Read Photo-Features exclusive report about the rise in child abduction by their own parents. In last year alone more than 200 hundred British boys and girls were abducted by their own parents. Kelly Strange investigates why it happens and could your family be at risk? Read the full report below:
The secret world of stolen children: Abduction by parents
Sean Felton and son Jobe now happy living together in the UK
Pure terror and panic gripped Sean Felton when he realised his son had been abducted.
Shaking with fear, he called the police and begged them to help.
But there was nothing they could do because his three-year-old son had not been snatched by a stranger, but by his own mother.
And before Sean had a chance to get him back, she’d fled the country.
It’s a nightmare affecting more and more parents as the number of UK children abducted by family members is rising.
In fact, the number of kidnaps committed by a family member far outweighs those by strangers.
Foreign Office figures show there were 213 reported cases last year.
But why would a parent ever kidnap their own child?
For the mum or dad left behind it causes utter devastation and life on the run for a child can be dangerous and unsettling.
According to Sharon Cooke, who runs a helpline for the charity Reunite, there are several reasons a parent or family member might turn into a kidnapper.
“It could be because a parent fears losing contact or custody after a marital breakdown, it could be out of spite or revenge or it could be to force reconciliation after separation,” she explains.
“Parents may not even be aware that they have committed a crime.”
Sharon says that as well as abductions, when a child is taken overseas, there are also cases when a child is unlawfully held by a parent, for example not returned as arranged after a holiday abroad.
She says. “School holidays are a high-risk time, as a partner may refuse to return a child after a trip to their home country.”
But, alarmingly, Reunite figures show a 38% increase in parental abduction committed in the past six months alone.
Sean Felton had to find his son Jobe after he was abducted by his mother
Sean Felton had to find his son Jobe after he was abducted by his mother
And while taking a child from their country of residence without the consent of both parents is a crime in the UK, powers are limited after they arrive in another country.
Although 82 nations have signed up to The Hague convention – a mechanism that assists the return of children snatched by family members – it’s a long and frustrating process. But it’s even harder for children such as Sean’s son Jobe, who was taken to Thailand – which has not agreed to the treaty. The Foreign Office has seen a 10% rise in children taken to non-treaty countries in the past year.
But the Government believes many more go unreported.
Pakistan, India and Thailand were the most common destinations and UK authorities are practically powerless to assist.
They can provide advice and support but cannot interfere with the laws of another country.
Sean knows how terrifying it can be for a parent. “I was in bits,” he says. “I didn’t know where he was or if he was safe, but nobody could help me.”
Sean met his wife, Kim, on holiday in Thailand and they married in 2006.She got pregnant later that year.
But Sean’s decorating business struggled and this led to rows that got worse after Jobe was born.
He says: “It felt as though she didn’t like that there wasn’t as much money to spend, but I hoped we could make it work.”
But then, Sean claims, he found out his wife was having an affair and he told her he wanted a divorce.
“She was secretive and mentioned things she would miss about England if she wasn’t here. More Thai friends started visiting.”
Looking back, Sean realises these were vital warning signs.
“At first I didn’t notice. The washing was on the line and it wasn’t unusual for her to be out.
“But by 9pm I couldn’t reach her and I knew she’d taken Jobe.”
As the truth hit home, Sean called the police, the Foreign Office and charities and although all were sympathetic, they could not help.
Sean remembers: “They could give me the numbers for translators and solicitors but they couldn’t actually help me bring him home. It was going to be up to me alone if I wanted him back.”
Sean sold his car and remortgaged his house to fund a private investigator in Thailand, but this drew a blank.
Then he discovered his wife had set up a profile on Facebook and, posing as a rich American, he duped her into accepting his friend request.
Others on her page led him to his son’s address and Sean went to the High Court for legal custody before flying out to fetch him.
The local police reminded him that Kim had not committed a crime in their country and he could only take Jobe because she agreed.
Sean says: “I was shaking, I never thought the moment would come.
“It felt like a miracle and I know I’m one of only a few parents to be reunited with a child taken to Thailand. If she hadn’t given him to me. I would have been forced to leave without him.”
Unfortunately, most are not as lucky as Sean. But it’s not the perfect ending everyone assumes.
Sean explains: “I have him back, which is the most important thing.
“But Jobe has been hugely traumatised and we won’t understand the full extent of what he’s been through until he’s older.
“Physically he had broken teeth and snapped nails and had been sleeping in a hut with people speaking a different language.
“He was lonely, scared and massively confused. I didn’t get back the little boy she took but, thankfully, I see more of him every day.”
Bedford-based IT sales manager Yemi Elegunde, 45, knows the trauma of being abducted by a parent – he was smuggled out of the country by his father when he was seven.
He recalls: “It was just a normal day, Mum was at work and me and my sister were at the neighbour’s house when Dad came home from work early and said we were going to the barber’s.”
But the car drove past it and the next thing they knew they were on a plane to Nigeria.
“The journey is a blank but I remember landing in the pitch black with only the clothes on our back.
“There was no electric, the floor was muddy and wet and I didn’t understand people.
“I was bewildered, confused and asking when we would see Mum.”
But Yemi didn’t see his mother again for 11 years.
“I lived in a constant fog of sadness. I missed my mum, but also my old life, my old friends and even my belongings.”
In 1984 he was finally reunited with his mother in the UK, but it wasn’t everything he hoped.
By then 11 years had passed and she had another family.
Yemi says: “I felt resentful that she hadn’t tried harder to bring us home and she seemed to resent me for not coming back sooner. It took me 30 years to start to heal but I will remain scarred for life.
“I had major trust issues and found it difficult to have relationships after feeling alone for so long.”
He has published a book about his experience called Time Will Tell and hopes it will help others in the same situation.
According to Reunite, there is a false assumption that most parental abductors are men, but in fact 70% of acts are committed by women.
Louise says she had to kidnap her three children to escape a violent relationship. She met her partner in Greece and soon moved from the UK to live with him.
But the relationship crumbled, leaving her fearing for their safety and wanting to return.
Her ex immediately sought a court injunction preventing her from taking their sons, aged eight, six and three.
But when the situation became intolerable, Louise took matters into her own hands. “I hired a car and told them we were going to the beach. But we drove to the airport. It seemed crazy I could be arrested for kidnapping my own sons,” she says.
“When we arrived at Gatwick I broke down sobbing that we had finally made it. I felt safe at last.”
But despite the violence she was fleeing, Louise had still broken the law and her ex started proceedings to see his sons returned to Greece.
She has since been told the children have to be sent back by the end of the month and courts there will now decide where they can live.
Louise now fears her children may have suffered as a result of her actions and wants to warn other desperate parents to think carefully before taking the law into their own hands.
● SOME NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED