Why Children Are Being Returned To Abusive Fathers Overseas



How an international treaty is being weaponised against women fleeing family violence – and the campaigners trying to change it

On a video call from Europe, Jane* is in partial darkness. A narrow shaft of light from a window strikes one side of her face and she hunches a little towards her computer screen. She is clearly thin. Her mother in Australia has made her promise that she’ll eat properly but she has no appetite. “I feel exhausted a lot,” Jane tells me. “If I’m entirely honest, I barely cope.”

Jane, a Wiradjuri woman, is stranded on her own in the Northern Hemisphere, although she can’t reveal in which country. Jane is not her real name. Her lawyer has told her to be extremely careful about what she says publicly lest she exacerbate the horror of her circumstances.

She spends her days mostly alone, tied to her computer, waiting for the next time she can talk to her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter on a screen. She is terrified she might not see her alive again. “I live with that possibility every single day, hoping that I will see her again, but knowing that my next fight might be to just try and get her body transported back to Australia so I can bury her on her Wiradjuri grounds.”

Jane’s daughter, we’ll call her Edith, lives with her father, Jane’s ex-partner, a 30-minute drive from a little flat Jane has rented. Beyond their video chats, Jane hasn’t seen Edith for nine months. She hasn’t touched her daughter, hugged her, held her, in nine months. In late 2022, a hearing in the Family Court of Australia ordered that Edith’s father could take her back to his Northern Hemisphere country, despite Jane’s claims that their relationship was abusive and even though Edith has Australian citizenship.

This little-known treaty – an agreement between Australia and close to 100 other nations – was designed to protect children from international parent abduction (say, if an overseas-born father living in Australia with his partner and child took the child to his home country, against the mother’s wishes). But too often, this international law has had an unintended consequence: it has been used against women fleeing situations of domestic violence with their children.

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