Roz Osborne is the founder & chair of trustees at Global Action on Relocation & Return with Kids (GlobalARRK): the only charity that specialises in supporting parents who have moved abroad, and are unable to return home with their children. She kindly agreed to speak to me about the desperate situations these parents often face, how GlobalARRK supports stuck parents around the world and her campaign to change international law.
The most common scenario is that a couple fall in love, move to the father’s country with their child, then their relationship breaks down, and the mother needs to return to her home country with her child. The second most common scenario, involving around 40% of our cases, is when a family move abroad for work, have a relationship breakdown and the mother wants to return home but the father does not give his permission for the children to leave the new country.
Many families resolve their issues amicably, and of course we don’t hear from them. But we do hear from families where one of the parents will not allow the other to return home with their children, even after a short period of living abroad. In these cases there are usually complex problems. 90% of these mothers report that they have experienced domestic violence, 15% don’t have a visa to stay in the country, and 45% say they feel unsafe in the country they’re stuck in. In such cases, especially where there’s been abuse, amicable agreements are often not possible. In many cases the mother cannot afford a lawyer, and doesn’t understand the country’s legal system.
We’ve also found that 85% of stuck parents have not heard of the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction and don’t understand that, by moving abroad, a child’s habitual residence would transfer to the new country almost immediately. Around 30% of the parents who contact us have already taken their child back to their home country without proper permissions from the other parent, which is usually the father. Or the permission has been obtained but it isn’t notarised, so it won’t be permitted in court.
The consequences of so-called parental child abduction are dire for these parents and, most importantly, for their children. We see that usually the parent has a good reason for leaving with their children. But this is not often taken into account in Hague Convention proceedings.
We’ve seen cases where mothers have medical evidence of injuries caused by the father and there’s literally no help available in the country they’re stuck in. The saddest part of my job is when a child is returned and the mother is too scared to go with them. In US cases particularly, mothers are advised not to return with their child, because they are routinely punished on arrival. They are often arrested and put into prison, and their rights to care for their child are taken away. It is heartbreaking to see small children removed from their primary carers in this way.
GlobalARRK works to prevent root causes of so-called international child abduction. I say ‘so-called’ because we don’t always think it’s helpful to label these mothers who are leaving a country because they have experienced domestic violence, for example, a child abductor. It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help their children. The stuck parents we support tell us they are taking their children because they are facing serious issues such as domestic violence, poverty, legal problems, isolation, and immigration.
We aim to tackle these issues by providing stuck parents with information and signposting to other charities around the world. If they are experiencing domestic violence in Australia, we will get in contact with an organisation that can help them on the ground. We also pass on information about welfare and social security benefits to enable parents to actually deal with their problems locally, rather than break the law. We connect stuck parents around the world with our peer support network and they help each other practically and emotionally.
We also pass on details to experienced and committed international family lawyers around the world who volunteer their time to ensure that the parents get the best legal advice, regardless of their financial means. Furthermore, we raise awareness of this issue so that fewer families move abroad and become stuck in the first place, and we collect statistics to better inform both the public and decision makers.
I was a stuck parent myself in Portugal. That was in 2010, and there was literally no organisation to help at all—nothing. I started a Facebook group primarily to get in contact with other parents and see if there were other parents in a similar position. Surprisingly, hundreds of mums got in touch with me within the first year. I listened to their stories and just couldn’t believe that there was no other help out there.
When I resolved my own personal situation and got permission to come back to England with my children I registered our organisation as a charity. There was such a gap in provision; somebody needed to do something. Really, other people’s stories were much worse than my own. I feel so incredibly lucky to be home with the children to have had everything worked out so well. Over the last six years we’ve had lots of talented, committed people come on board and we have created the charity together, which is amazing.
We can’t give any legal advice to parents ourselves, but we do always say that it’s so important to get legal advice from an expert in international family law where their child is habitually resident. Often parents contact us with no knowledge of the international law, and they think they can just go home with their kids. They might have contacted a lawyer from their own country—perhaps someone they know through a house purchase or something like that—but unfortunately those lawyers are not necessarily experts in international law and they sometimes don’t give correct advice. We always advise contacting an expert international family lawyer practising in the country where they’re stuck.
We can also distribute general information that has been checked by lawyers, such as our resources on the Hague and relocation procedures.
Yes, that happens all the time. It’s very rare to speak to a parent who has heard of habitual residence. Often they think that because they’re a British family they can just go back, without realising that they have to go to a local court in order to apply to relocate back to their home country.
We do sometimes get those enquiries, and we like that people are seeking guidance before getting into trouble. They need to be aware that if they move abroad their children will become habitually resident in their new country quite quickly. So if they have any doubts as to the solidity of the relationship, we ask them to consider the potential consequences of the move and weigh up their options very carefully.
