with her daughter than she was a year ago.

“I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone,” she said through tears.

As alarming as Allen’s story sounds, it’s far from unique.

In fact, Global Affairs Canada said it’s currently managing more than 250 cases related to international child abductions.

According to the agency, an international child abduction occurs when a parent or guardian of a child removes them from Canada remains outside the country without legal authority or the permission of the other parent with full or joint custody rights.

“Child abductions are some of the most difficult consular situations that the Government of Canada responds to and are a profoundly difficult and damaging experience for both the children and their families,” Global Affairs spokesperson Barbara Harvey wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca.

In response to an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request submitted by CTVNews.ca earlier this year, Global Affairs said from January to May of 2019, they have already opened 34 new child abduction cases. In 2018, 64 new cases were opened.

Those numbers fall short of the 250 cases Global Affairs is dealing with, which means the majority were opened before 2018.

It’s an unsettling statistic that highlights the lengthy and complex nature of international child abduction cases, many of which take years to resolve, if they’re ever resolved at all.

‘A lot of challenges’

Ceaser Awada knows this all too well. The 42-year-old cybersecurity expert based in Ottawa hasn’t seen his twins, who are now nine years old, in nearly six years.

Not since his ex-wife, Loura Hojeij, told him she was taking their twin children on a 10-day trip to the United Arab Emirates in November 2013. They travelled to Lebanon instead.

Awada said he gave Hojeij permission to travel with their children because his lawyer told him it might otherwise appear, at his next opportunity to negotiate a custody agreement, that he was being needlessly difficult.

Two days before their scheduled return date, Awada said Hojeij told him via email that she had a job opportunity in Lebanon, where she was born and where her family lives. She wanted to extend the trip for another five days.

Awada said his wife subsequently sent another message, “Saying, pretty much, ‘Screw Canada. I’m not coming back. I don’t want to be there. I’m taking the kids and I’m not returning.’”

Since the day they left, Awada said he hasn’t been able to see or speak with the twins Talia and Adam.

“If my son or daughter walked right in front of me, they wouldn’t even know I’m their father,” he said.

Awada explained that his lawyer advised him against travelling to Lebanon because his ex-wife has accused him of not paying child support and he will likely be arrested.

Like Allen, Awada has sought the help of police and government officials in Canada.

Unlike Allen, however, Awada knows where his children are. But that knowledge hasn’t made reunification any easier.

That’s because Lebanon doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Canada and it’s not one of 100 countries signed on to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction – a multilateral treaty, created in 1980, that sets a legal framework for the prompt return of abducted children.

Legal limitations 

The treaty gives courts in signatory countries legal guidance for determining where a child’s “habitual residence” was before the abduction and can also order their immediate return so that all subsequent custody and visitation decisions can be settled there.

Though it’s not a guarantee, returning a child who has been taken to a country that’s part of the Hague Convention is easier than if they were taken to a non-signatory country.

Amanda Pick, the CEO of the Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC), said left-behind families still have to navigate another country’s legal system, in addition to their own, before a decision is made about the child’s habitual residence.

Additionally, Pick said parents have to contend with other obstacles, including language barriers and funding.

“Finances is a big one,” she said. “To be able to go to that country once that child is found, to attend court hearings, any of the financial resources needed to bring the child back.”

“Finding the child would seem like the most significant obstacle, but even once the child is found, parents face a lot of challenges.”

Oscar Zelaya has experienced these challenges first-hand. He has been trying to have his daughter, Sara, returned home to British Columbia from Honduras — a Hague Convention signatory — for more than a year.

Zelaya said his wife, Brenda Xiomara Guevara, took Sara to their native Honduras without his consent in late August 2018, because she missed her family and wanted to move back there. Despite having Canadian, American and Honduran citizenships, Sara’s habitual residence is in B.C., her father said.

In an attempt to bring her home, Zelaya said he filed a request under the Hague Convention in September 2018. He also travelled to Honduras to try to work out a conciliatory agreement with his wife, but he said she refused.

Instead, Zelaya claims his wife has filed for sole custody of Sara in Honduras and accused him of failing to provide them with financial support. Because of this, Zelaya said his case is tied up in Honduras’ legal system with no end in sight.

“This is something that is very, very, very devastating,” he told CTVNews.ca on Aug. 29. “The process doesn’t go quickly. The Hague Convention says it’s a process that will roughly take six weeks. Forget about it.”

The process is typically even longer in cases such as Awada’s, in which a parent took the child to a country that is not a signatory to the Hague Convention.

