An Australian man's successful quest to locate and bring home his son, who was taken abroad by his mother in 2008, has sparked debate about the adequacy of international child abduction laws.
Ken Thompson, whose three-year-old son was taken from Australia by his mother during a custody dispute, resigned from his job as deputy NSW fire chief and cycled around Europe in a bid to find his son.
Thompson eventually tracked him down in The Netherlands in September 2010, but only recently won the right to bring him back to Australia.
Thompson has now called for reforms to laws which currently do not make it a crime to remove a child from the country without permission.
Australia is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which means that a dedicated central authority will cooperate with other countries also party to the convention in any quest to locate and return a child to their habitual country.
However, Armstrong Legal special counsel and accredited family law specialist Christina Huesch told Lawyers Weekly that she does not believe making removal without permission a crime is necessarily the best solution.
"It sounds like a good idea at face value, but it might not be when you look at how it affects the child, who ultimately you are trying to protect," she said.
"Making it a crime might be extreme, because what you are dealing with is what's best for the child. If it's best for the child that he or she stays with the parent [who is removing the child], what are you going to achieve by putting that parent in jail?"
According to the Federal Attorney-General's department, 95 children were taken from Australia, without permission, by a parent in 2009. And while the numbers of abductees have steadily decreased over the past four years, Huesch said that when abductions do occur, it is very costly for those involved.
"These cases do come up from time to time, but I wouldn't say it's a common part of a family lawyer's work," she said.
"But when they do come up, it's very, very expensive. There's the emotional cost; and if you are trying to conduct investigations and enquiries yourself and trying to establish where someone might be, that is quite hard. Usually people will have an idea of which country the other parent went to, but sometimes you get people who have a couple of different passports who can live anywhere, in Europe or America."
According to Huesch, cases like the Thompson case are quite rare, as most clients usually have some idea that the other parent is planning on leaving, thus allowing for preventative measures to be put in place.
"We get a lot of international families. People meet on the internet, they travel a lot and meet a partner from overseas, and when the relationship breaks down, they almost always want to go back home," said Huesch.
"We find that people come to us and we're there in time to prevent anything from happening by putting the children's names on the airport watch list ... or filing an injunction to stop the other person going back to [their home country]."
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