Family courts: 'We kidnapped our kids from abusive dads and fled the UK’ – BBC

A growing number of women who say their children were handed to abusive partners by England and Wales' family courts have abducted them and fled to Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus. The BBC spoke to six of them to investigate some of their stories.
"I'm told there is an arrest warrant out for me. Court orders say I can't contact family members, my child can't speak to their grandparents," says Rose – not her real name. "It's destroyed my family."
She's isolated in a foreign country and says her bank accounts are frozen. But Rose still believes northern Cyprus – part of a divided island, occupied by Turkey but not recognised internationally as a state – is a safe haven for her.
The UK says it takes every case of international parental child abduction very seriously and the law can be used to bring children back. But northern Cyprus is not signed up to the international treaty on child abduction and there is no official extradition agreement.
We made the journey to this self-declared republic to find out what was driving mothers to break the law, leave family and friends behind, and flee abroad with only their children.
Rose says her partner in the UK was violent and raped her while she was pregnant. Even after she left, Rose says she was subject to a "campaign of abuse". "I was stalked, harassed," she says.
The BBC has corroborated Rose's story with her family and friends. We have also seen confirmation that the police were called out to reports of stalking and abuse.
One police report, made after a claim of domestic violence, graded Rose as being at risk of further harm. Rose's partner was never convicted of an offence.
On days when her partner had contact with her daughter, Rose says the girl would return distressed. "When your child says 'Mummy, Daddy's hurt me' it breaks you," she says.
Officers referred Rose to an independent domestic violence adviser and supported her move away from her ex.
Like all the mothers we feature, Rose's story highlights the complexities involved in many drawn-out family court cases.
The father brought a case in the family court accusing her of frustrating contact with their daughter. Rose says the court didn't take seriously or investigate her safety concerns.
Rose says her child refused to see her father, which she believes was seen by the court as evidence of parental alienation – and led to the court ordering her daughter to live with the father.
Parental alienation is a disputed concept of children rejecting one parent because of manipulation by the other.
"It nearly destroyed me. The handover was horrific, my child was screaming, kicking – 'Don't make me go, Mummy' – grabbing me."
Away from court, Rose had been referred to Victim Support and her child's school had raised concerns. "But the court wanted contact [with the father] at all costs. I was protecting my child," she says.
Rose says contact with her daughter became very limited. On one visit, she decided to take her child and flee, eventually making it to northern Cyprus.
"The first night, I just stayed awake and watched my daughter breathe," she says.
Mums On The Run: Failed By The Family Court
The story of women fleeing the UK with their kids. They say the system has failed them.
Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)
Rose understands what she did was against the law.
The courts in northern Cyprus have considered evidence against the father and granted Rose and her child a protection order, which means he cannot approach her or the girl. A psychiatrist has also diagnosed Rose and her daughter with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the decision to run means Rose cannot leave her new home without facing possible criminal action. "We are safe but in a type of prison," she says. "I'd do it all again though, anything to protect my child – what mum wouldn't? All I have ever done is fight, without this I'd be dead."
The BBC spoke to nine mothers in all – from Tunisia to Thailand – who said they had fled the UK because they were victims of domestic violence. But it was in northern Cyprus where we found a sizeable group of women hiding with their children.
It took weeks of building trust before anyone would talk, many of the women we tracked down had lost hope and were terrified of being identified by their former partners. Some say they had changed their names and appearances drastically.
All of them say that before fleeing the UK, their children had been – or were due to be – placed permanently by the family court with fathers they had reported for abuse. Most of the mothers say they were accused in the cases by their former partners of parental alienation.
The BBC has seen multiple police reports for allegations of domestic violence in connection with the women we interviewed, written at the time of the incidents. We've also seen domestic abuse risk assessments – as well as IDVA (independent domestic violence adviser) reports detailing abuse.
The mothers all spoke to us on condition of anonymity. To protect the privacy of children and those involved, family courts mostly operate in secret and if the women spoke openly about their cases they risk being jailed for contempt of court, as well as facing arrest for child abduction.
These mothers told the BBC that hundreds of women like them had fled the UK for foreign jurisdictions. Like Rose, some have had their bank accounts frozen, their passports have been cancelled, and Interpol has issued red notices for their arrest.
Many of them were helped by an online network of women who have previously fled the UK and other people sympathetic to their plight. Some suggest northern Cyprus as a safe place out of reach of UK authorities.
One mother, who we are calling Sophie, says she fled to Turkish-controlled territory after reaching out for help. She now lives under a new name, having changed her appearance.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this report, you can find details of help and support via the BBC Action Line here.
Sophie had reported her partner to the police for rape – and had claimed he was financially and emotionally abusive. Once she left him, he became aggressive and controlling towards their child, she says.
Maintaining contact with an abusive parent was damaging her own relationship with her child, she says. "My child started losing faith in me, they started mistrusting me."
The lowest point came, she says, when her child broke down and described in detail how they would take their own life if contact continued. They also developed physical and mental health problems.
This led to contact with the father breaking down. But Sophie says her concerns were not heard and she was accused of parental alienation. "I was told I was the abuser," she says.
She felt she had no choice but to flee. "It broke me into pieces, I couldn't step into that family court again. My nerves went, I lost my job… anxiety and depression all followed," she says.
Sophie says she needed crisis mental health support, but was too afraid to seek it because she was afraid the court would criticise her for not coping.
