Child custody cases become cross-border tussles

SINGAPORE - When his wife took their child out to "meet a friend", he did not suspect anything amiss.

After all, the Thai national did not take any luggage or clothes with her. It was only when she did not come home that he suspected that something was amiss.

James - he requested that we use just one name in case his wife or her friends read this article - only found out that his wife had left the country when he made a police report.

She left three years ago when their son was seven years old.

Now the 43-year-old is in a protracted legal battle involving both local and Thai courts.

Like James, more Singaporeans are getting caught up in cross-border child custody battles and lawyers say this could be a result of the rising number of Singaporean-foreigner marriages.

Indeed, by the end of 2012, about 40 per cent of Singaporeans are married to non-citizens and children from such marriages make up about 30 per cent of babies born every year.

Of these marriages, 159 broke down in 2011, while in both 2012 and last year, the corresponding figures were 141.

And when marriages break down, there is a chance that one party will flee with the child.

Just last month, a UK-based mother was sentenced to 10 weeks' jail after she was found guilty of entering Singapore illegally to take away her son. Her Singaporean husband had brought their son here despite a UK court order.

The 30-year-old woman landed via boat at a marina here and snatched the child from his grandparents. The police later found them and arrested the woman.

Lawyer Poonam Mirchandani, who has handled many of such cross-border cases, said in an earlier interview that about 70 per cent of such abductions are carried out by the mothers, especially when court processes are protracted and when they feel unfamiliar with the jurisdiction.

In most cases, it is the woman who leaves her home country to live overseas with her husband and when the marriage breaks down, it is not uncommon for her to want to return home with the children.

Ms Joanne Orton from UK-based group Reunite International Child Abduction Centre­ - which helps parents find missing spouses and kids - says the organisation see over 500 new cases a year.

Its board chairman and a leading authority on international child abduction, Ms Anne-Marie Hutchinson, and its chief executive officer Alison Shalaby were in Singapore in December 2012 to talk to lawyers, judges and welfare groups about linking up and setting up a centre here - its first outside Britain.

This is because in a transport hub like Singapore, such cases are "probably bigger than anyone realises", according to Ms Hutchinson.

"No one can understand the anguish (a parent) goes through," Ms Orton adds.

James is desperate to see his son as he is worried that the boy will forget him while the court battle is being waged.

He says he was introduced to his wife by friends and got married soon after. They had their differences over many things after getting married, mainly over money, "but she remained friendly and loving".

"So I was caught off guard when she left," James laments.

After his wife took off with his son, he had to wait six months before he was allowed to visit the boy, and this was "usually at the police station in Bangkok because she was afraid I would steal him back".

James had also gone to the Thai Juvenile and Family Court and undergone mediation to try and get custody of his son.

He says: "But it is only whenever I give her the money she demands that I get to see my son. There was a time she would allow me to take him around to different parts of Thailand, but I always had to hand over my passport."

James now sees his son once a month, but adds that "now, she (his wife) would tag along because she doesn't trust me".

Singapore acceded to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in 2010, making it one of about 90 countries to agree to track down and return a child who has been wrongfully removed or retained. So if both parents are from countries which are signatories of this treaty, they can apply for the child to be returned.

Since this ruling came into effect in March 2011, six applications have been made to the State Courts, but the courts say they have no available information as they would have to ascertain the allegations of child abduction.

And while lawyers say this makes the process clearer and swifter for the child to be returned, James says sorting out cross-border legal wrangles is still a long-drawn, expensive and emotional process.

He says: "Being born in Singapore, my son will have to serve national service, but he has been out of the country since 2012 and I may have to pay a bond to ensure he will return to carry out this obligation."

It is a situation he feels helpless about because he doesn't even know if he will get to see his child next month.

He adds: "I have yet to speak to Mindef (the Ministry of Defence) over this issue."

Desperate measures

Anguish and desperation.

These are what a parent feels after his or her ex-spouse disappears with the children, and such emotions can sometimes drive them to underhanded means to get the kids back.

Often, these parents feel that taking the legal route will be time-consuming, lengthy and costly; it is therefore no wonder that many have resorted to desperate means to get their children back.

2003

A Singaporean man returned from Britain in 2003 only to find that his wife had left for Taiwan, taking their two children along.

He engaged private investigators, who successfully tracked the whereabouts of the woman and the kids. More than four months later, the man managed to physically snatch the children back into his care in Shanghai.

He brought the children back to Singapore and a consent order on the issue was eventually reached.

2012

Her American mother wanted her, so did her Singaporean father.

While the custody battle was being fought in Singapore in 2012, the mother left suddenly with the then six-year-old to the US and tried applying to a court there for sole custody of the girl.

Having attained a court order for custody of the child, the man contacted his wife to say he had made a police report and Interpol had also been informed.

And unless she returned with their daughter, she would be on its wanted list. Afraid of being arrested, the mother returned to Singapore, only to have the girl taken from her.

2014

Last month, a 30-year-old woman engaged a child abduction recovery agency to snatch her son back.

The father, a Singaporean, had squirrelled him here, despite a British court order placing the two-year-old under the mother's care.

Instead of going through the Family Court here, the Britain-based woman sneaked into the country in a hired catamaran from Malaysia's Langkawi.

She was jailed for 10 weeks for entering Singapore illegally.

juditht@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 28, 2014.
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