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Involved in a bitter children dispute? Why you need to take steps before it’s too late

It's bad enough to be going through a divorce with all the angst that this brings, but if you are fighting, and I mean literally fighting, over the care of the children, this will only add to the stress.

What's worse is if you are worried your ex might break the terms of the agreement you have reached regarding Residence & Contact and suddenly flee the country without a second thought about the law.

This is what happened to Rachel Neustadt whose ex-husband took their two boys on a supposed two week holiday to Russia to visit his family last year.

Despite two British High Court rulings ordering the father, Ily Neustadt, to return the boys to the UK, he is refusing to do so and is insisting the boys remain with him.

Seven months on and 35-year-old Rachel is continuing an ongoing battle with her ex who only allows her to see the boys for brief visits - she is hoping a Russian court will intervene.

Rachel's case is nothing new. We often hear stories in the news about divorced parents who are going through bitter disputes and children being taken overseas without permission of the parent or the courts.

But there has been a massive rise in these overseas legal disputes and Residencerows within family law in England, with figures revealing that they have more than doubled during the past two years.

The Office of the Head of International Family Justice for England & Wales has advised in a recent report that the number of cases they have handled has risen from three in 2005, when it was established, to 92 in 2010 and 253 last year.

And the cause for this rise in reported cases? Lord Justice Thorpe, who heads the Office, believes it's because there are an ever-increasing number of international family cases coming before the family law courts in England as well as judges and practitioners being more aware of his team.

As a family law solicitor working in the Wirral & the North West, I am involved in many Contact and Residence disputes but my aim is always to resolve them as quickly and amicably as possible.

My advice as a family lawyer is for parents to try to always put the needs and welfare of their children first as they are also affected by the break-up of the family and don't need the added headache of parents fighting over them.

It's no good when children become the pawns between two warring parents, particularly if there are issues over residence and contact. That's why it is important to always be on alert if you think your ex could take your children abroad without permission or extend a holiday into a permanent stay.

What is international parental child abduction and is it a criminal offence?

International parental child abduction is the removal or retention of a child across an international border by one parent, which is either in contravention of a court order or is without the consent of the other parent. In most situations, it is a criminal offence.

How can I prevent my children from being taken abroad without permission?

If you are worried that one of more your children might be abducted by their other parent, it is important you obtain through the court a Residence and Prohibited Steps Order under the Children Act 1989. This will determine which parent is the main carer and should also stop your child being taken out of the country without your prior permission.

Other steps you can take are:

  • Write to the UK Passport Service and ask them not to grant your child a passport without your permission. Sometimes this is only possible where you have got an order from the court.
  • Ask them to let you know if a passport has been applied for on behalf of your child/children
  • Contact the police - if they believe there is a real threat they can issue a 'port alert' to alert possible points of departure in the UK and if you can be more specific about which port/airport they might be heading through, that would be even better.
  • Tell the police about any possible dates and flight times
  • Hand over a recent picture of your child/children and the other parent, to the relevant authorities
  • Obtain a Prohibited Steps order preventing your child from being taken away from their home
  • Obtain a court order for an interim Residence Order.

As a family law solicitor in the Wirral, I am always here to give you as much support and advice as I can.

However, Reunite is an international charity which was set up to help parents navigate their way through the legal minefield of international parental child abduction. They work very closely with family lawyers and the police.

Remember, prevention is better than cure. So if you are worried that your ex may be thinking of taking your child/children out of the country or not returning them from an overseas holiday, then do get in touch so we can take steps to prevent this from happening.

Is there any more that can be done to stop these situations occurring? What additional laws would you introduce to prevent international parental child abduction from happening?