Non-signatory countries, most of which are located in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, are under no obligation to follow the Hague Convention’s legal framework. Instead, they consider cases in accordance with their own laws and customs.

In those scenarios, Karen Chymy of Canadian missing children resource centre MissingKids.ca said left-behind parents have limited options.

“If it’s not a Hague signatory country or if they’re not going to return under the Hague, the parent is pretty tied in what they can do,” she said.

In response to the ATIP request from CTVNews.ca, Global Affairs provided information regarding the regions where new cases of international child abductions have been opened.

In 2018, 20 cases of child international abductions from Canada were opened in relation to Africa and the Middle East, 19 in the Americas, 10 in Europe, nine in Asia and Oceania, and six in the U.S.

Region where case was openedCount of cases opened
Africa & the Middle East20
The Americas19
Asia & Oceania9
United States6
Grand Total64
Source: Global Affairs Canada
Source: Global Affairs Canada

From January to May 2019, the most new cases were opened in Asian and Oceania with 13, followed by the Americas with eight, Africa and the Middle East with six, and Europe and the U.S. with four each, respectively.

January 1 to May 16, 2019
Region where case was openedCount of cases opened
Asia & Oceania13
The Americas8
Africa & the Middle East6
United States4
Grand Total35
Source: Global Affairs Canada
Source: Global Affairs Canada

What can left-behind parents do?

According to the Canadian government’s “International Child Abduction: A Guidebook for Left-Behind Parents,” the first thing a parent should do if they suspect a parental abduction is to contact local police.

Next, the guidebook advises them to hire a lawyer and inform family and friends, as well as the child’s doctor, school and daycare.

Other advice and points of contact suggested in the guidebook includes:

  •  First contacts: How to contact local law enforcement, alert family, friends and community
  •  Passport Canada: The agency may be able to add the child’s name to a lookout list to alert officials if there is a passport application. It might also be possible to invalidate the child’s passport.
  •  Global Affairs Canada: The department can contact other country’s diplomats/consular officials for help in Canada and abroad.
  •  RCMP: The national police force can put a child’s description on a country-wide registry of missing children and contact Interpol.
  •  Interpol: This international police organization can issue notice to all 190 member countries of missing child. They can also request assistance from local police forces in member countries.
  •  Canada Border Services Agency: Agency can issue border alerts for a missing child, often included as part of an Amber Alert.
  •  Seeking a child’s safe return: How to negotiate a voluntary return of the child, file a Hague Convention application, or apply for custody in another country.
  •  Extradition: Information on how abducting parent can be extradited to face criminal charges and what happens to the child in that case.
  •  Reunion: What left-behind parents can expect, logistically and emotionally, in the event of a reunion and other leftover legal problems that may arise.

The government’s guidebook also recommends left-behind parents seek additional assistance from non-governmental organizations, including the Missing Children Society of Canada and MissingKids.ca, which work with law enforcement, lawyers, and other stakeholders to locate and return the child while providing emotional support and public awareness throughout the process.

Chymy said MissingKids.ca helps left-behind parents maintain their emotional health so they are ready in case of a reunion with their child. She said the psychological aspect on all parties, including the abducted child, needs to be addressed.

In many cases, Chymy said the abducting parent might tell children certain misinformation about the left-behind parent that may later complicate a reunion.

“For example, that the other parent didn’t want them, or moved on with their life and doesn’t want anything to do with them,” she said.

To prepare for that possibility, Chymy said left-behind parents are told to document all of their search efforts.

“Depending on what the child’s being told, it might be helpful to the child to be able, at some point, to see all the things their searching parent did to try and locate them,” she said.

‘There is hope’ 

While Pick agreed that the cases of international parental abduction that MCSC handles on a “regular basis” are often complicated and challenging, she said her organization has been involved in “hundreds” of reunifications over the years.

“There are many successes where that child is found and brought safely home,” she said. “There is hope.”

A spokesperson for Global Affairs wouldn’t comment on specific cases, but confirmed that “some cases get resolved over time.”

That hope is what continues to motivate parents like Allen, Awada, and Zelaya to keep fighting to have their children returned to them, no matter how long it takes.

“I have to keep going, even though this is horrendous for me to deal with,” Allen said. “Even though people aren’t calling me back and doors are being shut, I still have to keep trekking on.”

Awada, too, adopts the same approach when he talks about seeing his children again, even after nearly six years.

“I’m not going to give up,” he said. “If I can do anything, even if it’s 1 per cent, I’m willing to do it.”