We’d also advise them to go to an international family lawyer or mediator with our ‘pre-emigration document’ and make a family agreement before moving abroad. This is a bit like a prenup but for moving abroad. I must stress that this wouldn’t be legally enforceable but it would give a judge some indication about the parents’ intentions before they move. For example, if they were thinking of only going for six months, the agreement could state that. It would also really make the parent think about what they’re doing to hopefully avoid problems in the future —so it’s actually more of a preventative measure. We would love to go to migration fairs and promote the pre-emigration contract; it’s something we feel that every family moving abroad should consider. It’s planning for your children’s future, essentially, and it could protect against the disasters that we see everyday.
Absolutely, I think more families are moving abroad for work, because we are living in an increasingly global world. Certainly, we’re being contacted by more and more parents every day—now about three per day on average. We’ve had to expand our volunteer team and create better systems in order to deal with all the enquiries. It’s potentially a huge problem, with tens of thousands of families moving abroad for work every year.
I started Expat Stuck Mums in 2012, and since then we’ve been contacted by some fathers, about five, compared to 1000 mothers. We did decide to change the name in 2014 to be more inclusive of fathers, to show that we support them as well. I think the reason why there are more mothers than fathers is related to the fact that it’s usually the father who gets the job abroad, and it’s the mother caring for the children.
We see lots of cases of mothers having experienced domestic violence and that’s why they want to go home. Of course, it’s a fact that domestic violence is predominantly perpetrated by men towards women. I think that’s the reason why there are so many stuck mothers: the fathers are wanting to control them and wanting to keep them in a foreign country where they don’t have the rights and the means to survive as well as they could in their home country, where they could access the support and protection of their family and friends, and seek benefits.
As you probably know, the special commission meets about every five years, so we’ve got another five years to wait until the next meeting. Not much can happen on an international level until then but the major point we want to raise is that habitual residence needs to be better defined. It’s too complicated for parents to understand. Even the Supreme Court struggles to define it, as we saw recently In the matter of C. If the Supreme Court cannot decide on habitual residence, what hope have parents got? It’s too complicated; we want some guidance from the Hague Convention itself.
We think that habitual residence should only update after a year abroad. At the moment, in many countries, it updates immediately, but that doesn’t reflect where a child feels settled. If they’re nine-years-old and they’ve moved to France and they’ve been there for three months, I would say their habitual residence is still the UK. We want some more guidance in this regard. It would be good to have a clear checklist that judges, lawyers and parents can see and understand.
There also needs to be better safeguarding procedures for parents who have suffered domestic violence. If they have to be returned to the country where their child is habitually resident, they must have enforceable orders of protection—a mirror order that will be enforced in the country they return to. At the moment, judges are issuing undertakings which in most other countries are meaningless, the local courts and the police say it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
We’ve had parents who are homeless, parents with no money, who when they return are forced to move back in with the abuser after an abduction case because they have nowhere else to go.
It’s really difficult. Even some domestic violence services can’t help mothers who are from another country. Our situation in the UK is a little bit like that; unless the mother is eligible for benefits in the UK, then she won’t be able to get into a refuge.
We’ve had mothers from within the EU who have been refused refuge places in the UK and they’re literally sofa-surfing with their babies. It’s not good enough. Relocation procedures must be available to all parents as a legal solution, because if they can’t afford a lawyer, and they can’t afford to stay in the foreign country, they’re left without legal route to remain with their child. They are forced to either leave their child or abduct them.
We think that means-tested legal aid should be available equally for both parents in relocation and Hague cases. It’s not fair that mothers who have fled domestic violence are forced to self-represent in the High Court.
I just want to praise my team, really. We’re all volunteers and we do it because we care about stuck parents. It’s great to be working with such an amazing team that’s so passionate about helping other people.
I suppose what makes it worthwhile for me is when we’ve supported a parent when everything seemed impossible and they thought they were going to lose their child and we’ve enabled them to resolve their case in some way. Whether that’s reaching an amicable agreement with the other parent, or winning the right stay with their child when they didn’t have immigration rights. It’s just amazing to enable a child and their primary carer to stay together.
There’s one mum that springs to mind who was returned to Australia from the UK with her baby. She was quite young, I think about 20, and she’d experienced a lot of domestic violence. When she got back to Australia she was homeless. She got in contact and we were able to link her up with lots of other mums in her area. She also found a local charity able to help her with her accommodation. Eventually she won the right to relocate back to the UK with her baby and found a safe place. That’s what makes us carry on. Because it is a lot of hard work, and we all put in a lot of time, but it’s so worthwhile.
If you would like to find out more please visit our website: www.globalarrk.org. All our services are free of charge, and our work is entirely funded by donations. Please consider donating via the website. Every bit counts for a lot. If you are a lawyer interested in supporting stuck parents please do get in touch!