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Saturday, May 8, 1999 Published at 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK


Abduction battles are no child's play

Together again: Kaili Gould with her father Fred and Jasmine

The wretched cries of "mummy, mummy" haunt Alexandra Gould to this day.

As her two girls were led away from the courthouse, she felt her world had tumbled in around her.

[ image: Alex Gould: Went on the run]
Alex Gould: Went on the run
Mrs Gould was one of hundreds of anguished parents caught up each year in bitter legal battles over the right to have their children with them.

Charity Reunite, which advises parents caught in abduction wrangles, has recorded a huge 57% rise in cases since 1995. Last year alone, 285 children were snatched from the UK.

Only a parent can imagine the pain caused by being separated for good from a child you have borne, nursed and cared for.

Caring Cherie and Hillary

The prime minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC, is chairing a conference on children and the law being held in London this week. President Clinton's wife, Hillary, is the guest speaker.

Part of the event, called Hearing Children's Voices, will focus on children abducted abroad when the mother and father break up.

If children are taken to a country which has not signed the Hague Convention - which says snatched children must be returned home - there is nothing the abandoned parent can do.

Yet, as BBC 1's Panorama programme reveals even parents trying to retrieve their children from countries which have signed the treaty can face lengthy legal battles which often prove distressing, expensive and fruitless.

Top-level demand

One such mother is Catherine, now Lady Meyer, wife of the British ambassador to the States. She 'lost' her two sons when a court in her former husband's native Germany ruled the boys would be taunted as 'nazis' at school in Britain so should stay with their father.

After years of battling in vain to win the boys back, Lady Meyer is launching a new international centre for missing children.

The centre will give advice and support to parents in similar situations.

[ image: Lady Meyer: Wants law more strictly enforced]
Lady Meyer: Wants law more strictly enforced
She tells Panorama why she wants to see changes to enforce the Hague Convention more strictly, particularly abroad.

"I'm so intent to make this public, to make people realise that this is not just a children's issue but a human rights issue," says Lady Meyer.

"A child has a right to both his parents. I'm not interested in mothers' or fathers' rights, I'm interested in children's rights."

She recalls how, the first time she saw her children again after they were taken, they had become hostile and angry towards her, believing she had abandoned them.

After the abduction, she wept constantly and could not sleep. Now, she says the pain she feels is worry that her sons will grow up emotionally disturbed.

Prevention better than cure

Reunite puts the increase in abduction statistics down to greater awareness, easier travel leading to more cross-cultural relationships and rising divorce figures.

[ image: Cherie Booth QC: Concern for children and the law]
Cherie Booth QC: Concern for children and the law
But the numbers would be even higher without a concerted prevention effort by the charity, says director Denise Carter.

In 1995, they produced prevention packs aimed at parents fearing their children were at risk.

"The figures would have tripled without pro-active action like ours," says Mrs Carter. "We've given out over 6,000 packs, giving information on court orders available and practical advice, such as getting the feel-good factor."

On the run

Panorama also hears from a mother on the other side of the argument, Alexandra Gould.

Although she was the one who fled illegally with her children, her experience illustrates the trauma such cases cause.

She justifies her action by telling how the girls, Kaili and Jasmine, had lived with her all their lives.

She had two failed marriages to Americans behind her when she was threatened with deportation from the US after her visa expired. She had a daughter from each marriage, who were American.

A crackdown on illegal immigrants meant she could face being barred for three years, without her children. She decided to take the two girls without their fathers' permission on a flight back to England.

She acknowledges the fathers must have been worried but says she arranged a hearing over visiting rights.

Her first husband started legal action. Mrs Gould says: "How can it be child abduction if the children have always lived with you?"

Facing a new threat of separation, Mrs Gould took off with the children again, this time fleeing to Spain, covering their tracks.

But the police found them and a court hearing followed.

Not speaking Spanish, she did not understand the papers she had to sign. To her horror, she was told it meant the children would be taken away.

Sad separation

"In the end the fathers came and just grabbed them and took them.

"And they went down the stairs. There's six flights of stairs and all you could hear all the way down was them screaming, Mummy, Mummy, Mummy. That was the last time I saw them."

[ image: No playmates: Kaili Gould at home in Florida]
No playmates: Kaili Gould at home in Florida
Kaili and Jasmine live with her first husband and she speaks to them by telephone and sending presents.

"As far as I'm concerned, I will see my children again, soon and every day. That's how I get through the day."

Fathers' turn

Fred Gould, her first husband, describes the court action in Spain as the hardest thing he had ever done: "I think it probably was traumatic [for the children] but I don't think it was any more traumatic than what had happened where they had lost half of their lives, their two fathers, no more contact, no more anything."

He says: "If it caused any heartache or pain or emotional trauma for the children, which I'm sure it did, that's a tough issue for me and that we have to deal with, but no, I don't regret taking them away from her. I don't regret trying to make us a family again."

Mr Gould said he offered Alex his home to live in while they settled the row legally. He has even asked her to return to America to be together as a family.

Jasmine's father Mike Delgaty, who attended domestic violence classes, reveals plans to have his daughter living with him after he has moved home.

"I'll be a great father. I'll be a better father than Alex was a mother, I'll tell you that," he says.

Panorama is at 2200 BST on Monday on BBC 1.

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