Page last updated at 04:51 GMT, Thursday, 16 July 2009 05:51 UK

'I'll never end hunt for my girl'

By Yvonne Murray
BBC News

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"Donal O'Tighe" tells how he was abducted from his father

Stories of children being abducted by strangers fill families with fear, but the reality is most are taken by one of their own parents - and the numbers are steadily rising.

Canadian Joe Chisholm has been looking for his daughter Sigourney for 16 years.

When he and Sigourney's mother, Patricia O'Byrne, broke up they were awarded joint custody, but she promptly vanished along with their 18-month-old baby.

The 51-year-old is thought to have left Toronto for England, where she has relatives.

'Distrust and guilt'

Like many parents in his position, Joe had no idea how difficult it would be to find a child, once they had crossed an international border.

"If somebody had told me it was going to take this long, it would have broken my heart," he says.

TOP DESTINATIONS OUT OF UK
Pakistan
United States
Spain
Ireland
France
Source: Foreign Office/Ministry of Justice

"It's frustrating when you're told by the authorities they'll get back to you in a couple of days because they have procedures to follow. For a parent, what could be more cruel?"

In 2008 about 700 children from 554 cases were abducted and brought into the UK or taken out of the UK, according to official statistics, and campaigners believe hundreds more go unreported.

There is often a peak during the school holidays when divorced or separated parents take their children on holiday and fail to return.

Justice minister Lord Bach says he is concerned by the figures.

"You get cases when a parent deliberately, knowing they're flouting the law, take their children abroad," he says.

"And there are other cases where the parent doesn't realise that what they're doing is against the law."

Experts say the police are sometimes reluctant to get involved in what they see as a family dispute.

Joe's children Sigourney and Jesse
Joe's children Sigourney and Jesse in happier times

"The problem occurs if the police tell the parent to see their solicitor," says Ann Thomas, of the International Family Law Group.

"Often this is too late as the child can be secreted out of the country in the time it takes for the solicitor's office to reopen."

In Joe Chisholm's case the police did get involved and his ex-partner remains on Interpol's "Wanted" list.

A number of leads took the 48-year-old to England, Spain and back to Canada but the trail has long since gone cold.

Joe remains in Toronto with his 20-year-old son Jesse, his child by another woman.

The charity Reunite says this is a problem which affects all social groups but is a growing issue among professional couples who are posted abroad for work.

RISE IN PARENTAL ABDUCTIONS
2006 - 488
2007 - 542
2008 - 554
Source: Foreign Office/Ministry of Justice. Abductions in and out of UK

If a parent takes a child home without consent, they could be charged with abduction.

Director Denise Carter says: "There is a duty of international companies to make information available to staff who are moving overseas so that they can actually discuss this and maybe come to an agreement before they go.

"And parents need to realise it's not all roses round the door. Consider what happens if it does go wrong and what effect that would have on the children."

For many abducted children, the long-term effect can be deep distrust and guilt.

One woman, who did not want to be identified, was taken by her father to Latin America when she was six years old.

Joe Chisholm
For Joe Chisholm the search for his daughter seems endless

She grew up believing her mother had abandoned her. Her mother died before she learnt the truth.

"There have been nights when I've sobbed so much," she says.

"Even though I was only a child when my father took me away, I feel I played a part in my mum's death."

The majority of abducting parents are now mothers. Some are genuinely fleeing abusive situations, but others just want to go home or start a new life abroad.

The top destination for abducted children is Pakistan, due to Britain's large South Asian population.

Joe Chisholm and Patricia O'Byrne
Joe last saw his daughter in 1993

But there are now almost as many children being taken to and from the United States, followed by Spain, France and Ireland.

For parents who know where their children have been taken, there are international agreements in place designed to negotiate returns, such as the 1980 Hague Convention. Some cases are resolved within months.

The Foreign Office deals with non-Hague countries and the process can be more complicated.

But for parents like Joe Chisholm, who do not know where their children are, the search seems endless.

The closest he came to finding his daughter was in Tonbridge in Kent when he thought he caught a glimpse of Miss O'Byrne on a bus.

"The bus pulled away before I could do anything," he says. "I thought, at least I'm only hours or days away from resolving this thing. But that was 10 years ago."

Miss O'Byrne's uncle, John O'Brien, says her family would also like to know where she is.

He says: "We cannot believe that she would cut herself off from family and friends for a life of stress and uncertainty for vengeful or spurious reasons - she must have had serious concerns."

Sigourney is now 17 years old and Joe is still searching.

"When I find her, she's going to know that I never stopped looking. I never gave up," he says.



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