There is no publicly-available data on how many mothers have fled the UK after suffering domestic abuse and being accused of parental alienation. One mum who has been in northern Cyprus for over a decade tells us she is aware of about 75 other mothers who have arrived during her time there. She describes a troubling picture of vulnerable people with young children in a place out of reach of UK authorities.
"Some have really struggled, been desperate, even stolen to feed their kids," she says. She adds that while many are fleeing after court disputes with their abusers, others were escaping the attention of social workers in the UK.
Another mother who says she fled abuse and parental alienation accusations – we're calling her Kerry – tells the BBC some women have been extorted or found that people have sold their personal information to their exes.
Some mothers, having broken the law, continue to live in fear. Kerry says some former partners have hired private investigators. "There's a list going round with names on, I'm petrified. It's like we're hunted by the family courts and our abusers," she says.
As part of our investigations, we discovered that five UK mums have died in the past six years after the family courts let fathers accused of abuse apply for contact with their children. Some of the women took their own lives – one had a heart attack outside court.
The judiciary in England and Wales has commissioned a report to examine the "potentially heightened risk of suicide" after involvement in family court proceedings.
The term "parental alienation" was first coined as "parental alienation syndrome" by the controversial US psychiatrist Richard Gardner. It applied to children who had purportedly been brainwashed by a parent – usually, but not always, their mother – into making allegations of abuse.
The concept was criticised for a lack of evidence – but has been reframed simply as "parental alienation". Supported by some psychologists, it is frequently cited in England and Wales' family courts.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls called for the use of parental alienation to be prohibited globally.
The Family Justice Council has issued new draft guidance for consultation on how to deal with "allegations of alienating behaviour". It focuses on dealing with evidence and finding facts first before judgements are made. This is something domestic violence and family law experts have been calling for.
The guidance acknowledges that "parental alienation" has been a "vexed and highly emotive concept" which has polarised opinion – and which the family courts in England and Wales have been increasingly asked to consider and act on.
Mine Atlı, a northern Cyprus politician and lawyer who has represented women who fled the UK, says these mothers need some form of amnesty. "There needs to be a path of safety for these women," she says.
"These women and their children are being deprived of the national identities of their homelands because of the aggressive actions of a perpetrator."
But what about fathers?
Bob Grieg runs a not-for-profit website supporting dads going through separation, called "OnlyDads".
He's says thousands of fathers message him asking for help to see their children – and that some haven't had contact for months. He urges family courts to examine evidence first during proceedings.
"If I'm talking to a dad I ask him not to use the phrase 'alienation'. It has only come to the fore over the past six or seven years. It means different things to different parents."
If one parent has turned a child against the other parent, the damage can last forever, he says.
Dr Angharad Rudkin – a child clinical psychologist and author – fears that because parental alienation as a concept is so misunderstood and controversial, the welfare of children can be lost in the debate.
"If children are being told 'Dad or Mum never loved you, you meant nothing to them,' it confuses and saddens them. It has a detrimental effect on their trust in relationships."
Dr Rudkin says the stress and anxiety of divorce can stay with children for the rest of their lives – and there needs to be an informed and calmer debate over potential alienating processes in relationship breakdowns.
In northern Cyprus, we learned of one mother – we are calling her Susan – who went through a decade of family court hearings before fleeing the UK. Her story highlights the complicated nature of drawn out proceedings with claim and counter claims being put before the family courts.
She says during 120 court appearances she and her child were not listened to, and the toll of the hearings led to serious problems at her place of work. "It was state-sanctioned abuse," she says.
Susan says she made about 50 calls to police against her husband during their relationship. After she left, she says her former husband still controlled her financially and stalked her.
The BBC has seen details of multiple police reports about Susan's husband. We have also seen evidence from professionals accepting that Susan was suffering trauma.
Susan's children had refused to see their father in a contact centre, something she blames on the abuse inflicted on her. But she ended up being accused of parental alienation and the children's residency was transferred to the father.
Susan decided to run. Breaking the law in this way has come at a huge cost for all involved. Family members have died and she could not even say goodbye. "It's a persecution, it's always the victim who loses out. It's me who's labelled as a serious criminal."
Her son, who spoke to us with her permission, says he is thriving in northern Cyprus. "I'm a straight-A student, I'm stress-free here," he says. "I want to be a doctor, but if I go back to England I'll be taken into care. I'm not allowed to have a passport. I have never been listened to."
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales has called for urgent reform of the family courts. Nicole Jacobs says the courts are failing to deal with domestic abuse cases and putting children at risk.
She has also raised concerns about the use of parental alienation saying it's having a "chilling effect on victims of domestic abuse" resulting in unsafe contact orders in private family law proceedings.
The Ministry of Justice told the BBC it had made significant improvements to the family court system in recent years to protect domestic abuse victims – including preventing cross-examination by their abusers, expanding their eligibility for legal aid, and extending the use of special measures like protective screens and the ability to provide evidence by video-link.
Separately, the government says it is considering whether further action is needed on alienation. The most recent figures show that its International Child Abduction and Contact Unit – which helps to return children taken overseas by one parent without the other's consent – is dealing with 1,341 cases. Although it is not known how many are mothers escaping alleged abusers.
For the mothers hiding out in northern Cyprus, any confirmed change in guidance from the judiciary on parental alienation could come too late for them.
Susan says she is scared and sick from stress. "I've lost my family, friends and so much money. But if I'd stayed in England, I'd be dead and my kids would be in care."
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