M’s Story – Child returned to Spain from France

In July 2019 my ex-partner abducted our young son, taking him from his home in Spain to France. Initially I thought it was all quite ridiculous and that the law would return him to Spain within a few weeks, after all, these were neighbouring EU countries. The lawyers then told me to be patient and to prepare for a 12 to 18-month absence. I couldn’t believe it. This time frame was simply impossible, unimaginable, and sickening. I felt violated and impotent. I wanted to vomit.

My ex-partner had been unstable for some time, with chronic drug problems and low self-esteem. We were attending couples counselling when they left home, and they then placed false civil and criminal complaints against me. These were not accepted, instead we were classed as a ‘couple in crisis’, leaving me with full and equal parental rights. Two months later, as we were trying to formalise our separation, and having just reassured me that they would not do this, my ex-partner abducted our son and left for France with their new partner a homeless tramp (really). There they lived in a campervan completely off-grid and lost. I had a huge challenge ahead of me; emotional, psychological, linguistic, administrative, economic, and legal. I couldn’t believe that this had happened. I couldn’t believe that I was unable to be with, to provide for and to protect my son, nor that two drug dependent people had abducted him and were now his key influencers, and I couldn’t accept that it was all going to be so slow. How could nothing be done right now!

I wanted to go straight to France and take my son back, but where was he, how would I find them and how would that work? I was told that this would be illegal under Spanish law, the French police would no doubt be called on me, my ex-partner’s family would possibly have blocked my efforts and, in the end, wouldn’t I be doing the same awful thing to our son; re-abducting him, snatching him back, confusing and disrupting him, and when would this end? Without a legal resolution, I would always be looking over my shoulder wondering whether they would abduct him again. Yes, I wanted action, and desperately too, but I consoled and controlled myself by saying that this option would always be open to me, that it would be easier once I knew where they were staying. So, I took time, thought this through, rang reunite and the began the Hague Convention process. 

Contacting reunite changed everything for me. Before this I was totally and utterly blind. reunite had the knowledge, patience and experience to shine a light on where I was, showing me the path ahead, highlighting my options and the potential pitfalls, allowing me to set and manage my own expectations, and it was all in English! I wish that I had rung them even before the abduction. I feared that it would happen, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to call them then. I was wrong. 

I suppose that you, a friend or a relative, are currently in a similar situation. It’s an awful thing to happen, and I am very sorry. My son’s abduction is now over, and he is back living with me after (just) 135 days away, thanks in the most part to the remarkably efficient and effective work of the French Central Authority & Public Prosecutor. In the end I was extremely fortunate, I know this, and I hope you will be too. 

I also know that it’s a real roller-coaster of emotions (broken trust, injustice, fear, prejudice, lies and vulnerability). I know that my son’s absence became normal, and despite fighting hard against this, I got used to it and this horrified me. I felt guilty, angry, ashamed. Had I done enough to prevent this from happening? Was it my fault? I recall having very dark days, but every time, I promise you, good news came soon after and lifted me up again. 

Often this was a simple call from reunite, and other times the joy of discovering the address where they were living (meaning that I was finally able to serve legal papers on my ex-partner). One day I remember my son telling me in a call that he had been enrolled in a French school. I searched all the schools and finding the right one, I contacted the headmaster, learnt when his vacations were and requested via the Central Authority that I spend 7 days of his vacation with him in France. It’s surreal and totally nerve-wracking to take your child on holiday while he’s being abducted and then to have to return him! Fortunately, by this time, I could see the end coming. We had mediation imminently with the court case in France due in 4 weeks. Doing everything by the rule book was very hard, but today I have full custody of our son, and he is happy, healthy, stable and safe.

So, while you are in this experience, one that I hope will also soon become just a memory, I would like to share some basic things that helped me get through it all.

Firstly, I framed my son’s abduction as just one of three phases that I would need to manage and prepare for, being; 

1) abduction and securing my son’s return, 

2) my son’s return, making sure that he’s ok, comfortable, and can re-adjust, and 

3) my ongoing inter-parental relationship with my ex-partner. Somehow, by looking beyond the abduction, it made it a temporary, more manageable experience.

Secondly, I made a Schedule that I could live with, and I put it on my kitchen wall. It was 7 months long and it showed the basic actions that needed to happen to secure my son’s return (e.g. submit Hague Convention, appoint public prosecutor, serve court papers, mediation, 1st hearing, appeal etc). This was optimistic, but it helped me work towards each milestone, manage progress and importantly, my own tranquillity. I also knew that later on, if I needed to, then I could extend it. Remarkably, in the end, he was home in 4.5 months.

Thirdly, I made three lists; I’m Lucky, Bad Things, and Truths. I pinned these up on my kitchen wall. It’s ironic to be grateful when you’re in a situation like this, but I found it helpful and important, so my first list included statements like:

  • The Hague Convention exists.
  • reunite are there and helping me.
  • My son will come home.

The list of Bad Things was part of accepting what I couldn’t change such as: 

  • Our family is broken.
  • I can never trust this person again.
  • When my son returns home, he may find it very difficult. 

Lastly the Truths list helped me to keep perspective and calm my emotion, this list included; 

  • My ex-partner will always be his parent. They need and love each other (it’s normal).
  • Our child still loves both of us – avoid talking negatively about my ex-partner.
  • I have my family, and my ex-partner has theirs, but our child has only one family and it is all of us. Try not to fuel divisions for their future.
  • I don’t hate my ex-partner. Yes, they did a stupid and very harmful thing, and our relationship is over, but I do not wish them any harm. 

Finally, I placed photos of my son all through my house, so that I never felt far away from him. I knew he loved me, missed me, thought of me, wanted to be with me, and that he needed me to stay happy and healthy, which meant that I needed to sleep and eat well, exercise and stay positive. This helped to make the few calls I had with him easier, happier experiences. Whenever possible I would ask for video calls with my son and for photos too, as every photo gives you a recent picture of your child for identification and helps to track their movements and determine their location. As our calls were very limited, I sent short videos (by WhatsApp) of me reading his favourite bedtime stories, so eventually he had his full library of books read by me to choose to watch and listen to whenever he wanted. This I hope fed his need for contact with me.

The final piece of advice that I can give is to choose your lawyer very carefully. I recommend that you interview several, even if you have to pay them to do so. Wasting time and money on a less than satisfactory lawyer, and following advice that is poor or simply incorrect, is not what you need at this time. Beware, as they are generally all overconfident. Negotiate a fixed fee and get the contract in writing so you know what is included. Don’t hesitate to change lawyer if you become less confident of their capabilities. Remember, you are the only one who knows and the only one who genuinely cares, so don’t delegate your responsibilities; you need to lead this.

I now know that in comparison to many, this was a very short abduction, and I appreciate how lucky we were. I know there are parents who still, after years are working and waiting for the return of their children. My heart truly goes out to them.

I hope that these notes help you in your situation. I wish you patience, fortitude and luck.