Having your co-parent completely disappear with your children in defiance of court orders is unfortunately a terrible reality for some Australian parents. There have been several publicised cases of parental child abduction in recent times in which mothers have been able to hide children for several years with the assistance of a shadowy ‘network of helpers’, as it has often been referred to in media reports. Although family law has certain rules regarding reporting details of cases and maintaining anonymity, these cases have cropped up in the media because a court has taken the unusual step of allowing the publication of children’s identifying details or photos, in order to help locate them.
But until now, little has been known about the actual existence or operation of the mysterious network of helpers. A two year AFP operation, however, last week dramatically uncovered the “sophisticated syndicate of like-minded people” which has been helping parents who decide to take an illegal path to obtaining unilateral custody of their children.
Also described as a parental abduction ring and a vigilante group, it has been found that the group’s members provided financial and logistical assistance to mothers to “abduct their own children and keep them hidden in violation of family law court orders”.
After a series of raids last week, four people have been arrested and charged in connection with the child abduction syndicate, which is alleged to have been led by a Grafton-based doctor. The GP is alleged to have been the key financier and organiser of the syndicate and has been charged with conspiring to defeat justice and dealing in the proceeds of crime worth $100,000 or more. It’s expected more people will be charged.
When the investigation began two years ago, it was attempting to locate two particular children who were alleged to have been abducted by a parent. However, police soon noticed patterns and connections between a number of cases, ultimately enabling them to crack the group open.
The syndicate operated by word of mouth and used encrypted phone apps to ensure secrecy. Other “clandestine methods” were used, such as dyeing children’s hair, changing their names and birthdates, and moving them around the countryside. Parents who were themselves helped by the network were in turn expected to assist the network to help others, while other people may have unwittingly assisted the network: “Food, transport and accommodation was offered by people who may have been unaware they were participating in criminal activity.”
It’s also alleged that a yacht was purchased and refitted for $140,000 to be used to transport abducted children from its mooring in Fremantle to Tasmania and then on to New Zealand or South Africa.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz said: “The actions of these people are not to protect children. [They] potentially endanger the safety and wellbeing of these children. The continual movement of children, the change in their identity, change in their location and appearances, their isolation for lengthy periods of time, has been shown to cause impacts that are long lasting. We all know family law matters are difficult … but not agreeing to a court decision is no excuse for engaging in this vigilante behaviour.”
A further disturbing detail is that the syndicate also allegedly “used social media and other public forums to actively portray the fathers of their children as child abusers” despite the fact that police have “confirmed that all allegations of child sex abuse made against the fathers of the children involved had been investigated and were not substantiated”.
In other related news, international parental child abduction laws come into effect in Australia next year which criminalise international parental abduction. Over the past financial year, 80 Australian parents have sought 143 children allegedly taken overseas without permission. Until now, it has not been a criminal offence to take children overseas without the other parent’s permission, but under the new laws, absconding parents face a three year jail term and extradition where applicable. The new laws will also enable police to investigate the other parent’s emails and text messages where abduction is suspected, expected to make tracking parents down overseas easier.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
You may like to read our blog regarding child abduction and recovery orders.
Do you need assistance with a parenting or other family law matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.