Stolen Lives: The Need to Recognise International Parental Child Abduction as a Stand-Alone Crime

By Renata Romeo

The story of Sally Faulkner, the Brisbane mother at the centre of the botched attempt to recover her two children, Lahela, 5 and Noah, 3 from a bus stop in downtown Beirut, highlights the futile predicament parents are placed in when a child is abducted out of Australia by the other parent.

“They aren’t coming home to Australia…ever”

In May 2015, Sally’s world was irrevocably shattered when ex-partner Ali Elamine told her their two children were not coming home from a ‘holiday’ in Lebanon.

The couple had been amicably separated for two years, with Ali travelling between Beirut and Brisbane every few months to visit the children. When Ali suggested he take them on a three-week summer vacation to visit his family, Sally trusted him to return the children safe and sound, as “he was a good father”. She had no reason to doubt his intentions.

A mother taking matters into her own hands

After enduring the painful loss of her children, Sally was unprepared for what she discovered next. Parental child abduction is not a crime in Australia, so “the government isn’t helping”. According to Australian law, Ali had not done anything wrong.

As Lebanon is not party to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, Sally’s only option was to navigate the complex Lebanese family law system, which is heavily stacked in favour of men.

Before arriving in Beirut with members of the child recovery agency, Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI), and a 60 Minutes film crew, Sally had spent close to a year exhausting all available legal options in Lebanon and Australia. Her pleas to the Australian Government to help bring Lahela and Noah home, fell on deaf ears.

Sally believes she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands. Tragically, the story ends with disastrous consequences.

A legal black hole: The need for a solution

Australia has the highest rate per capita of international parental child abductions in the world, with more than 250 children abducted by a parent or family member into, or out of, Australia every year. It is so prevalent that it even has its own acronym, IPCA.

Currently, under sections 65Y and 65Z of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), IPCA is considered a crime only where a parent has taken their child out of Australia in breach of a parenting order, or where an order is pending.

The Government has proposed to strengthen Australia’s response to IPCA with the introduction of the Family Law Amendment Bill 2015. The new laws will widen the existing offence to include situations where a parent takes a child out of Australia with court authorisation, or the other parent’s permission, and then refuses to bring the child home.

While the new laws are welcomed, they fail to cover situations where no parenting order has been granted, or sought, from the courts. To adequately minimise the effects of this legal loophole, Australia should extend the ambit of sections 65Y and 65Z to recognise IPCA as a stand-alone crime, as they have done in the UK and US.

While IPCA is not a crime in Australia, efforts to locate and retrieve children are hampered. Criminalisation would enable access to Interpol and attract the priority of foreign police resources to locate missing children. Generally, these procedures are only available where a crime has been committed.

The effects of IPCA on a child’s emotional and psychological development can be so detrimental that it has been characterised as child abuse. The taking of a child should not be regarded as acceptable merely because it was the parent who did the taking. Rather, the focus should be on the violation of the child’s rights in being ripped away from their families, community networks and all that is familiar to them.

IPCA should be recognised as a stand-alone crime to ensure the Government takes concrete measures to locate missing children and enable their speedy return. While not all victims of parental abduction would like to see their parent’s actions criminalised, every child abduction must be treated with the same sense of urgency, whether or not a court order has been breached.

Free to return to Australia, but without Lahela and Noah

After spending close to a fortnight in a Beirut prison cell on charges of attempted ‘child abduction’, Sally was freed after Ali agreed to drop all charges in exchange for sole custody of the children.

After enduring a lonely journey back to Australia without her precious cargo, Sally can only hope and pray that one day she will embrace her babies again.

Renata Romeo is studying a Bachelor of Law (Graduate Entry) at La Trobe University and has previously completed a Bachelor of Arts (Professional Writing and Editing) at Deakin University.

La Trobe