Stephen Watkins’ life has read like a Hollywood drama since his two young sons were abducted by their mother and taken to Poland four years ago.
Watkins had full custody of sons Alexander and Christopher when they were abducted by their mother, Edyta Ustaszewski, during a court ordered weekend visit. Ustaszewski had been known to suffer from mental problems, addiction, and was under investigation for abusing the children.
Watkins has been embroiled in an exhaustive international fight to bring the boys back to Canada ever since, battling legal technicalities, uncooperative bureaucrats, and laws and treaties that he says are simply not followed.
Last year, Watkins and other parents of abducted children formed the group iCHAPEAU (International Child Harbouring and Abduction Prevention Enforcement Act Under Law) to act as a support to parents trying to get their children home.
The group is also fighting to get more parental rights into law in Canada.
If a child is taken out of Canada to a foreign country by an estranged parent, there is little the other parent can do to get them back because it falls under the law and discretion of that country, says Watkins.
“We know there are certain countries that, if your children are abducted to, they’re not coming home,” he says.
For every 100 children abducted in Canada, about 83 percent are taken by a parent or family member. According to Statistics Canada, there were 174 child abductions between 2011 and 2012.
iCHAPEAU says Canada’s abduction laws are 10 years behind those in the United States— something the group is lobbying the federal government to change.
Such changes would include better tools for family courts to detect and prevent parental child abductions cases, and giving the Canadian government more solutions when dealing with international parental child abductions.
Treaties not Enforced
One of the biggest obstacles, says Watkins, is the lack of enforcement around child protection treaties already in place, such as the Hague Convention—a multilateral treaty created to speed up processes to return children internationally abducted by a parent.
“Kids are being abducted to other nations that have signed these treaties, but they’re not following them. No one’s there to police them,” he says.
“They create these conventions, but they do not monitor them and do not enforce them—they leave it up to countries to do whatever they want.”
Watkins hopes Canada will be tougher with countries that do not follow international treaties where it involves Canadian children. Measures such as asserting diplomatic pressure or imposing sanctions would make it much harder for nations to harbour missing children, he says.
Watkins’ sons have been ordered to remain in Poland by the Polish courts, which claim the boys have already adapted to life in the country.
Watkins finds this hard to believe, however, as the boys’ school brought a court action against the mother in 2010 for “child protection concerns” and her parental rights were limited by the courts. In addition, the older boy is autistic and does not have access to any support in Poland.
“I’m fighting desperately hard to get my kids home because their lives are at stake here,” he says.
Last month, Toronto mother Zaiba Zaiba’s two children were allegedly abducted by her ex-husband, who told her he was taking them on holiday to Norway. Instead, he abducted them to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has not signed on to the Hague Convention so in order to get the children back, an Afghanistan court would have to agree that they belong in Canada.
Zaiba has turned to the courts in an effort to get her Canadian-born children back, and is also seeking help from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the police, and her local member of Parliament.
“No parent should have to work this hard to get their abducted children back home,” says Watkins
He adds that he has spoken with Zaiba, and advises other parents struggling with abduction cases to contact iCHAPEAU immediately if they need advice or support.
There are many warning signs that a parent may abduct a child, according to iCHAPEAU.
These include threats of abduction; harassment; a history of violent or controlling behaviour; resentment towards the ex-partner’s spouse and/or family; custody disagreements; significant life changes such as quitting a job or selling a home; and gathering the children’s personal documents such as passports, birth certificates, and medical records.